Grain exporter EGT and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union continue to cry out for clarity over the union’s contention that EGT is bound by a working agreement with Washington’s Port of Longview to hire ILWU labor. The case, however, seems to be getting murkier.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton issued a ruling on Oct. 7 indicating a working agreement between the ILWU and the Port of Longview clearly specifies the use of ILWU labor. However, Judge Leighton said the legality of that working agreement must be determined.
He said he could rule on the legality of the agreement, but it might be better if a labor arbitrator makes that determination. Even that statement is not as clear as it might seem.
The ILWU and the employer organization with which it negotiates contracts, the Pacific Maritime Association, have in place an arbitration process that is used frequently to resolve disputes.
Under the arbitration process, either labor or management can file a complaint with an area arbitrator. There are four area arbitrators on the West Coast, in Seattle-Tacoma, Portland, Oakland and Los Angeles-Long Beach. The arbitrators are chosen jointly by the PMA and the ILWU. Either party can appeal the decision of the local arbitrator to the coast arbitrator in San Francisco. The coast arbitrator’s word is final. This process has stood the test of time.
While the other half-dozen grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest are PMA members and use ILWU labor, start-up operator EGT in Longview is not a member of the PMA. It is therefore unlikely that EGT would want to work through the PMA-ILWU arbitration process.
Frank Randolph, an attorney representing the Port of Longview, said Judge Leighton’s reference to a labor arbitrator could mean the National Labor Relations Board, which is also involved in this case. However, under the NLRB process, the matter would go first to an administrative law judge, and Randolph surmised that if the judge were suggesting an administrative law judge, he would have said so.
The issue of the legality of the working agreement between the ILWU and the port is crucial to this case. EGT contends the working agreement is not legal and therefore the company is not bound by it. The ILWU said it is perfectly legal and confirms its jurisdiction in Longview.
The only certainty in this legal squabble is that Judge Leighton instructed the parties to file their written briefs with his court by Oct. 17. The judge may then set a date for oral arguments, or he may decide to issue a ruling without listening to oral testimony.
Meanwhile, grain is piling up at the terminal. EGT has received three trainloads of grain since summer. ILWU picketers attempted to block the first two BNSF Railway trains. Some of its members and their supporters were arrested in the process. The ILWU let the third shipment through without incident.
On Oct. 6, Judge Leighton fined the ILWU international union and Local 21 a total of $250,000 for contempt of an earlier court restraining order. The union was cited for damages to the EGT facility and the BNSF trains and was told to pay for law enforcement costs surrounding incidents of violence at the facility.
In recent weeks, the ILWU has continued to picket peacefully at the terminal and has kept the pickets limited to the number specified in the court order, ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said.
EGT has stated it intends to continue receiving grain at the terminal, and it will begin export operations when the grain reaches a certain level, but it is uncertain when that might be.
The ILWU also held out an olive branch to EGT, suggesting the parties let bygones be bygones and sit down together to resolve the situation. The union continues to remind EGT, a joint venture of several international companies led by grain giant Bunge, that the ILWU has been the West Coast’s sole supplier of waterfront labor since 1934.
There are only a few dozen potential union jobs at stake in Longview, but the importance of this matter to the West Coast waterfront is huge. The ILWU has drawn a line in the sand and said it will not allow EGT to become the first grain operator on the coast to circumvent the use of ILWU labor. EGT stated it does not want to be bound by the restrictive and costly work rules of the ILWU.