Port of Longview Union Protest

Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson, left, talks with Dan Coffman, the president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21, inside the gate on the terminal's property in July.

Roger Werth / TDN file

Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said Friday his office plans to arrest protesters involved with a raid on a grain terminal at the Port of Longview early Thursday and asked for the public's help in identifying those who dragged a security guard from his car and drove the vehicle into a ditch.

"We've got lots of evidence that we're going through, and I anticipate making arrests," Nelson said.

Nelson said he was "extremely disappointed" that a months-long dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the EGT grain terminal has descended into violence. He lambasted the union for its alleged role in this week's events, during which protesters wielding baseball bats dumped grain from rail cars, smashed windows and intimidated law enforcement officers and security guards.

"This was an organized, large-scale criminal event," Nelson said. "We're talking about sabotage. We're talking about riotous behavior."

Union officials, meanwhile, disputed some allegations against their members Friday and said they believe the union is being unfairly provoked by police.

Authorities have accused union members of throwing rocks at police and pepper-spraying officers. However, Tom Loran, vice president of the Portland-based Local 92, which is in town supporting the Local 21, said during a Port of Longview commission meeting Friday that protesters have done no such thing.

"These are all inflammatory comments by local law enforcement," said Loran, who was at the Wednesday protest. "Our union's civil rights are being trampled upon now. Non-violent actions have worked in the past, and they'll work in the future."

The longshoremen argue the EGT terminal is obligated to hire them under a lease with the port. EGT executives say otherwise and have hired a contractor, which, in turn, is employing union operating engineers to work at the $200 million facility. A federal court is expected to rule on the matter next year. At stake are 25 to 35 jobs, mostly in the facility's control room.

Nelson's remarks Friday signal a change in tone from earlier this summer. In July, even as his deputies arrested union members for trespassing at the EGT terminal, Nelson said he was sympathetic of the union's goal. "Bless their hearts," he said at the time. "These are our neighbors, too. These are our folks. This is our community."

But on Friday, Nelson said of those involved in the raid: "Tell me these are not our neighbors. Tell me these are not the people living next door to us."

In a written statement Friday, he called this week's violence and property destruction "a game changer."

Nelson said he has been meeting about twice a month with both the union and EGT officials in an effort to keep the stand-off from becoming violent. He said he was frustrated that those efforts failed and said the turn of events could make it difficult to attract business to the area.

"If you were thinking about building a large company or even a small company, and you knew that this was going on, would you pick here?" he asked.

Nelson acknowledged that many of the protesters came from Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, but he said police have recognized local faces in the crowds and he couldn't rule out the participation of local union members in Thursday morning's raid.

For four hours Wednesday, ILWU protesters blocked a train carrying the first major grain shipment to the terminal. Officers arrested 19 people. Nelson said more protesters would have been arrested, but officers had to retreat after they were "rushed by the crowd."

Then, around 4:30 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of people stormed the terminal and vandalized property, according to law enforcement. Six guards feared for their safety, police said. Nelson wrote in his statement that a group of protesters tried to block the guards as they made a break for a vehicle and headed toward a back gate.

"The lights of approaching law enforcement vehicles stopped the group, and the (security guards) were able to flee," Nelson said.

Nelson said the protesters yanked a 48-year-old security guard from his company car, then drove the vehicle "recklessly" around the EGT terminal before crashing it into an embankment. Nelson called the act "a carjacking" and said community members would never tolerate such an incident on a regular street.

On Friday, union leaders told a different account of the events. They said protesters were alarmed Wednesday when police handcuffed Bob McEllrath, president of the San Francisco-based international. The union members closed in to protect McEllrath as police hauled him away, labor leaders said. (McEllrath was not booked, and it remains unclear why he was briefly detained.)

"We were having a peaceful protest," Jake Whiteside, Local 21 vice president, told port commissioners during a Friday afternoon meeting at the Expo Center. "They rushed down there to arrest us."

Union members demanded to know Friday why the 19 protesters were arrested for trespassing on port-owned tracks, when the port never told them to leave. Port attorney Frank Randolph said the port does not allow anyone to trespass on rail lines. In addition, a federal court last week barred the union from blocking trains headed to the grain terminal.

The union's leadership disavowed knowledge of the vandalism Thursday morning. Dan Coffman, president of Longview-based Local 21, called the Thursday morning incident a "wildcat action" by ILWU members who decided on their own to storm the terminal. A federal judge in Tacoma is expected to rule next week whether the union has violated a restraining order barring illegal picketing. Coffman told The Daily News on Friday he worries he could face jail time because he is the union's president.

Coffman added that he will continue to caution his members against being provoked into violent behavior, noting that Local 21 has a long history of peaceful demonstrations.

"We've always been a non-militant Local. Always," he said.

But Nelson said he expects "there will be further issues" with the union protesters.

Still, he said, "Here's what I expect: I expect these people to act like adults. I expect them to have respect for our system and allow it to work. I expect them to set an example in our community for how things are supposed to be done. They're supposed to be leaders standing up for people. Well, that's not what they're doing."

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