Assessing the gains, losses of the EGT labor dispute

2012-03-01T21:10:00Z 2012-06-28T18:35:15Z Assessing the gains, losses of the EGT labor disputeBy Erik Olson / The Daily News Longview Daily News
March 01, 2012 9:10 pm  • 

OLYMPIA — After a yearlong labor battle between the EGT grain terminal and the longshore union — a battle that resulted in hundreds of arrests, thousands of dollars in fines, millions more in lost revenue and sullied reputations — the scene in Gov. Chris Gregoire's office Feb. 16 was almost surreal.

The EGT terminal manager, Jerry Gibson, sat smiling at a long, wooden table. Next to him was Dan Coffman, president of the longshore union. Flanking the men were about a dozen members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 and Port of Longview officials, relieved they could finally get back to work. All the former adversaries were shaking hands and celebrating an agreement that ended the local area's most contentions labor dispute in 30 years.

When the governor opened secret negotiations with the parties late last fall, there was "absolutely no trust" between the two sides, she said. But in January, Gregoire announced she had brokered a settlement. Within weeks, negotiators cobbled together a labor contract, and ILWU workers loaded the terminal's first ship Feb. 7.

"That community is important to me. And we have to have peace. We absolutely have to have peace," Gregoire said at the Feb. 16 celebration.

So what forced the two sides into this marriage? Both EGT and the ILWU had a lot to lose from continued fighting. Here are some of the factors that pushed them to settle:

• The legal maelstrom. EGT insisted it was under no obligation to hire IWLU labor, despite a union contract with the port giving the union jurisdiction over waterfront labor. A federal court case on the matter had been scheduled to go to trial this month. Both sides had reasons to fear the outcome.

For EGT, the risk was losing its ability to decide how to staff the terminal. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton chastised both sides for agreeing to muddy contract language in EGT's lease with the port, but his preliminary ruling said the union's working agreement with the port applied to EGT. Had the case gone to full trial, EGT could have spent hundreds of thousand of dollars in attorney fees only to be told they were required to hire longshore workers anyway.

For the ILWU, the case could have set a dangerous precedent. EGT argued that federal labor law prohibited it from designating unions before it even hired workers. Had the court accepted EGT's position, the ruling could have hamstrung the ILWU in future negotiations along the West Coast.

• The Occupy movement. Before the settlement was announced, the ILWU and other area unions were plotting a massive protest to greet the first freighter to arrive at EGT. Fearful of more large federal fines, union leaders urged their members to avoid blocking the ship or other commerce.

However, the Occupy group — fresh off the successful coastwide port blockade in December — was not under the same legal threat. The group had pledged to bring thousands to Longview to greet the ship and clog the river with boats and streets with protesters.

"This is a victory for Occupy in their involvement in forcing negotiations. Make no mistake — the solidarity and organization between the Occupy Movement and the Longshoremen won this contract," Jack Mulcahy, an officer with ILWU's Portland-based Local 8 said in a written statement shortly after the governor announced a settlement.

• Hefty fines. A federal judge already fined the union more than $300,000 for the protests. Despite the urging of leadership, many rank-and-file union members were prepared to try to stop the ship if necessary. Hundreds of misdemeanor criminal charges had been filed against ILWU members and supporters already.

• Operation costs. EGT had originally planned to start shipping grain for last fall's harvest, so the terminal lost nearly six months of business. The longer the dispute continued, the more EGT stood to lose.

The union is claiming victory for the simple fact that its members are working in the terminal. Since the 1930s, the ILWU has claimed grain terminals as its territory, and losing work at the EGT terminal could have hurt the union's bargaining position with other grain companies.

"I feel that we won because we retained our jurisdiction. The ILWU is loading ships. That's what we do," Dan Coffman, president of the ILWU's Longview-based Local 21, said.

EGT officials said the new contract is flexible enough to allow the company to operate an efficient terminal. The company hopes to export 8 million metric tons of grain annually to Asia.

"From the day we broke ground in Longview, we knew we needed a workforce contract that would allow us to work safely and with the flexibility to operate efficiently. The agreement we have with the ILWU will enable us to do just that," EGT CEO Larry Clarke said in a written statement.

"This partnership is a win-win for local residents and the economy, putting Longview on the map for grain exports and helping expand opportunities for American farmers across the nation," he added.

Copyright 2015 Longview Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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