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Longshoremen Breathe Life Into the Labor Movement

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On Sept. 8, a group of longshoremen estimated at between 500-1,000, all members of the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union), stormed the gates of a Longview grain terminal (located in southwestern Washington state) to protest the company's (EGT Development) anti-union policies. The ILWU insists that the EGT contract, along with the provisions of the Northwest Grainhandlers Agreement, guarantee ILWU representation.

After overwhelming Longview's security guards, the longshoremen allegedly dumped grain, broke the windows of the guard shack and severed the brake lines of several railroad cars. Police were called in and 19 arrests were made. Meanwhile, dockworkers in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett walked off their jobs in support of the Longview action.

According to labor activists, EGT Development -- a joint American-Japanese-South Korean company -- had received tax breaks and other perks in return for promising to create well-paying union jobs at the $200 million grain terminal. Despite the workers having a contract with the Port of Longview guaranteeing that only ILWU members be hired for work on the docks, EGT attempted to renege on the agreement. Initially, in fact, they had the nerve to declare that they intended to hire only non-union workers (at lower wages and benefits) to fill the positions.

But following ILWU protests earlier this year, EGT backed down and reversed themselves. They said they wouldn't be using non-union workers after all. But rather than honor the prior agreement and hire only ILWU members, they stunned everyone by announcing that they would be hiring members of the IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers) instead.

Although EGT management is attempting to make this thing appear as a thuggish, internecine battle -- an old-fashioned power play between rival unions, the issue boils down to two things. For one, a deal is a deal, and EGT needs to honor the agreement the Port of Longview made with the ILWU.

For another, and not to point fingers, but the IUOE -- in contrast to the formidable and truculent ILWU -- is perceived as a union not known for putting up much of a fight, which, in truth, is why EGT, after attempting to fill the positions with non-union personnel, chose the Operating Engineers as the union they wanted to do business with.

The Longshoremen are understandably upset. Besides the prospect of losing jobs that were promised to them, the ILWU is fearful of the long-term effects this audacious end-run could have. They fear EGT will break the IUOE (Local 701), and that after busting this union and coming away perceived as the victor (a la Ronald Reagan with PATCO), it will move against the ILWU.

Although a preliminary injunction was issued late on Sept. 8 by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, the dockworkers are still protesting at ports in the northwest. The Longview dispute obviously has a ways to go before it gets sorted out, but no matter what the eventual outcome, these brave ILWU members have breathed life into the labor movement. One can only hope that their actions will inspire union members in other industries to assert themselves as well.

And as for those upright, uptight citizens who will condemn the Longview demonstration as "lawless" or "renegade," they need to recalibrate. They need to see this thing for what it is. The Longview uprising is self-determination personified. It's American, it's patriotic, it's grassroots and its antecedents can be traced back to the Boston Tea Party -- the real Boston Tea Party. Indeed, Longview is what the so-called Tea Party movement wishes it were.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author of "It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net
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