Longshore Workers Battle Greedy Grain Giant

ILWU Local 21 president Dan Coffman (left) discusses the strike with James Gregory, a labor historian at the University of Washington.
ILWU Local 21 president Dan Coffman (left) discusses the strike with James Gregory, a labor historian at the University of Washington.

Standing on the railroad tracks at the Smith Cove port where in 1934 hundred of striking longshore workers braved charging police horses and arial machine gun fire, union leader Dan Coffman told a group of labor activists and students that the situation his 200-plus member local found itself in wasn’t too different from then.  “The greed and the power of the rich people haven’t changed on bit,” he said. 

Since June, the members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 in Longview, Washington have picketed against the grain shipping company EGT, after the multi-national company offered what Coffman, elected president four years ago, called a “Walmart contract.” 

Instead of dealing with the union, EGT, which indirectly benefits from agricultural subsidies, has maintained replacement workers, first shipping in Central American immigrants from out of state, and using workers from a nearby local of operating engineers’ union. Here’s the snag: the arbitration decision that ended the bloody 1934 general strike clearly notes that all port work that involves taking a commodity from a boat to its first point of rest falls within the jurisdiction of the longshore workers’ union. 

“The only thing worse than a scab is a union scab,” Coffman said of the replacement workers. 

With the police forcefully combating ILWU picketers in Longview as well as in in Tacoma and Seattle, the company’s plan rests on a federal lawsuit against the Port of Longview, arguing that nothing mandates which workforce does this type of labor. EGT has something on its side, as the judge in the case was appointed by former President George W. Bush. 

“The Port of Longview shares blame for the bad lease,” Coffman said, adding that in 2009 the company was able to write the terms of the agreement because the port was so hungry for new business in the wake of the financial crisis. “EGT wants the court to decide its fate.”

Contract negotiations began in 2010 and began to break apart in March of this year, Coffman explained, when EGT put forth two demands that workers deemed outright unacceptable. One, the company would have imposed a shift-schedule with several 12-hour days distributed throughout the workweek in such a way that there wouldn’t be a minute of overtime pay. Two, the company insisted the master console, the worker who controls the flow of grain, be a management title. The move to take this job out of the bargaining unit is telling: the company doesn’t want the union to have access to critical choke point to production. 

The ILWU is a militant union whose history finds its roots in the iconic labor leader Harry Bridges. A refuge for communists and other radicals during the Cold War when other American unions fell in line with McCarthyism, the ILWU has a much more rough-and-tumble image these days than the east-coast International Longshoremen’s Association.

But, Coffman said that in addition to receiving support from longshore workers up and down the west coast and around the world, the union has heard from ILA locals in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. 

Strikers have been depicted by the company and in local media as an unruly mob bent solely on creating anarchy. Picketers have been arrested for attempting to block freight trains coming into the port. Coffman said this is only half the story, as he said police had wrongly attacked many of the strikers, including two members who tried to help a female picketer who was being pinned down by an officer. 

“Who has initiated the violence?” he asked. ‘The police force.” 

Strikes are trying affairs, even when the members know they are in the right. Coffman, like many longshore workers in the area, was born into the union, and the last major picket action he can remember having to weather was a lockout in the 1970s. He recalls being on a diet of cheap noodles for nearly three months. He still can’t eat spaghetti to this day.

But he said that the solidarity in the EGT picket has remained strong. The local has a robust strike fund, he insisted, and the union’s office has been converted into a food pick-up center for strikers. 

“It’s three Goliath’s and we’re David,” he said of the EGT, which has three principle owners. “I’m very proud."