Kaiser Strike Enters Eighth Month

Strikers still confident


By Michael Pellegrini


“We’re coming up on eight months, and we’re strong. We’re still here,” said “Biker” Bob Dawson, a United Steel Workers Union member on strike against the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation.


Members of the Steel Workers Union went on strike against Kaiser on October 1, 1998. Affected by the strike are 3,100 workers at five different locations, including two plants in Spokane, as well as plants in Gramercy, LA; Newark, OH; and Tacoma.


The company has attempted to keep the plants in operation by bringing in strikebreakers from other states. But according to the union, these efforts have not been without problems.


Occupational Saftey and Health Administration (OSHA) data provided by the union shows the number of days of lost work at the Tacoma plant has risen from an average of 35 to 327 days per quarter – an 800% increase since the start of the strike. Minor injuries have skyrocketed from 3 to 58 per quarter (up 1,800%); more serious injuries involving time-loss or restricted duty have risen from 7 to 36 per quarter (a 400% increase).


According to the union, the strikebreakers Kaiser has hired are working 12 hour shifts, sometimes as much as six days per week. They say that and the fact that many of the replacement employees really haven’t been properly trained, contribute heavily to the high accident rates.


Kaiser has had other problems, as well. One of the more controversial aspects of the strike initially, was the move to have an Ohio company, International Management Assistance Corporation, recruit strikebreakers from out of state – which is against Washington state law. At present, the Washington Sate Patrol is investigating these allegations. According to Captain Eric Robertson of the State Patrol, “It’s an on-going criminal case. There’s nothing disclosable at this point.”


The strike has cost Kaiser in other ways, too. Last December, the state Department of Ecology fined the Tacoma Kaiser plant $37,200 for violating air-quality standards. At that time, Kaiser emitted an average of 18 pounds of particulate matter for each ton of aluminum it produced.


“Kaiser’s December emission was the highest monthly rate we’ve ever seen from the company in recent history,” said Cullen Stephenson, manager of Ecology’s solid-waste program. “We recognize there is an ongoing labor dispute at this plant, but the facility has an obligation to meet state environmental standards anytime it operates.”


Since the start of the strike last October, the union and Kaiser have been unable to work out a compromise that would allow the strikers to return to work. Among the company's original contract proposals were a call to eliminate at least 400 jobs, including 32 at the Tacoma plant; the right to contract out hundreds of more jobs; and the equivalent of a $.32 per hour wage increase - which is less than the current 3% annual inflation rate.


The union has made a number of back-to-work offers since the start of the strike. The company has uniformly rejected the proposals.


The parties just finished two days of negotiations which took place in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, last week. Union officials wouldn’t disclose any substantive details of the talks, but said they remained hopefull.


According to Dawson, “We’re to the point now where we’re asking how much longer this is going to go on.” He went on to say the financial and emotional strains on the strikers have been very heavy. But even so, he said the morale of the strikers remains high, and that very few of their members have crossed the picket lines to return to work. He also suggested that if necessary, they could stay on strike indefinitely. But he added, “We do want to go back to work.”


Talks between Kaiser and the union are slated to resume on May 24, 1999.


Company officials were unavailable for comment and failed to return repeated phone calls.