Longshore union goes ‘all in’ at Longview grain terminal
ILWU is in a fight to secure work at a new $200 million grain terminal in Longview.
One of the most determined local union struggles in recent times is unfolding on the waterfront at the Port of Longview. The struggle pits members and supporters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) against EGT, a multinational consortium that built a $200 million grain terminal in Longview, largely with nonunion, out-of-town labor, and now seeks to operate it without employing ILWU members, in violation of its lease.
On July 11, up to 100 members and supporters of Longview’s 202-member ILWU Local 21 were arrested after demonstrators knocked down a chainlink fence and entered the terminal; arrestees included the presidents of ILWU locals in Vancouver and Portland. Then, after midnight on July 14, as many as 600 demonstrators gathered, and about 200 occupied train tracks to block a mile-long Burlington Northern Santa Fe train from delivering grain to the terminal. That prompted the railroad to say it would suspend deliveries while the dispute continued.
ILWU’s cause appears to have widespread support in Longview, a town of 37,000 with an economy centered on manufacturing, forest products, and the port. An initial print run of 800 support placards ran out in three or four days, said Local 21 President Dan Coffman; more are on the way. As many as 250 local businesses are displaying the signs, which read: “We Support the ILWU in the fight for a decent standard of living in our community.” Hundreds more appear in yards and vehicles.
Pickets and placards are the latest front in a four-year local battle with EGT LLC, the multinational consortium; the dispute is also in federal court.
EGT, which stands for Export Grain Terminal, is a joint venture run by the giant agribusiness multinational Bunge in partnership with Japan-based ITOCHU Corporation and South Korea’s STX Pan Ocean Co. Bunge, which reported a $2.4 billion profit for 2010, has a 51 percent controlling interest in the venture.
When EGT first came to Longview, company executives spoke of the benefits their project would have for the community: 200 jobs on average during the two-year construction phase, 50 permanent jobs at the elevator; and approximately 35 additional jobs for river pilots, tug assists, barge services, and rail operations.
“We look forward to being a good corporate citizen in the community,” said Bunge Grain vice president Bailey Ragan in the initial announcement.
It was to be the first large export grain terminal to be built in the U.S. since a ConAgra facility opened in nearby Kalama in 1983.
In size, efficiency, and automation, the new terminal is said to outpace the competition. It’s capable of handling four 110-car trains at once, while also taking grain up from a river barge and loading it onto a ship.
If all goes as planned it will be able to load around 8 million tons of wheat, soybeans, corn, oilseeds and protein meal every year aboard bulk ships bound for Asia. Bunge executive Carl Hausmann called it the “crown jewel” of Bunge’s North American operation. And at $200 million, it was also to be the biggest local construction project in decades.
But almost none of the work ended up going to local workers or union workers, says Dave Myers, president of the Longview-Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council. During the two years that EGT negotiated the deal with the Port of Longview, Myers, who is also business manager of IBEW Local 970, tried to get the Port to use its leverage to make sure union contractors in the area had an even shot at bidding on the work. On more than one occasion, that meant showing up at Port board meetings with over 100 local building trades workers.
Those efforts came to nothing. Not only didn’t the lease contain any local hire, prevailing wage, apprenticeship utilization, or other such stipulations, but it even had a clause that specifically said that EGT would face no requirement to employ union labor or pay prevailing wage during construction. The only exception, spelled out in Section 6.3 of the lease, was the Port’s Working Agreement with ILWU Local 21, which covers the operation of the ship and barge docks, handling cargo, and operating the facility.
No Port of Longview tenant has a better deal than EGT, Port Executive Director Ken O’Halloran told the Labor Press. EGT will pay the port $850 a month per acre for 38 acres, plus dockage and wharfage fees. Signed June 1, 2009, the lease runs 30 years, with an option to renew up to 80 years total.
When Myers learned the lease was to be signed, he arranged to attend the celebration. There, he got verbal assurance from an EGT executive that some of the work would go to local union firms. But Minnesota-based T.E. Ibberson Co., general contractor on the project, had other ideas. As work got under way, workers were brought in from elsewhere. At shift change, the parking lot was a sea of license plates from the midwest and the south, where Bunge has most of its existing grain operations; almost no plates were from Washington or Oregon. At one point, Myers said, up to 150 workers from Guatemala were hired for continuous pour construction of the cement grain elevators.
The plan was for the facility to become operational in time for the fall 2011 U.S. harvest. As construction entered its later stages in late 2010, ILWU Local 8 sought a meeting with EGT to discuss terms and conditions of employment. Meeting with Local 21 President Coffman Nov. 23, EGT told him it would have no need of the ILWU’s services. After Coffman informed Port commissioners, Port Executive Director O’Halloran e-mailed EGT CEO Larry Clarke Dec. 3 saying that under the lease, EGT must adhere to the Port’s agreement with Local 21 for the types of longshore/ warehousemen jobs which that agreement covers.
On Jan. 12, 2011, EGT filed a lawsuit against the Port, arguing in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma that it is not bound by the Port’s Working Wage Agreement with the ILWU as spelled out in its lease. In its suit, EGT attorneys say union labor would increase EGT’s annual costs of operating the elevator by $1 million. The lawsuit could take years to resolve. On July 18, a federal judge granted ILWU “intervenor” status in the suit. That means ILWU attorneys may introduce motions and take part in any settlement.
EGT continued to meet with ILWU until March, but pushed non-starter proposals like 12-hour shifts at straight time pay.
As construction neared completion, ILWU geared up to fight to operate the terminal. On June 3, 1,200 ILWU members from 16 locals rallied at EGT’s downtown Portland headquarters. And the protests began outside the terminal.
Then, on July 17, a development took ILWU by surprise: EGT announced that it had signed a five-year deal with Federal Way-based General Construction Co., a subsidiary of Kiewit, to operate the terminal using members of Gladstone, Oregon headquartered Operating Engineers Local 701.
Protests continued at the terminal, but now Local 701 was targeted too. On July 22, about 100 ILWU members and supporters set up a picket line and blocked vehicles from entering the grain facility. On July 24, a powered hang glider flew over the terminal and dropped leaflets. July 27, about 100 ILWU members and a large inflatable rat turned up outside Local 701 headquarters and blocked the entrance.
Local 701 Business Manager Mark Holliday told the Labor Press in an e-mail that the union has had a relationship with General Construction for over 90 years. “Our contract is with General Construction. We don’t have an agreement with EGT,” he said.
ILWU took its case to the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board July 29, claiming Local 701 was “aiding and abetting” an employer that the ILWU had a dispute with.
“This is a major, major, major battle for us,” ILWU Committeeman Leal Sundet told the Executive Board, explaining that the outcome will have ramifications on future bargaining throughout the West Coast. “We are going all in in this fight.”
The Executive Board then passed a resolution submitted by ILWU “strongly condemning” Local 701’s actions. The resolution initially was ruled out of order by President Tom Chamberlain, who determined it was a dispute over jurisdiction. But the board overturned him and passed it by a wide margin.
Holliday is a member of the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board, but he did not attend the meeting.
Nelda Wilson, assistant to the business manager of Local 701, told the Labor Press that the union didn’t know the resolution would be discussed, and wasn’t given a chance to tell its side of the story. “It’s a very complicated issue, and there is a lot of disinformation going around,” Wilson said. “There is a legal process that has to wind its way through the courts. I think we all need to calm down and allow time to sort out the facts here. There is a lot more to come.”
The resolution currently is in abeyance until further review by the national AFL-CIO. If the resolution is ruled out of order by the national body it will be nullified.
A similar resolution was set to go before the Washington State Labor Council at its Aug. 4-6 convention in SeaTac.
“This is part of EGT’s plan,” Coffman said. “They want to sit off to the side and let the working classes fight it out. Our fight should be against corporate America that’s taking collective bargaining rights from everybody. They’re sitting back laughing at us. That’s what they want us to do is fight amongst each other.”