Reporting from Seattle — Hundreds of angry longshoremen walked off the job at ports in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday, effectively shutting down loading and unloading operations in a wildcat labor action that turned into a raucous confrontation — with union members storming a grain export terminal and holding security guards at bay for hours.
Shipping terminals in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett were idled as workers joined the protest in the town of Longview, where police said union members rushed into a contested loading area in the pre-dawn hours, cutting brake lines on a train full of grain, pushing a security vehicle into a ditch and dumping part of the grain cargo off the train.
The protest followed a clash with police Wednesday in which longshoremen blocked railroad tracks near Vancouver, Wash., to prevent the grain from reaching the export terminal, 45 miles west. Union leaders contend the terminal should be staffed with members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
In that protest, union members outnumbered officers, pelting police with rocks and using pepper spray, police said.
There have been no serious injuries, but 19 protesters were arrested for trespassing during the initial protests Wednesday.
Police were not present during Thursday's pre-dawn action, but they said six security guards had no choice but to remain inside a guard shack while protesters went wild.
"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 union's Facebook page Thursday morning: "Call out the troops, we're going on a road trip!" one union member wrote.
Union spokesman Roy Filippo said members from Washington ports did join the pre-dawn action but there appeared to be no further protests Thursday.
"This was an action they took on their own volition; it's not something they coordinated with the local union or the international," he said. He said union members were reacting to photos distributed from Wednesday's incident that purportedly to show the union's ILWU international president, Robert McEllrath, being manhandled by local police.
Owners of the terminal, Bunge North America subsidiary EGT, broke off negotiations with the longshoremen earlier this year and employed a contractor who is using labor from another union. EGT chief Larry Clarke said the dispute should be resolved in the court, not the streets.
"Today, the ILWU took its criminal activity against EGT to an appalling level, including engaging in assault and significant property destruction. This type of violent attack at the export terminal has been condemned by a federal court, and we fully support prosecution of this criminal behavior to the fullest extent under the law," Clarke said in a statement.
The eruptions cap a simmering summer of labor unrest at the new $200-million grain-shipping facility in southern Washington state, the first major grain export terminal built in the U.S. in the last two decades.
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.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton granted a permanent injunction against illegal picketing, prohibiting union members from blocking rail lines, impeding business, making threats or engaging in violence, though he refused the government's request to bar all picketing at the terminal.
The judge said he would schedule a contempt hearing next week to determine whether his earlier order was violated. "Someone is going to get hurt if the situation doesn't get under control," the judge said at a hearing in Tacoma.
In a letter to International Longshore and Warehouse Union members, 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, plus other issues.
In July, the work was transferred to General Construction and Operating Engineers Local 701 without any notice to the longshoremen, he said.
Terminal owners said they were under no obligation to employ ILWU workers. The company said the union was demanding "numerous costly and inefficient terms," including a demand for a $20-plus per hour surcharge to supplement pensions and work stoppages "for extended periods of time throughout the day."
Spokesman Filippo said the protests were a result of general frustration on the part of union members. "Workers today are scared. I think they're seeing paying jobs in their communities go away, and the jobs that are there pay much less, and are much less secure than they were 10 years ago," he said.