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Hundreds of longshoremen storm grain terminal in Washington

September 8, 2011 | 12:16 pm

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Hundreds of angry longshoremen stormed through a grain shipping terminal in Longview, Wash., early Thursday and held security guards at bay while descending on a disputed train full of grain, cutting brake lines and dumping cargo.

The predawn labor protests came after a clash with police Wednesday in which hundreds of longshoremen blocked railroad tracks near Vancouver, Wash., to prevent grain cargo from reaching an export terminal 45 miles farther west. In that protest, they far outnumbered officers, pelting police with rocks and spraying them with pepper spray, police said.

There have been no serious injuries, but 19 protesters were arrested on charges of trespassing during the initial protests Wednesday. 

Police were not present during Thursday's predawn action at the terminal, but they said six security guards were held inside a guard shack while protesters attacked the train, broke windows in the shack and pushed a private security vehicle into a ditch.

"Yesterday there were probably 300 or 400 of them. Today there was even more, and we were just outnumbered," Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said in an interview.

"At this point, we hear there are longshoremen coming down from the Seattle-Tacoma area to assist. When the longshoremen were leaving, they were saying they would be back, this was not over," he said.

The call for mobilization hit the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's Facebook page Thursday morning: "Call out the troops, we're going on a road trip!" one union member wrote.

ILWU local spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said she could not initially confirm what happened during Thursday's protests. "The union is still looking into that and trying to find out the scope and exactly what happened," she told The Times.

The eruptions cap a simmering summer of labor unrest at the new $200-million grain-shipping facility in southern Washington state, newly opened by Bunge North America subsidiary EGT, the first major grain export terminal built in the U.S. in the last two decades.

The ILWU has insisted it has the right to work at the facility, but EGT has hired a contractor, General Construction of Federal Way, Wash., which is employing members of another labor union.

The National Labor Relations Board intervened in late August, seeking a court order to end "violent and aggressive" labor actions, which it said included destroying EGT property and harassing and threatening employees of EGT and General Construction.

In one case, the labor board alleged, a protester dropped a trash bag full of manure from an airplane near an EGT building.

A federal judge last week issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the union from blocking the entrance to the shipping facility. A second court hearing is set for today to determine whether that order should be made permanent.

In a letter to union members, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath noted that union members work at all grain export facilities in the Pacific Northwest, and worked at a previous grain facility on the site of EGT's new operation.

"This constitutes an assault on over 80 years of longshore jurisdiction -- an assault that could fundamentally change the dynamics of the relationship within the grain industry as a whole. It is critical to the Longshore Division that this does not happen," he wrote.

He said longshoremen had been in negotiations to work with EGT but talks broke down in April over what he said was EGT’s demand to have longshoremen work 12-hour shifts without any overtime pay and other issues.

In July, the work was transferred to General Construction and Operating Engineers Local 701 without any notice to the longshoremen, he said.

EGT's spokesman did not return phone calls, but in an earlier statement, Chief Executive Larry Clarke welcomed the action by the labor relations board.

"The sooner the ILWU stops threatening local workers and blocking interstate commerce, the sooner we can finish bringing the facility online to provide family-wage union jobs shipping grain from the Pacific Northwest and America's heartland to markets in Asia," he said.

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

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Photo: A Cowlitz County sheriff's deputy grabs one of hundreds of longshoremen trying to block a grain train bound for an export facility in Longview, Wash. Credit: Don Ryan / Associated Press

 

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