One of the West Coast's most powerful trade unions is in a high-stakes fight over who runs a state-of-the-art grain terminal in southwest Washington. Allegations of "union busting" and "illegal activity" are at the heart of a conflict at the Port of Longview.
In the middle of a July night, throngs of people lined train tracks at the Port of Longview and blocked a trainload of grain.
"The night of that blockage, it was a thousand people probably, close to it," says Dan Coffman president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21.
Because of the blockade, the brand-new terminal hasn't fully opened and grain shipments have gone to other ports. Dozens of union members have been arrested this summer. The target of all this activity is EGT – the company that owns the terminal.
Union president Dan Coffman, "I look at it as they're trying to bust a union. Everybody knows the ILW is one of the strongest unions in the United States, and I believe the attack's on."
EGT argues that the union is blocking commerce that could boost the regional economy. EGT president Larry Clarke says the grain terminal is capable of processing up to nine million tons of grain a year. That's almost twice what the Port of Portland did last year.
"We have the ability to unload a rail unit train – which is about 110 cars - in about four hours. That is something that is much, much faster than any facility up and down the Columbia River."
EGT broke ground on the facility, two years ago. It was the first new West Coast grain terminal in nearly three decades. It sparked hopes that its success would raise all boats – including the fortunes of local longshoremen, like Dan Coffman.
"I think everybody was optimistic, I mean the whole community was optimistic, the Port of Longview was optimistic. We were led to believe all along that this was going to be good for everybody," Coffman said.
After a year and a half of talks, though, EGT and the Longshoremen couldn't reach an agreement.
Both sides point to two issues. One is who controls the brains of the terminal. Union president Dan Coffman says his members should run the master console.
"You have a person in the master console that controls the flow of grain, whether it's unloading a railcar, loading a ship, unloading a truck. They did not want any ILW member in the master console, they wanted it to be strictly supervision. We are in the master console – that's where we've been for a long time. We've worked these elevators since 1934, and we've always been in that master console."
The two sides also clashed over work schedules. And EGT head, Larry Clarke says the company blanched at a $20 per man-hour premium the union wanted to cover pensions.
"That is a significant figure. EGT did not create the multi-billion dollar shortfall in the ILW's pension, and should not be responsible for filling that funding gap."
Now, both sides are crying foul.
Coffman says EGT is violating the port's lease agreement that puts cargo work in the hands of the Longshoremen.
EGT is instead working through a contractor called General Construction, to bring in a different union - the Operating Engineers.
That’s a sore point with Longshoremen, including retirees – like Arnie Auvinen.
"We been here in Longview for over 80 years, as a local. This has been our job and it should belong to us. We don't go out and say, go take a job away from the hoisting engineers out there on some construction site. We stay on the waterfront and try to defend our jobs," Auvinen said.
Nelda Wilson with the engineers' union sees it differently.
"We don't have a relationship with EGT. Our relationship is only with our contractor, General Construction."
The questions over the lease are now in federal court in Washington.
EGT has its own legal complaints.
"We believe the ILW's illegal campaign of threats and violence is hurting the local economy," EGT president Larry Clarke says. It's not just protests and train blockades. Clark says at least once, the union has intentionally slowed the cargo belonging to an EGT partner.
"We know that they have used this tactic on one of our partners, that actually cost the partner money. The tactic has been used and it was used in an attempt to coerce EGT to sign this unfavorable contract."
ILW leaders deny Clarke's allegation. Local president Dan Coffman says the union's problem is with EGT. But he thinks the two sides could work something out.
"If you look at this place, you can see it's probably pretty close to operational. You know, this could be an easy fix. It really could be, if they just come back to the table and respect our jurisdiction. This is what we've done for 80-plus years around here. We load ships. We work in the elevators – that's what we've done. We believe that that is our work. And we are not going to go away in this battle."
EGT says the union’s tactics are the only obstacle to running the terminal. There's a big wheat harvest expected out of Washington this fall. Shippers say they got the grain out before EGT's terminal came along, and can meet demand without it.