Longview labor dispute escalates with violence, Washington port shutdownsAn already-bitter labor dispute in Longview escalated Thursday as work stopped at major Washington state ports and police reported a surge in threats and violence.
Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said 500 longshoremen "stormed the gates" early Thursday at the port, breaking the windows of a guard shack, driving a private security car into a ditch and cutting the brake lines on rail cars. Protesters also spilled some of the grain in the cars.
Several private security guards locked themselves inside the guard shack, saying they feared for their safety if they tried to leave, though Duscha said initial reports they were held hostage were unfounded.
It's a dramatic escalation in a long-standing dispute over work at a grain terminal operated by EGT LLC. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union says its members are contractually entitled to work at the terminal because it has the contract to work at the Port of Longview. EGT leases land from the port for its terminal.
MoreThe Oregonian’s continuing coverage of a labor dispute at the EGT grain terminal in Longview.EGT sued the port for the right to hire nonunion workers. But in July, the company hired contractor General Construction Co. to operate the $200 million terminal with 25 to 35 members of the Gladstone-based International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701.
EGT could just as easily change its mind and hire nonunion workers after the protests die down, ILWU spokesman Roy San Filippo said.
Tensions have simmered for months, but police said crowds have been more violent recently.
On Wednesday, about 400 longshoremen gathered at the port to block a train headed for the grain terminal. Police ordered the protesters to leave, the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office said, before they began making arrests on trespassing charges.
But when they moved to arrest ILWU President Robert McEllrath, the crowd became dangerous, police said, and the officers withdrew.
"This was not like the peaceful protests we've seen in the past," Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said in a news release. "The protesters (Wednesday) were loud, aggressive and assaulted my officers."
The protesters later left on their own except for a group of 16, who were eventually arrested.
No one was arrested after Thursday's clash, but Duscha said teams of investigators were still at the port in the afternoon documenting damage and gathering evidence to see whether anyone could be charged with a crime. He said the port had been quiet since protesters left early in the day.
Meanwhile, the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett reported longshoremen didn't show up for work Thursday, effectively stopping the movement of cargo at the ports.
National union officials were caught off guard by the work stoppage and said it hadn't ordered such action.
"The ILWU is a rank and file union with a pretty long history of members taking action on their own to protest and fight against injustice," San Filippo said. "I think this was another example of that tradition."
The Cowlitz County sheriff said he suspected out-of-town protesters were contributing to the escalating violence.
"I have been meeting with local union leadership and business representatives for two months now," Nelson said. "I was always assured that things would not get violent towards our police officers. I guess the protesters from out of town didn't get that message."
The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the ILWU Local 21 and Local 4 last week, accusing members of making death threats and assaults. The board wanted the union to agree not to block trains going to or from the port.
The complaint prompted a federal judge to issue a restraining order prohibiting the groups from trespassing, making threats and damaging property during protests, as well as from blocking access to or from the site. Blocking the train Wednesday seemed to be a violation of the order.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton reaffirmed the restraining order, adding to the injunction that the union can't restrain or coerce anyone from doing business with EGT or General Construction.
The union will also have to show why the judge shouldn't hold the unions in civil contempt for violating the previous restraining order. A hearing is set for Sept. 15.
-- Elliot Njus
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