Neighboring occupiers help Longview on December 12
Originally posted at D12 Action in Longview Washington
By Loretta Marie Long
On the morning of the West Coast Port Shutdown in Longview, Washington, not one longshoreman tried to cross a picket line filled with nearly 125 Occupy protesters. After ILWU International President Robert McEllrath wrote letters proclaiming the ILWU did not support the West Coast Port Shutdown, main-stream media described ill feelings between rank and file ILWU workers and Occupy members. Some news reports suggested that protesters might get roughed up or longshoremen might force their way through picket lines to get to work. But in Longview, Washington such fearful scenarios were only imaginary.
At around 7:30 am, a line of ILWU Local 21 workers drove past Weyerhaeusers’ log yard stacked high with Washington timber and headed toward the port terminal for their 8 am shift, more than likely curious if they would be able to make it to work or not. After driving under the Lewis and Clark Bridge and around the corner, the scene longshoremen discovered at the port gate undoubtedly warmed their hearts: close to 125 community and out-of-town protesters, bundled in scarves, hats and hoodies against the bitter cold, danced and marched clockwise around the port terminal entry. The protesters' voices bounced off the bridge foundation as they echoed chants magnified through a bullhorn.“Occupy. . . Shut it Down. . . Longview is a Union Town” followed by “Union rights are under attack. . . What do we do? . . . Stand up. . . Fight back.”
In the circle, protesters ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens could be seen next to men wearing plaid or denim jackets with union letters on the back. Members of both labor and Occupy movements were marching shoulder to shoulder.
For the last six months, longshore workers had manned twenty-four hour picket tents outside Export Grain Terminal’s chain link fence, so they looked happy to see so many enthusiastic supporters. In response to the activists who were trying to shut down their port for the day, longshoremen honked and waved or quietly headed back to the union hall to wait for arbitrators to facilitate an agreement between the Port of Longview, ILWU, and The Pacific Maritime Association, ILWU’s employer for all of the shipping companies. At around 9 am, when a decision was made to shut down the Port of Longview because the protest had become “a health and safety hazard,” instead of going home, more than twenty port workers and their family members came back to watch the protest.
Even though longshore workers couldn’t represent their union in the protest, it was very clear occupiers were there partly to support ILWU workers in their fight against union-busting by EGT, a multi-national grain transport company that recently built a 200-million-dollar grain terminal on property leased to them by the Port of Longview. According to nwLaborPress and The Stand, in exchange for substandard wharfage and docking fees and substandard tax rates, EGT promised 200 jobs to local construction workers and 50 permanent jobs for longshore workers after the terminal was built. Instead of keeping their promises, however, project managers brought in out-of state and foreign workers to construct the terminal and paid laborers substandard wages. After the terminal was built, EGT representatives left negotiations with longshore workers and hired Operating Engineers Local 701 to do ILWU Local 21’s work.
Bill Proctor, a Longshore Union (ILWU) retiree, told Labor Notes in September “If that facility is allowed to go non-ILWU, other facilities will be tempted to follow suit. And the grain terminals on the coast are all going into contract bargaining next month.”
Vigorous, persistent protests fighting EGT’s labor violations brought heavy fines to ILWU. And now longshoremen aren't allowed to protest the third-party scab workers EGT hired because all 50,000 longshore workers on the West Coast have an injunction against them. They are not to interfere in any way with grain transport by blocking trains or workers. They are only allowed up to sixteen pickets outside EGT’s gates at any one time.
Kim Swart said that she showed up at the protest because her father, ILWU retiree Don Talbot, had worked on the docks driving crane since Swart was a young child. “I’m here trying to keep unions going, here to make sure we still have a middle class,” she said. “Being a longshoreman isn’t just a job—everyone’s family. We’re close-knit. We all jump in and fight for each other when we need to.” She said that unions are important to the entire community. “The mills and other businesses wouldn’t get the benefits they get if they didn’t have to keep up with the longshoremen’s wages and benefits.” She sat just to the side of the circling protesters holding a sign reading “Evil Global Takeover.”
Earlier that morning at 6:30 am, before the march started, a local activist and retired high-school history teacher stood on the frost-bitten sidewalk at the corner of Longview’s Industrial Way and Fifteenth Avenue. Larry Wagle whooped and yelled as he banged a three-foot wide metal sign reading “Help The Longshoremen” in large black letters. Wagle’s curly, thick white hair blew in the wind each time a semi truck drove by only a few feet away. He said he’s been participating in protests for working people since 1967 when he began standing up and organizing farm workers. These days, in Longview, Wagle can often be seen fighting corporate greed outside Walmart parking lots with huge signs and a bullhorn.
Next to Wagle, fifteen or twenty other protesters also carried signs with messages ranging from “It’s BeGGining to look a lot like Oligarchy” lit up by four Christmas lights to “Corporations are not people,” and “People are too big to fail!”
Bernadette O'Brien, a Longview resident who works with developmentally disabled adults in Columbia County, said she wasn’t at all fearful of attending the protest. “In a small town, cops are not the enemy. They’re part of the community. The only thing to be afraid of is frostbite!” She said she wasn’t a member of a union but she was attending the protest because funding for the most vulnerable citizens—the disabled, the elderly, those with mental health problems—is being severely cut. “I’m here because the rich guys won’t pay their fair share of taxes,” she said.
Zach, a young man wearing a bandana across his face, who didn't want to reveal his last name, had been living in Portland’s Occupy encampment for several months before they were evicted. In the pre-dawn light, he was serving free steaming coffee to the protesters. “Did you read in the paper that during the Portland eviction they were serving free champagne? That was us: Rumorz coffee.” He said that living with Occupy Portland was the most exciting community-building experience he’d ever lived through. “But it’s been a lot more difficult since the eviction because cops trashed all of our camping gear. I’ve been having to couch surf.” He came home to Longview for the December 12 event, he said, because “Something was actually happening in Longview! I couldn’t miss it.”
“I’m here to show support for longshoremen who are fighting EGT’s union busting and port truckers who are trying to unionize” said Scott Gibson, President of Laborers 483, a union that represents Portland Oregon’s municipal employees. He’d been up since 4:30 am and taken the bus from a Vancouver Park and Ride.
Wyatt McMinn, Vice President of Portland’s Painters and Tapers Local 10, said he was really excited to be on the bus with the protesters who had come up from Portland “Our local is in total solidarity with what is going on in Longview,” he said. “When the rich guys come after us, we have to show them we have the power to shut them down.”
While a dozen or so protestors stood on the street corner, more than a hundred protesters stood in the darkened gravel parking lot behind Ozzie’s Car and RV Wash. In the shadows, more protesters climbed off a yellow school bus to huddle around organizers and receive instructions while waiting for the march to begin.
Paul Nipper, one of the organizers for Longview’s D-12 action, had intentionally given local news media vague information hoping to prevent the Cowlitz County Sheriff from needlessly calling in extra riot police officers from Seattle. Occupy organizers feared an over-reaction by police because earlier this year, on September 7th , when nearly 400 ILWU members and supporters stood on railroad tracks trying to stop a train loaded with grain from reaching EGT’s terminal, 50 riot police were called in. According to David Groves, writing for The Stand, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath had been arrested, “escalating tensions between protesters and officers. In the confrontation that ensued, police beat protesters away with clubs and pepper spray. “
According to court documents titled “Recall of Mark Nelson Response from ILWU International and Local 21," in the months following the September 7th incident, police officers followed and harassed local longshore workers. In one incident, a police officer yanked a longshoreman from his car, by the hair, “without asking him to get out of his car even though his charge was 2nd degree trespassing and the officer was not in danger.” Another longshoreman was thrown to the ground in front of his child’s daycare center.
In another incident listed in the response, a secretary for ILWU Local 21 reported having police spotlights shined into her bedroom window for several hours one night and her door busted down the next morning. A minister and longshore worker for ILWU 92 was arrested in front of all of his children while sitting down to breakfast. During another protest, where nine women from the ILWU Women’s Auxiliary sat down on railroad tracks to prevent a train carrying grain from reaching EGT, a police officer twisted the arm of a longshore workers’ mother so hard that he damaged her rotator cuff. A video circulated via Facebook shows longshoremen, who had been peacefully standing on the sidelines, try to stop the police officers from brutalizing their wives and mothers. In the video, police officers throw both longshoremen to the ground, smashing their faces into gravel. While kneeling into the back of one longshoreman’s knee, a police officer aggressively bends it. Even after the men are detained, one police officer can be seen shaking a canister of pepper spray before forcibly spraying the oil-based chemical into the eyes of one of the longshore workers.
Even though police stopped harassing local longshore workers after the recall effort was started, the videos of police brutality and the verbal reports of police officers’ behavior had many Occupy Longview protesters worried about the safety of the hundreds of protesters expected to arrive in Longview from Astoria, Portland, Vancouver and Bellingham. Occupy Longview organizers feared state police officers brought in from larger cities might be more likely to escalate a peaceful protest into a day filled with fear and violence.
After watching news reports showing confrontations between Occupy protesters and police across the country, many protesters marching around the Port of Longview terminal entry voiced surprise at seeing only one police car nearby. A uniformed police officer waited patiently in the gravel lot across the street from the terminal entrance. Most occupiers from Portland had seen rows of riot police at their recent evictions so the trust shown to activists with minimal policing was heartening.
“I’m happy today not to see where my kids’ education money gets needlessly spent,” Nipper said. “I’m happy not to see the riot gear, the weapons.”
Both Paul Nipper and his wife Amanda seemed thrilled by the successful and very peaceful protest. Amanda Nipper had been working tirelessly for the last three weeks while trying to help organize the protest. “It was like a second job,” she said. In addition to writing press releases, meeting minutes, and handouts for the protest, over the last week she’d been participating in two-hour conference calls every other day with Occupy organizers up and down the West Coast. At first, both organizers were worried they might not have enough people to pull off an effective protest. Since the Occupy Longview movement is just getting started, the twenty enthusiastic members showing up at meetings didn't seem like enough people. “We put out a battle call for help from neighboring Occupies and everyone joined forces,” she said, adding, “I’m amazed. I’m proud of every single person that’s standing out here.”
“I’ve been waiting for this for twenty years,” said Dan Smith, a retired fifth-grade teacher who has devoted his life to social activism.
Photos by Loretta Marie Long