Hundreds of union dock workers crowded onto railroad tracks to block a mile-long train from delivering grain to the EGT terminal to the Port of Longview early Thursday morning.
The 107-car train was rerouted to Vancouver following the standoff, which prompted Burlington Northern Santa Fe to indefinitely suspend train traffic to the grain terminal, railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said Thursday. He declined to say whether the railroad will attempt to send rail cars to the terminal again during the labor dispute.
"For safety precautions, BNSF determined not to operate into the area, and the matter is under further review," Melonas said.
Thursday morning’s incident was the third major protest this week in what has become an increasingly volatile dispute between EGT and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21. EGT executives say they can save $1 million by employing non-union labor and insist they have the right to do so when they open the new $200 million terminal later this summer. Local 21 leaders say the union has a contract for all longshore work on Port of Longview property, which is where the grain terminal was built.
At stake are about 50 union jobs. If EGT is successful, it would be the first time in decades that a West Coast grain terminal has operated without union labor.
The latest episode started just after 11 p.m. Wednesday and lasted until about 3 a.m. Thursday at the port’s east end, law enforcement officials said. By the time the grain car arrived around 1:30 a.m., at least 200 union members had gathered on the tracks to block it, Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said.
"Parts of the crowd were reportedly fairly aggressive.. ... Hollering and shouting," he said. "They refused to leave, refused to move."
Nelson said a sheriff’s deputy and BNSF officer were the only law enforcement at the scene. No arrests were made, he said, because the officers were so severely outnumbered.
"We didn’t want to push the issue and get into some kind of big row," Nelson said, adding that no one was injured.
Dan Coffman, president of Local 21, estimated that about 600 people protested from the ILWU, other local labor unions and even some business owners from the area. No vandalism occurred during the protest, he said.
So far the demonstrations have been loud but mostly nonviolent. Still, Nelson said Thursday morning’s incident was the kind of escalation he feared following Monday’s arrest of about 100 union members after they pulled down a chain-link gate and flooded onto the terminal’s property.
Nelson said he has been meeting this week with EGT and port representatives and hopes to contact union leaders to ensure the situation doesn’t get worse.
"Somebody pushes and then somebody shoves and pretty soon it’s an out-and-out brawl," Nelson said. "We don’t want to get there. We’re all mature adults here. There’s a process for dealing with these kinds of things. People should be following that process."
The terminal still is in its testing phase, which requires intermittent grain deliveries, said Larry Clarke, CEO of EGT.
"We unloaded grain earlier this week and will continue receiving shipments for testing as we move toward completion of the facility," Clarke said in a written statement Thursday. He wouldn’t say how the company will attempt to get grain to the terminal while Burlington Northern suspends deliveries to the site.
In January, EGT sued Port of Longview in federal court, arguing that the company was not bound by the port’s contract with Local 21 to hire union labor for longshore work on its 38-acre leased site.
Contract talks between the ILWU and EGT fell apart about four months ago.
"It’s an attempt to break the union. It’s an attempt to set up shop and not use the ILWU," Coffman said.
Portland-based EGT is owned by St. Louis-based Bunge North America, Japan-based Itochu Corp. and Korean shipper Pan Ocean STX. Its principal owner, Bunge, reported a $2.5 billion profit for 2010.
The train involved in Thursday’s stand-off originated in Split Rock, Minn., and also was hauling corn, Melonas said.