Angry longshore workers walked off the job Sept. 28 in ports up and down the West Coast protesting news that a Cowlitz County, Wash., jury found their international President Robert McEllrath guilty of a misdemeanor. The charges arose during the Sept. 7, 2011, struggle at the Longview, Wash., Export Grain Terminal when a train attempted to deliver Midwest corn to the new high-speed export facility without recognizing ILWU jurisdiction.
Hundreds of workers, family members and ILWU supporters objected to the unilateral action by the grain exporting giant. Then, a massive mobilization of the Occupy movement, united with rank-and-file union members, shut Oakland, Calif., ports on Nov. 2 and West Coast ports on Dec. 12. The activists threatened to block any attempt to put the new terminal online without an agreement with the ILWU. A concessionary agreement took effect Feb. 15.
McEllrath’s first trial in June ended in a hung jury, but he was tried again. Eighty-nine days of the potential 90-day penalty were suspended. The judge sentenced McEllrath to one day in jail with $543 in fines and court costs. Further rank-and-file response may erupt when McEllrath is taken to jail.
The port job action came just days before the contract between the ILWU and four companies that own six Pacific Northwest grain terminals — global food giants Cargill, ADM, Louis Dreyfus and United Grain — was to expire on Oct. 1. The ILWU has agreed to work the grain facilities without a contract for two more weeks while negotiations continue. ILWU.org states, “Northwest ports accounts for between one-quarter to one-third of U.S. grain exports.” Contracts for International Longshoremen’s Association workers at East Coast ports also were to expire Oct. 1, but were extended 90 days for mediation.
The question facing port workers on both coasts — and every worker in between — is who will benefit from high-tech development? The workers and poor? Or the profit-hungry multinational corporations? ILWU.org points out that “big grain rakes it in while the poor go hungry.”