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Union Dispute, Turning Violent, Spreads and Idles Ports

The busy ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., were shut down on Thursday as an increasingly violent dispute between unionized port workers and the owner of a grain export terminal in Longview, Wash., spilled over to the other facilities.

About 500 longshoremen stormed the new $200 million terminal in Longview before sunrise Thursday, carrying baseball bats, smashing windows, damaging rail cars and dumping tons of grain from the cars, police and company officials said.Later in the day, more than 1,000 other longshoremen shut down the ports of Seattle and Tacoma by not coming to work.

Officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, while claiming they had not authorized the actions in Seattle and Tacoma, said the ports would reopen on Friday. Members of the union are livid that the Longview terminal’s owner, EGT, is seeking to export grain without reaching an agreement with the union. Instead, EGT hired a contractor that uses workers from another union.

“It’s certainly getting more and more violent,” said Jim Duscha, police chief of Longview, a small community almost 40 miles down the Columbia River from Vancouver, Wash. “The terminal’s security guards were outnumbered by people with baseball bats. People were busting windows out of the guard shack. They took a security guard out of his rig and drove it into a ditch.”

The violence was condemned by EGT, which is a joint venture of Bunge, based in St. Louis; Itochu International of Japan; and STX Pan Ocean of South Korea.

“Today, the I.L.W.U. took its criminal activity against EGT to an appalling level, including engaging in assault and significant property destruction,” Larry Clarke, EGT’s chief executive, said Thursday. The longshoremen’s actions were a rare show of union militancy, reminiscent of labor actions a century ago. The West Coast longshoremen’s union asserted that it neither called for nor organized the actions.

“It’s a wildcat and it’s unsanctioned,” said Craig Merrilees, the union’s chief spokesman. “Workers did not show up to work today at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Piecing things together, it appears that folks voted with their feet and stood by their conscience to send a message and express concern about what’s happened in Longview.”

If the union did coordinate the actions by the workers, it could be found in contempt of a temporary restraining order issued last week that prohibits the Longview union local from blocking entrances to the EGT terminal.

On Thursday afternoon, Judge Ronald Leighton of United States District Court in Tacoma held a hearing in which he expanded the restraining order to cover other longshoremen’s locals in Washington State. He also turned the temporary order into a preliminary injunction.

Judge Leighton had issued the original restraining order at the request of the National Labor Relations Board, which said that the longshoremen’s union was engaged in unfair labor practices and improperly harassing workers at the EGT terminal.

Judge Leighton told the union’s lawyers on Thursday that there was a peaceful way to protest. “It requires some restraint,” he said. “Your clients have none of that.” “They have to obey local laws,” he added. “They must restrain themselves from violence, threats, vandalism and the like.”

The judge scheduled another hearing for Thursday to determine whether the longshoremen should be held in civil contempt for violating the court’s temporary restraining order. Officials at the Tacoma and Seattle ports confirmed that they were closed on Thursday, delaying huge shipments, because the longshoremen did not show up.

The train that was damaged in Thursday morning’s violence arrived at the terminal on Wednesday night after police arrested 19 protesters who tried to block the tracks. In the union’s view, EGT is violating a longstanding agreement with the Port of Longview that the union says requires companies leasing facilities there to negotiate a labor agreement with the longshoremen’s union.

Matthew Beck, an EGT spokesman, said that the company had sought to negotiate an agreement, but that the union’s pension demands were too expensive.

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