ILWU Members Rampage in Washington State; Court Cites Union for Contempt

longshoreman riot photoIt wasn’t the first incidence of union intimidation in Longview, Washington this year. And it may not be the last. For four hours on the afternoon of September 7, an estimated 400 members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 (Vancouver, Wash.) and Local 21 (Longview) blocked a shipment by a mile-long railroad train just outside its destination, a terminal at Port of Longview, Washington, leased by the Portland, Ore.-based EGT Development. The train passed through only after some 50 armed police officers dispersed protestors, triggering a melee and a blockade by a smaller group of protestors. All told, the standoff and fracas resulted in 19 arrests. Then, during pre-dawn hours of the next day, union members retaliated by vandalizing railroad cars, dumping their contents, and holding security guards hostage. All of this occurred despite a court order banning it.  

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is a San Francisco-based labor organization founded in 1937 representing dockworkers and auxiliary employees at various West Coast ports. It is entirely separate from the International Longshoremen Association (ILA), which represents workers at ports along the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. But the ILWU does share one key trait with its ILA brethren: a penchant for imposing force on employers or employees who don’t do the union’s bidding. Rather than farm out its dirty work to the Mafia, however, which the ILA did routinely for decades until being thwarted by federal prosecutors during the last decade, the ILWU is the kind of union that prefers to take direct action. EGT is finding out just how direct.

EGT Development is a consortium jointly owned by a St. Louis firm, Bunge NA, and two foreign companies, Itochu Corp. (Japan) and Pan Ocean STX (South Korea). For months EGT had been trying to ship goods to a new grain terminal in Longview, a city of about 35,000 population located along the Columbia River in Cowlitz County, Wash., about a half-hour’s drive north of Portland. On September 7, the terminal, still in the testing phase, was awaiting shipment of thousands of tons of corn on a 107-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train originating in Minnesota. ILWU leaders had other ideas. When the train arrived, about 400 rank and file workers stood on or near the tracks just outside the terminal. Further passage clearly was impossible. And the protestors refused to leave. After a one-hour standoff, engineers backed up their train by a few hundred feet, prompting cheers from the crowd. Police arrived at the scene. After warning protestors at least twice to clear the area, officers formed a line and donned riot gear. A scuffle broke out, but the cops managed to bring things under control. By 6 P.M. the protestors left – almost all of them anyway. Sixteen workers defiantly sat on the tracks, refusing to leave. Police arrested all of them, on top of the three protestors they’d arrested earlier for trespassing during fisticuffs. The train then proceeded to the terminal at about 7 P.M. “It was a very, very ugly situation,” said Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson of the standoff.

It was about to get uglier. In the wee hours of the next morning, Thursday, September 8, ILWU members invaded the terminal, assaulted security guards, and tossed grain out of rail cars. The “workers” also cut rail brake lines. Longview Police Sgt. Mark Langlois stated in subsequent testimony that he had responded to a call of about 100 motor vehicles leaving the union hall on 14th Avenue in Longview. One person pulled over and blocked him. Langlois said he was unable to do anything. “I was by myself,” he said. “I was completely outnumbered. I wasn’t about to stop any of these people from doing whatever it is they were going to do.”

A private security guard at the terminal, Charlie Cadwell, fared even worse during this time. He stated that he was overwhelmed by a large group of ILWU members, all of whom were brandishing bats, shears and other weapons. When he opened his car door, a man yanked him out, threw him to the ground and stood over him. Stated Cadwell: “I told him, ‘You’ve got about 50 cameras on you. Law enforcement is on their way.'” Replied the assailant, later arrested and identified as Local 21 member Ron Stavas: “We’re not here to get you. We’re here to get the train.” Cadwell retreated to the back of the property near the grain silos. After an hour, they hurled rocks at him and other security officers. “I got hit between the eyes,” said Cadwell. “I got hit in the knees.”

The intimidation of September 7-8 is the culmination, for now, of a months-long labor dispute. ILWU officials, including International President Robert McEllrath (who himself would have been arrested during the September 7 standoff had not union members assaulted cops), allege EGT had reneged on a deal. The company, says the union, hired members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701 in violation of its lease agreement with Port of Longview, following a negotiation impasse with the ILWU. “If EGT continues to act in the manner they do…I can’t say our members will not wildcat again,” said Scott Mason, president of ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma, some of whose members had joined Locals 4 and 21 in the blockade. “EGT can eliminate this any time by abiding by the agreement they already signed.”

Statements like these make it appear as though ILWU acted reasonably and had no other option but to force a showdown. The truth is that a union, no more than a corporation, has any right to block the movement of goods essential to commerce. The union’s behavior, by any reasonable definition, constituted a violation of the Hobbs Act of 1946, which criminalized the use of robbery or extortion to impede interstate commerce. Protestors had blocked the massive shipment of corn with the clear intent of preventing it from arriving at its destination and being unloaded.

The union alleges that police used excessive force. Dan Coffman, president of Local 21, assets at least two union members were hit in the face by police pepper spray and another was clubbed. “They’re (police) the thugs,” said Coffman. His statement, however, leaves out a good deal more than it includes. During the September 8 pre-dawn assault on the grain terminal, several union members broke down gates, held six guards hostage and smashed windows in the guard shack. And the previous afternoon, during the blockade, a news team from KGW-TV in Portland got a taste of union hospitality. A self-described union “representative” threatened to break the crew’s cameras, steal personal effects and sue them for trespassing. When reporters agreed to leave the scene, they asked him: “What is your name?” The ILWU guy’s response: “Fuck you, cocksucker.”

Moreover, ILWU intimidation had been going on for several weeks. On July 11, ILWU protestors were arrested after tearing down a chain link gate and spilling onto EGT property. On July 14, hundreds of union protestors blocked railroad tracks to prevent a grain delivery. It was two days later, on July 16, that the company decided to hire workers from the Gladstone, Ore.-based Operating Engineers Local 701. In response, on July 22, union picketers blocked access to the terminal; one person was arrested. The union wasn’t done yet. On July 25, seven ILWU members were arrested at a terminal picket line, one of them for making a felony death threat. On August 29, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), its patience taxed, filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union. A few days later, on September 1, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma issued a 10-day restraining order against the union, barring it from engaging in further acts of aggression, including harassing workers at the port. The union’s blockading of a rail shipment on September 7 and its invasion of the terminal the next morning each was thus doubly illegal.

On the next day, September 8, numerous ILWU members in Seattle, Tacoma and elsewhere, acting on their own as an act of solidarity with Locals 4 and 21, walked off their job or failed to show up for work. But the federal court was busily regaining the upper hand. That very day, Judge Leighton made his temporary order permanent. A week later, on Thursday, September 15, he ruled the ILWU had acted in contempt of court and also announced that he would fine the union by an amount to be determined by an EGT analysis of the vandalism. The company hopes to complete its calculation by the end of this month.

The actions by the NLRB and Tacoma federal court are necessary, but inadequate over the long run. A more effective way of combating union blockades and property invasions is to fully enforce the Hobbs Act. Unfortunately, unions for nearly four decades have enjoyed what amounts to a de facto exemption from that anti-extortion law. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in a case originating in Louisiana, U.S. v. Enmons, that a union may be exempt from Hobbs Act statutes if it can demonstrate its violent behavior furthered “legitimate” union objectives. This decision, in divorcing means from ends, all too often has served as a green light for unions to engage in thuggery. A reform legislative package I analyzed in detail two weeks ago in Union Corruption Update, the Employee Rights Act (H.R. 2810, S. 1507), among various provisions, would close that loophole. The provision would subject unions to the Hobbs Act in the same manner that other organizations are subject to it. Congress should pass this bill so that companies like EGT, and their employees, can operate without fearing the worst.


Sen. Hatch Unveils Employee Rights Act to Reform Labor Law

Congress Considers Bill to Protect Workers from Union Violence

Union Leaders in Niagara Falls Throw in the Towel, Plead Guilty

“Epidemic of Union Violence”