Showdown Averted: ILWU and EGT Reach Agreement

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the international conglomerate EGT Development came to a tentative agreement on Monday to resolve their long simmering labor dispute.  The agreement was announced in a statement released by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, who convened the discussions that ultimately lead to the settlement.

The agreement averts a looming showdown between EGT and the ILWU over the conglomerate’s refusal to hire longshoremen at its newly minted export grain terminal at the Port of Longview.

The details of the settlement were not immediately made public, but in the released statement, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath stated, “This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community.”

Thus, the ILWU’s two-year long struggle against EGT’s union busting in Longview appears to be at an end.  (Given EGT’s “negotiating” history, however, a measure of skepticism is perhaps in order until the deal actually comes to be finalized.)

It is imperative, then, to reflect back on how such an agreement was able to ultimately emerge.  Though McEllrath and EGT CEO Larry Clarke both praised the intervention and leadership of Governor Gregoire, the truth is that it was the militancy of the ILWU rank and file that finally forced EGT back to the bargaining table.

On two separate occasions, for instance, ILWU Local 21 and their supporters blocked trains from reaching EGT’s scab facility.  And back in September, longshoremen stormed the EGT terminal, allegedly dumping grain from an idle train car.

Of course, such militancy has also extracted a heavy toll.  To date, the union faces more than $300,000 from numerous fines and federal injunctions.  The longshoremen and their families, meanwhile, have been subject to 75 arrests, 200 citations, and various other means of police intimidation and harassment.

Certainly, though, one cannot overlook the impact the Occupy movement also had in bringing pressure to bear on EGT.  For example, the December Occupy-led West Coast port shutdown, called in solidarity with Local 21, succeeded in shutting down port terminals in Oakland, Portland, and Seattle.

Moreover, a solidarity caravan set to ferry both ILWU rank and file and occupiers from Seattle to Oakland in an attempt to block EGT’s looming attempt to begin operations at its terminal had raised the specter of thousands of protesters converging on the Port of Longview.  In fact, fearing a potential mass protest, EGT had resorted to calling on the US Coast Guard to safeguard its vessel and terminal.

Undoubtedly, such a combination of pressure coming from both the union and the greater community factored heavily into EGT’s calculus to return to the bargaining table.

And though it may be premature to deem the struggle a success—given that the details of the agreement have not yet been revealed—important lessons can still be gleaned from the struggle.  First and foremost, the fight in Longview has demonstrated the immense power of worker organization.  After all, through their organized and sustained fight back, the longshoremen from a small Washington town were able to drive a multi-billion dollar international corporation back to the negotiating table after two years of intransigence.  And of course in doing so, they have provided an enduring inspiration for working people the nation over.

Second, the struggle has illustrated the power of community solidarity in labor struggles, while also offering a potentially fruitful direction for the Occupy movement.  For if Occupy can continue to funnel its energy into labor struggles striving to achieve tangible victories for working people, it can begin the process of gaining a much wider base of working class support.  And potential opportunities to this end abound, with nearly 50 percent of workers proclaiming a desire to join a union, but only one out of every ten currently enjoying union representation.

And so, with an apparent victory in Longview, the struggle endures.  Let us hope, though, that the Occupy and labor movements can continue the struggle in concert.

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon. He may be reached at: bnschreiner@gmail.com. Read other articles by Ben.