The international president of the longshore union is back on trial in connection with last year’s labor dispute, three months after his last District Court trial ended in a hung jury.
Robert McEllrath of San Francisco, international president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, is charged with obstructing a train — a misdemeanor — on Sept. 7, 2011
Prosecutors said he directed members of ILWU Local 21 and their supporters to block a train delivering grain to the EGT grain terminal at the Port of Longview. The ILWU maintains that union members were engaged in their legal right to protest. At the time, EGT and Local 21 were in a dispute over EGT’s refusal to hire union dockworkers.
In a two-day trial in June that was attended by longshore workers from around the world, the jury failed to reach a verdict.
In his opening statement Wednesday to the four-man, two woman jury, deputy county prosecutor Michael Nguyen said that although there is no photograph of McEllrath standing in front of the grain train, he was nevertheless responsible for blocking it.
He said McEllrath was in Vancouver when the train left for Longview, and then was in Longview when the train arrived. In Vancouver, a police officer showed McEllrath a federal order that said the ILWU and supporters were restrained from picketing and blocking the train in Longview, Nguyen said.
He said testimony and video from the port surveillance camera and law enforcement will prove that McEllrath had control over the Longview protest. He said McEllrath can be seen “directing the crowd” before a line forms in front of the train. Then after Longview Police Sgt. Dixie Wells talks with McEllrath, the union president tells the crowd to go away, “we’ll be back another day with a thousand people,” and the protesters go away, Nguyen said.
Union attorney Neil Fox, who is defending McEllrath along with Thomas Phelan, said despite his client’s high position in the union, he does not control the members.
“This is not a traditional top-down union,” he said. “It’s a democratic union. ... He can’t dictate to all the members.”
He said the prosecutors have no evidence to prove that McEllrath was actually on the tracks or that he incited anyone to block the train.
When Sgt. Wells and McEllrath talked, “Mr. McEllrath suggests, ‘You back the train up and I’ll get everyone out of here,’ ” Fox said. “That’s what happens. He gives a speech. This is the only time he gets close to the tracks.”
McEllrath left after the speech, but many of the demonstrators remained, Fox said.
“It’s not until 7 o’clock or so that the train goes through, long after Mr. McEllrath left,” he said. “The evidence is he defused the situation. He de-escalated it. The state is trying to make him out to be an instigator.”
The trial is expected to conclude today. Judge Ed Putka is presiding.