Legal Reckoning Ahead For EGT Dispute

The contentious and sometimes violent dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the EGT grain export terminal in Longview, Wash., may reach an important legal milestone this week. Or it may not.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton in Tacoma told the ILWU and EGT he would issue a ruling this week on both parties’ request for a summary judgment in the crucial legal issue in the case.

That issue is whether EGT’s lease with the Port of Longview stipulates that the company must employ ILWU labor at its terminal. The union and the port argue that the port’s working agreement with the ILWU is clearly incorporated into the lease. EGT argues the working agreement is clearly not incorporated into the lease agreement.

Judge Leighton, in a public statement at the weekend, said there is nothing clear at all about the lease between EGT and the Port of Longview. He indicated it was obvious the port and EGT in 2010 were so anxious to get the terminal project up and running that they signed a lease agreement that is “murky.”

The judge will have three options this week as he ponders his decision. He can issue a summary judgment in favor of the ILWU. He can rule in favor of EGT, or he can deny both parties’ request for a summary judgment and let the case proceed to trial on April 23, 2012.

Meanwhile, grain is slowly being loaded into the $200 million elevator and the day when the first vessel will arrive, though still uncertain, is drawing closer. Another BNSF train carrying grain to the terminal arrived on Thursday, without incident. An EGT spokesman said grain will continue to be loaded into the terminal and allowed to settle. EGT will test its operations, and when the time is right, a vessel will be called for loading to a foreign destination.

The ILWU this past week has been the model of the cooperative labor union. ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said the union is adhering to its agreement to post no more than 16 picketers at the terminal. The union allowed the BNSF train last week to enter the facility untouched.

ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet indicated it was time to let bygones be bygones and for EGT Chief Executive Officer Larry Clarke to sit down with ILWU President Robert McEllrath and reach an agreement. “That meeting needs to happen sooner rather than later,” Sundet said.

That more than 100 ILWU members and supporters have been arrested since July, and that Judge Leighton penalized the ILWU $250,000 and set prospective penalties for the union, officers and individual members for any future illegal actions might appear to be incentive enough for the ILWU to call for a spirit of cooperation.

However, that is probably not the case. The ILWU is determined not to allow EGT to break its 77-year history of exclusive jurisdiction at West Coast ports. Jurisdiction from Seattle to San Diego is the source of its strength, its leverage in contract negotiations and the reason why it is one of the most successful unions in the U.S. The couple of dozen ILWU jobs at stake at the highly automated facility are peanuts compared to a failure to protect its jurisdiction.

EGT is likewise adamant that it needs the flexibility to control every operation at the terminal without having to adjust to the ILWU’s restrictive work rules. It’s not purely a matter of money because ILWU wages are not that much higher than those of the International Union of Operating Engineers workers now manning the facility. In fact, if the dispute interferes with EGT’s ability to satisfy customer demand during the grain harvest now underway, its losses could be quite high.

If the lawsuit is not heard until next April, EGT will have to continue to fill the facility with grain and begin exporting the grain to Asia. That will entail a good deal of risk as well as costly security efforts.

Furthermore, the ILWU in the past has been able to call upon its close connections with dock worker unions in Asia and Australia to elicit sympathy job actions against vessels arriving from the West Coast.

Merrilees was coy in his analysis of what might happen when the first vessel loads. His response was, “The ILWU has a long history of solidarity and mutual support and good international relations.”

-- Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @billmongelluzzo.

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