About 100 union dock workers, including union leaders, were arrested Monday afternoon after they tore down a chain-link gate and protested inside the EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview.
In one of the boldest labor demonstrations in recent memory, members of the Longview-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 stormed the terminal to protest EGT's use of non-union labor to handle grain in the testing phase of the new $200 million facility. Authorities said the gate appeared to have been pulled down with a pickup, and protesters blocked EGT employees from working in the terminal.
About 20 law enforcement vehicles swarmed to the east end of the port just after 3 p.m. Sheriff's deputies and other officers from the Longview and Kelso police departments moved freely among the protesters, who were sometimes loud, but not violent.
"By far this is the most intense labor event that I can remember," said Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson, who stood at the crowd's center at one point discussing the situation with the union's leadership.
Tensions have been rising between EGT executives and ILWU since contract talks broke down about three months ago. The company's officials have said they plan to open the terminal this summer with about 50 workers, likely non-union.
"We are going to fight for our jobs in our jurisdiction. We have worked this dock for 70 years, and to have a big, rich corporation come in and say, ‘We don't want you,' is a problem," Dan Coffman, Local 21 president, said Monday as he waited for police to issue him a citation.
"We're all together. We're all going to jail as a union."
Law enforcement officers took the protesters aside one by one, issued them citations for second-degree trespassing, photographed them, handcuffed them and loaded them into patrol cars and a corrections department van. Nelson said the protesters were taken to the Cowlitz County fairgrounds and released. The idea, he said, was simply to get them away from the protest.
Additional charges may be filed against those who pulled down the fence if they can be identified, Nelson said.
EGT is owned by St. Louis-based Bunge North America, Japan-based Itochu Corp. and Korean shipper Pan Ocean STX. Later this summer, officials from the ILWU's San Francisco-based headquarters plan to meet with Itochu and Pan Ocean officials in Asia.
Monday's protest, which included ILWU leaders from Portland and Vancouver, was the latest of four large-scale demonstrations the ILWU has held in the last two months. On June 3, more than 1,000 ILWU supporters from Washington to California rallied outside EGT's headquarters in downtown Portland.
Union officials have pinpointed the EGT grain terminal as a major battleground along the West Coast. If EGT succeeds in operating the terminal with non-union labor, ILWU officials say they fear other grain companies would follow suit.
This was the first time that the ILWU, one of the region's most powerful labor unions, is known to have resorted to trespassing and damaging EGT's property, Nelson said.
EGT officials said Monday they will protect their workers, and they haven't finished hiring.
"The safety of our employees and service providers is our top priority. And actions by any group that threaten their safety will not be tolerated," Larry Clarke, EGT's president and CEO, said in a written statement.
After pulling down the gate, the protesters first gathered inside a large building, then moved to a fenced-off area just outside, Nelson said. Nelson said he offered to let the protesters go without arrests if they agreed to walk away peacefully.
"They chose to stay," Nelson said. "Everybody's trying to make a statement here."
At around 4 p.m., a deputy announced over a loudspeaker that everyone on EGT's property was under arrest for second-degree trespassing, a misdemeanor. The protesters broke out in shouts of "ILWU! ILWU!"
Union men scaled two grain cars behind the fence, waving ILWU signs and chanting. At one point, the protesters briefly locked arms.
Asked if he worried the situation between the longshoremen and the grain terminal could escalate this summer, Nelson said, "In a word, yes."
Ken O'Hollaren, director of the Port of Longview, said port officials were discussing Monday whether they need to beef up security around the site. The damaged fence belongs to EGT, which is leasing the 38-acre site from the port, he said.
"It's an unfortunate turn of events here. We're still very hopeful that a resolution can be found. This is not the kind of thing that we hope to see or condone," O'Hollaren said.
Most of the protesters were ILWU members, and leaders of area woodworkers' and construction trade unions also showed up outside the fence to show their support.
EGT "isn't a good neighbor. They're not going to be a good neighbor," said Dave Myers, president of the Longview Kelso Building Trades Council.
Union officials say EGT has violated their contract with the port, which stipulates that all longshore work on port property must be conducted with Local 21 labor.
In January, EGT sued the port in federal court, arguing that the company was not bound by the port's contract with ILWU local 21. EGT attorneys said union labor would increase their annual costs of operating the elevator by $1 million. Coffman said the added labor costs are only a fraction of EGT's total costs.
Nelson, the sheriff, said he understood what the union was trying to accomplish even though he didn't agree with its tactics Monday.
"Bless their hearts," Nelson said. "These are our neighbors too. These are our folks. This is our community."