Image: Port of Seattle, Wash., at a standstill.
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Cranes are at a standstill Thursday as they loom over full container ships in the Port of Seattle, Wash. Longshoremen who run cranes and the rest of the port walked off the job in a labor dispute over rights to work at a Longview, Wash., port.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/8/2011 8:10:15 PM ET 2011-09-09T00:10:15

A federal judge ordered union protesters to stop using illegal tactics Thursday as they battle for the right to work at a new grain terminal in Washington state.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton issued a preliminary injunction to restrict union activity, saying there was no defense for the aggressive tactics used in recent days. Protesters twice blocked the pathway of a train carrying grain to the terminal at the Port of Longview on Wednesday, and early Thursday morning about 500 of them stormed the facility, overwhelmed guards, dumped grain and broke windows, police said.

The dispute halted work at four other Washington ports, including Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Anacortes on Thursday as hundreds of longshoremen refused to show up or walked off the job.

Leighton said he felt like a paper tiger because the International Longshore and Warehouse Union clearly ignored a temporary restraining order he issued last week with similar limits. He said he now wants to hold a hearing to determine whether the union should be held in civil contempt.

"The regard for the law is absent here," the judge said. "Somebody is going to be hurt seriously."

The ILWU believes it has the right to work at the Longview facility, but the company has hired a contractor that's staffing a less costly workforce of laborers from the Portland-based Operating Engineers Local 701. Representatives of the engineers union did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

A photograph circulating on the Internet of ILWU President Bob McElrath in Longview police custody Wednesday may have spurred the dispute's spread, said Craig Merrilees, union spokesman.

"I think in the minds of many members that may have been a motivating factor," he said.

On Thursday, six guards were held hostage for a couple of hours after Longshoremen broke down Longview gates about 4:30 a.m. PT (7:30 a.m. ET) and smashed windows in the guard shack, said Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha.

No one was hurt, and nobody has been arrested.

Most of the protesters returned to their union hall after cutting brake lines and spilling grain from car at the EGT Terminal, Duscha said.

'Only the start'
Police from several agencies in southwest Washington, the Washington State Patrol and Burlington Northern Santa Fe responded to the scene.

"We're not surprised," Duscha said. "A lot of the protesters were telling us this is only the start."

"The guards absolutely could not get out," Duscha said. "They feared for their lives because of the size of the crowd and the hostility of the crowd."

One sergeant was threatened with baseball bats and retreated, Duscha said.

"One officer with hundreds of Longshoremen? He used the better part of discretion," he said.

The train was the first grain shipment to arrive at Longview.

Image: A man stands near railroad tracks during union protest in Vancouver, Wash.
Don Ryan  /  AP
A man, who refused to identify himself, stands near railroad tracks while a train moves forward as a crowd of union workers and supporters gather at a crossing in Vancouver, Wash. Wednesday.

The protesters in Longview have portrayed themselves as being on the front line in the struggle for jobs and benefits among American workers in an economic downturn. But while union strife has flared up around the country — most notably in Wisconsin — the aggressive tactics seen in Longview have been a rarity in recent labor disputes.

Labor activists insist that after receiving tax breaks and promising to create well-paying jobs at the new $200 million terminal, EGT initially tried to staff the terminal with nonunion workers. Following a series of protests by the Longshore workers this year, the company announced it would hire a contractor staffed by workers from a different union.

"Today, the ILWU took its criminal activity against EGT to an appalling level, including engaging in assault and significant property destruction," the company's chief executive, Larry Clarke, said in a written statement. "This type of violent attack at the export terminal has been condemned by a federal court, and we fully support prosecution of this criminal behavior to the fullest extent under the law."

'Importing low-wage workforce'
NBC-affiliate KGW reported Wednesday that the National Labor Relations Board had previously concluded that ILWU's Local 21 had engaged in unfair labor practices.

The NLRB said that on July 25 union protesters had spit on vehicles of competing union workers and threatened them with death, KGW reported. Some workers at the plant were attacked, the NLRB said in a report.

ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent told KGW that the labor board's description of events included untrue allegations.

"EGT took workers' hard-earned tax dollars hand-over-fist to build their facility," McEllrath said, according to KGW, "then they betrayed those same workers by importing a low-wage workforce from out of the region and left local people unemployed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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