Union workers overpower guards; judge warns to halt illegal tactics

Union workers overpower guards; judge warns to halt illegal tactics »Play Video
Police and union workers clash during a tense moment as union workers block a grain train in Longview, Wash., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011.

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - Hundreds of Longshore workers overpowered security guards in an aggressive raid on a Washington state grain terminal, officials said Thursday, and the action drew quick rebuke from a federal judge that has tried to curb the union's escalating tactics in an ongoing labor dispute.

Workers have been battling for the right to work at the new terminal in Longview. But U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton issued a preliminary injunction to restrict union activity, saying there was no defense for the aggressive tactics used in recent days.

Protesters twice blocked the pathway of a train carrying grain to the terminal at the Port of Longview on Wednesday, and early Thursday morning hundreds of them stormed the facility, overwhelmed guards, dumped grain and broke windows, police said.

The dispute halted work at four other Washington ports, including Seattle, on Thursday as hundreds of longshoremen refused to show up or walked off the job.

Leighton said he felt like a paper tiger because the International Longshore and Warehouse Union clearly ignored a temporary restraining order he issued last week with similar limits. He scheduled a hearing for next Thursday to determine whether the union should be held in civil contempt.

"The regard for the law is absent here," the judge said. "Somebody is going to be hurt seriously."

Six guards were trapped for a couple of hours after at least 500 Longshoremen broke down gates about 4:30 a.m. and smashed windows in the guard shack, Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said. He initially referred to the guards as "hostages," but later retracted that after the guards clarified no one had threatened them.

"The guards absolutely could not get out," Duscha said. "They feared for their lives because of the size of the crowd and the hostility of the crowd."

No one was hurt, and nobody has been arrested — although Duscha said that could change if police are able to use surveillance video or other means to identify the protesters.

Most of the protesters returned to their union hall after cutting train brake lines and spilling grain from a car at the EGT terminal, Duscha said. They also pushed a private security vehicle into a ditch.

The union believes it has the right to work at the facility, but the company has hired a contractor that's staffing a workforce of laborers from another union, the Portland-based Operating Engineers Local 701. Representatives of the engineers union did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

In Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Anacortes, hundreds of Longshore workers failed to show up or walked off the job Thursday in apparent solidarity with the Longview activists, halting work at those ports. Union leaders said they had not called for any such actions.

"It appears the members have taken action on their own," said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees from union headquarters in San Francisco.

He said some workers might have been motivated by a photograph of ILWU President Bob McElrath in police custody in Longview on Wednesday.

McElrath was not arrested, but an Associated Press photo showed him being grabbed by several police officers before union activists intervened and grabbed him back.

Police arrested 19 protesters as they blocked railroad tracks on Wednesday night, allowing the train to finally arrive at the terminal.

The protesters in Longview have portrayed themselves as being on the front line in the struggle for jobs and benefits among American workers in an economic downturn. But while union strife has flared up around the country — most notably in Wisconsin — the aggressive tactics seen in Longview have been a rarity in recent labor disputes.

Labor activists insist that after receiving tax breaks and promising to create well-paying jobs at the new $200 million terminal, EGT initially tried to staff the terminal with nonunion workers. Following a series of protests by the Longshore workers this year, the company announced it would hire a contractor staffed by workers from a different union.

"Today, the ILWU took its criminal activity against EGT to an appalling level, including engaging in assault and significant property destruction," the company's chief executive, Larry Clarke, said in a written statement. "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."

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Associated Press writers Donna Gordon Blankinship, Doug Esser and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - Hundreds of Longshore workers stormed the Port of Longview early Thursday, overpowered and held security guards, damaged railroad cars, and dumped grain that is the center of a labor dispute, said Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha.

Six guards were detained for a couple of hours after 500 or more Longshoremen broke down gates about 4:30 a.m. and smashed windows in the guard shack, he said.

No one was hurt, and nobody has been arrested. Most of the protesters returned to their union hall after cutting brake lines and spilling grain from car at the EGT terminal, Duscha said.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union believes it has the right to work at the facility, but the company has hired a contractor that's staffing a workforce of other union laborers.

At ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett the Longshoremen's international union is investigating reports of a wildcat strike. Gates at the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma were closed and trucks were backing up on roads leading to the terminals.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees says union officials are trying to sort out what is happening at the ports and were not sure on Thursday morning if the strike is related to union activity in Longview.

"It appears the members have taken action on their own," said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees from union headquarters in San Francisco. "We're trying to understand how many are involved and to what extent this apparent wildcat action has spread."

Thursday's violence at Longview was first reported by Kelso radio station KLOG.

Police from several agencies in southwest Washington, the Washington State Patrol and Burlington Northern Santa Fe responded to the violence to secure the scene that followed a demonstration Wednesday.

"We're not surprised," Duscha said. "A lot of the protesters were telling us this in only the start."

One sergeant was threatened with baseball bats and retreated, Duscha said. "One officer with hundreds of Longshoremen? He used the better part of discretion."

The train was the first grain shipment to arrive at Longview. It arrived Wednesday night after police arrested 19 demonstrators who tried to block the tracks. They were led by ILWU International President Robert McEllrath, who said they would return.

The blockade appeared to defy a federal restraining order issued last week against the union after it was accused of assaults and death threats.

EGT chief executive Larry Clarke said it was unfortunate that law enforcement needed to make arrests. Clarke sent out this statement Thursday afternoon: 

“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. The ILWU is thumbing its nose at the laws of the United States and our legal system. Issues between EGT, the Port, and the ILWU should be resolved peacefully in a court of law. We appreciate the support of local law enforcement for their ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of our employees and contractors. That remains our priority as we work to bring this facility online.”