Port of Anacortes contract fight expands

Community members put up a picket line which shut down loading operations.

Community members put up a picket line which shut down loading operations.

Hundreds of visitors attending the Port of Anacortes “Bier on the Pier” festival and “Floating Boat Show” in early October encountered a giant banner with a hard-hitting message: “Port of Anacortes: blowing your tax dollars, unfair to maintenance workers, accountability now!”

The banner and public outreach materials were distributed by a dozen Port workers, local community members, supporters from ILWU Local 25, the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 191, Carpenters Local 756, plus staff and volunteers from “We Do the Work” radio. Visitors attending the events showed concern about problems being raised by Port workers. Hundreds accepted leaflets explaining how maintenance workers at the Port are trying to keep things running safely and smoothly – while Port bureaucrats are breaking labor laws and wasting public funds.

Last November, the Port’s maintenance workers voted to join ILWU Local 25. They made their decision after facing years of mismanagement and abusive treatment from Port supervisors.

Instead of honoring the workers’ decision and cooperating with employees, managers ordered workers to attend mandatory meetings with Port executives who threatened union= supporters for wearing ILWU buttons. The Port workers held their ground.

“We refused to be intimidated, stood up together for respect, and voted to form our union after the managers illegally threatened us,” said Mike Wray, a Port maintenance employee.

The Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) ruled in September that Port management acted improperly and outside the law. “The State validated what workers and community members have been saying publicly for= months now,” said Dave Bost, one of several maintenance workers who was threatened by Port managers.

After winning their union election, maintenance workers began to seek afair contract – while management continued violating the law.

Port managers illegally changed the employees’ health plan; eliminated parking options for maintenance workers and obstructed union testimony before state investigators – by allowing a management witnesses to stay on the clock while Local 25 members were forced to use vacation, unpaid or comp time to testify in a PERC hearing over illegal management activity.

Port administrators recently admitted to a local newspaper that they’ve spent over $50,000 in public funds so far on private lawyers to negotiate a simple contract with employees. As of November, community members estimate that the Port’s legal fees are approaching $100,000.

During the summer and fall months, union and community members packed six separate Port Commission meetings to offer public support and solidarity for the Local 25 maintenance workers. Supporters criticized the anti-union tactics used by managers and demanded more accountability from the Commission. Speakers included members of the IBU, Pacific Coast Pensioners Association, Skagit Valley Labor Democrats, Carpenters Locals 70 and 756, Fire Fighters Local 1537, WA State Council of Fire Fighters, IBEW Local 191, Laborers Local 292, and SEIU Local 925. Letters of support for the maintenance workers were sent to the Commission by officials from ILWU Canada, Steel Workers 12-591 and WA State Representative Kristine Lytton.

Despite hearing strong support from the public, the Commissioners decided to played defense and do some damage control by inviting the Port’s Executive Director and lawyer to testify at length in late September. The duo downplayed management’s violations and offered misinformation about working conditions and the contract talks.

Union members and supporters decided it was time to take the fight outside the hearing room, launching public leaflet actions and banner displays at major Port events during the first week of October.

“Someone has to hold management accountable,” said Tyler Ashbach, a Business Agent for ILWU Local 25. “If the elected Port Commissioners won’t do it, then it’s up to Port workers and our Anacortes community.”

Community members set up a picket line on October 2nd at the Port’s main industrial loading operation. ILWU Local 25 Longshore members honored it, delaying the transfer of industrial coke onto a barge at the pier. This was the second time that Longshore members recognized a picket line, following a similar incident in July.

At the October 2 Port Commission meeting, Commissioner Keith Rubin stated, “I believe we have a problem here at the Port of Anacortes.” He noted that “workers who feel like they’re getting a fair deal don’t organize a new Port bargaining unit.”

Similar concerns were echoed by lifelong Anacortes resident Tom Montgomery, a retired 35-year Shell Oil refinery worker. “I’ve always been proud of the Port and always supported your mission of producing and supporting new and long-time family wage-jobs—that is, until now,” he told Commissioners. “I’m appalled at the actions of the Port Director and his assistant during the last several months, specifically where it concerns their handling of the so-called ‘ongoing negotiations.”

Local 19 member Rich Austin, Jr. also testified at the hearing, noting his experience as a volunteer who is helping the Port workers with their contract negotiations. “There’s been avoidance to bargain by the Port, based on the schedule of their attorney,” he said, explaining how workers have made many lengthy trips to accommodate the schedule of the Port’s expensive private attorney. “We’re serious about getting a contract and are willing to drive there,” adding that the Commission should get more involved to help reach a resolution.

Commissioner Rubin directed his final comments on the Port management. “We have a culture where we treat our local ILWU folks like a necessary evil rather than a partner, and I think that needs to change…I think that needs to change at the top,” he said.

Port worker Tyler Ashbach said he was pleased to hear productive comments coming from the Commissioners, and believes it indicates “we are on the right track” thanks to solidarity and community support.

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