Violent Union Mob Mayhem in Washington State

Leaders promise "this is only the start."

In Longview, Washington, union thuggery has ramped up to a new level. On September 8th at around 4:30AM, hundreds of union workers broke down the gates and stormed the Port of Longview, where they "detained" six security guards for two hours. Their fellow unionists converged on the EGT terminal, where they cut the brake lines of several rail cars and dumped the grain contained in them. Windows in the guard shack were smashed, and a security vehicle was pushed into a ditch. No arrests were made, despite Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha's characterization that the guards being held were "hostages." He also said something far more ominous. "We're not surprised," he explained. "A lot of the protesters were telling us this is only the start."

The Police Chief is somewhat misinformed. The dispute between EGT, a joint venture of U.S., Japanese and South Korean companies, and the Longview-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21, has been going on for more than a year. The union contends that a contract with the Port of Longview (not EGT), along with long-standing union jurisdiction, gives them the right to work at EGT's $200 million, company-financed terminal. EGT disputes the union's claims, adding that they need their own people to operate the grain exporting facility's state-of-the-art controls.

Union protests started out relatively benignly last May, with 150 picketers staging a protest at the 15th Avenue and Oregon Way intersection in Longview, demanding EGT hire ILWU workers. In June, over 1,000 longshore workers picketed the firm's corporate headquarters in Portland.

Yet in July, the dispute intensified. On the 11th, 100 protesters were arrested for tearing down a gate and protesting inside the EGT facility. On the 14th, hundreds of workers blocked railroad tracks to prevent a shipment of grain from being delivered to the facility, after which Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad stopped all rail shipments to EGT because of "safety concerns." On the 22nd, EGT closed the terminal when 100 picketers blocked access to it. One of the picketers was arrested. On the 25th, seven picketers were arrested, one of whom was charged with a felony for threatening to kill a person driving onto the property. Police, who characterized the union's tactics as "substantially more aggressive," were forced to escort EGT workers past the picketers. Also in July, EGT, which had originally announced it would hire non-union longshore workers to save $1 million in annual operating costs, changed its mind and hired union workers.

But they didn't hire ILWU workers. On July 17th, they reached an agreement with the General Construction Company, which employs workers from the International Union of Operating Engineers. This was the followup to a lawsuit filed by EGT last January in which they challenged the ILWU's contention that Local 21 must do all longshore work at the Port of Longview. That particular trial is scheduled for next year.

Yet that lawsuit was not the only action that occurred in the legal arena. In a move which undoubtedly undermined the ILWU's credibility, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the very same entity attempting to prevent Boeing airlines from continuing to operate a right-to-work facility in South Carolina, filed a court complaint against the union on August 29th. The NLRB accused the union of "unfair labor practices" and further argued that because talks broke down between EGT and the ILWU prior to the signing of any agreement, the union had no legitimate complaint against the firm. In an odd twist, the NLRB contended that the union's grievances should be directed at General Construction.

Three days later, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton issued a ten-day restraining order against the union, which prohibited ILWU members from engaging in "unlawful ... picket line violence, threats and property damage, mass picketing and blocking of ingress and egress at the facility of EGT" and from "restraining or coercing the employees of EGT, (its subcontractor General Construction), or any other person doing business in relation to the EGT facility." After the ruling, Local 21's president, Dan Coffman, remained defiant. He insisted that union members would continue to protest outside the property boundaries of EGT's facility. The ILWU's attorneys believed the order allowed the union to maintain "a presence" at the site. "We will not leave. We will still be there," Coffman said at the time.

On September 7th, such parsing of the law became moot. More than 400 longshore workers once again engaged in thuggish behavior, blocking a train for four hours outside the EGT facility. It took 50 police officers in riot gear to disperse the protesters and get the train into the port. Police were forced to use clubs and pepper spray against the mob. During the confrontation, 19 protesters were arrested, three for fighting with the police and the other 16 for refusing to get off the tracks after the train started up. Cowlitz County deputies also reported that they were investigating vandalism of the train after it stopped.

Once again, union leaders remained defiant. "You can get Maced and tear-gassed and clubbed [today] or wait for support from longshoremen all over the West Coast when the next train tries to enter the EGT terminal, said Robert McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. McEllrath, who is based in the union’s home office in San Francisco, continued, “If we leave here, it doesn’t mean that we gave up and quit. It means we’re coming back.” Coffman remained defiant as well. "It’s totally unbelievable that our police force in our county is protecting a multi-national corporation," he fumed. "They’re the thugs, and our guys acted to protect [McEllrath],” he added.

Reportedly, the crowd consisted of union protesters, not only from Longview, but from Portland, Vancouver and other cities as well. Union dock workers in Vancouver had also held up the same train in that city earlier in the day. “This is the latest in a very long line of actions that longshore men are taking to stand up to a foreign company that’s trying to get a foothold in Washington and undermine the grain industry,” said ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent in reference to the Vancouver protest.

How did any of this square with the restraining order? It didn't. On September 8th, Judge Leighton issued his ruling, making the 10-day restraining order permanent, noting that the ILWU's actions were "patently illegal" and angrily adding that "someone is going to be hurt if we don't get control of the situation." And while Judge Leighton further noted that the union had violated his restraining order, he stopped short of banning all picketing at the Longview facility, despite a federal government request to do so.

Last Thursday, the judge upped the ante. He found the ILWU in contempt of court, adding that he would fine the union with the amount determined by an EGT analysis of the damage done during the thuggery that occurred on September 8th. Leighton, who didn't order anyone to be put in jail, spent five hours berating the union protesters whom he referred to as a "mob."

Testimony by one of the guards held hostage on that night was revealing. Terminal guard Charlie Cadwell told the court that every protester he saw that night was carrying "baseball bats, lead pipes and garden tools." He also said he was pulled out of his car by a one longshoreman, while another one swung a pipe at him. After someone drove away with his car, Cadwell said "40 to 50 people" threw rocks at him, striking him in the knee and between the eyes. Longview police Sgt. Mark Langlois also testified, saying that he responded to a call about several vehicles leaving the longshore union hall on 14th Avenue in Longview, but was prevented from taking any action when a vehicle blocked his path. He, too, was threatened by a bat-wielding mob. "I was by myself. I was completely outnumbered," said Langlois. "I wasn't about to stop any of these people from doing whatever it is they were going to do."

One can only wonder what will. Despite the judge's contempt of court citation, the union remains undeterred. "Accountability goes both ways," they said in a statement. "The workers faced the judge today, but so far there has been no accountability for multinational EGT, which has created chaos in the community by taking millions in a special tax exemption, breaking their agreement to hire ILWU workers, suing the port, and trying to destabilize the grain industry in the Northwest." The final part of the statement revealed a further defiance of reality. "If union members stand on a train track exercising their First Amendment rights, it is a crime. But, if a major corporation plunders an entire community, it matters not," it concluded.

Last Friday, union antics continued. Approximately 200 workers massed in front of the Cowlitz County Hall of Justice in Kelso, where they announced they were planning to "surrender themselves to the police" to answer charges for the previous week's demonstrations. They were also responding to the previous day's announcement by Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson that six more people had been arrested in connection with September 7th's train blockade, with additional arrests likely to come. The protesters claimed they were tired of police officers following them home and arresting them. The police refused to rise to the bait, and the protesters dispersed after a half an hour.

Three things come to mind with respect to this story. The first was a very revealing quote during the confrontation between police and the protesters blocking the train on September 7th. When police tried to move the mob, union workers shouted, “We stood with you!” at the union police officers. This reveals a disturbing mindset, one that has already played itself out during the protests in Madison Wisconsin, where the unionized police force refused to enforce an order to remove protesters from the capitol building. In Washington state, police have acted admirably. In Wisconsin, they did not. Americans rightfully expect law enforcement officials to be police officers first, and union members second. It remains to be seen what choice unionized police forces make in the future. But it is very likely that Americans expecting consistency on a nation-wide basis will be disappointed.

Second, the lack of mainstream media coverage of these ongoing events is appalling. The reporting here has been overwhelmingly undertaken by local news organizations, despite two major incidents of union thuggery, a contempt of court citation by a U.S. district court judge, and work stoppages engaged in by other union members sympathetic to the ILWU's cause. Stoppages that have effectively shut down cargo handling at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. One can only wonder what it takes for such news to warrant the attention of mainstream members of the Fourth Estate.

Lastly, one is left to guess whether or not Teamster leader James Hoffa's Labor Day call to "take these sons of bitches out and give America back to America where we belong” has begun to pay "dividends." Perhaps the only thing more distressing than the remarks themselves was the fact that they were part of Hoffa's introduction to President Obama's appearance at the rally -- an introduction the president himself refused to condemn, all previous exhortations for civility notwithstanding.

Even if Mr. Obama can't bring himself to confront union thuggery for the right reasons, he might want to consider the political aspect of such reticence. Saturday was supposed to be a "Day of Rage" against the capitalist system that many unions rail against in their literature. 20,000 protesters were expected to converge on Wall Street. About 300 hundred people actually showed up. Furthermore, only 12 percent of the entire labor force belongs to a union and in many areas around the country, Americans have made it clear, especially with respect to public sector employees, that the status quo is no longer acceptable -- or affordable.

That the president may have been reluctant to challenge members of a Democratic core constituency when these incidents first occurred might be, from a cynically political perspective, somewhat understandable. That he has said nothing after the issuance of a contempt of court citation is inexcusable.