Picket Lines At Kaiser Aluminum

United Steelworkers On Strike


By: Michael Pellegrini


The decision to tell your boss adios and go grab a picket sign is one of the hardest, gut-wrenching, most traumatic events any employee will ever have to face in their whole life. It's the sort of decision that can only be made after the most exhaustive deliberation. Because in a strike, you're laying it all on the line, putting your principles above the prospect of an immediate paycheck; sacrificing your own economic stability against the abstract possibility of future gains; and you're putting the welfare of your fellow union members before your own personal welfare.


Members of the United Steelworkers of America employed by Kaiser Aluminum were recently faced with this decision. Following a breakdown in negotiations, the Kaiser workers chose to go out on strike on October 1, 1998. The strike affects 3,100 workers at five different locations, including two plants in Spokane, as well as plants in Gramercy, LA; Newark, OH; and Tacoma.


Playing against the stereotypes, the Kaiser workers appear to be fighting a holding action more than anything else.


In the early eighties, when many similar smokestack industries were going bankrupt, Kaiser Aluminum was able to negotiate some quite substantial concessions from the Steelworkers union in order to stay afloat. This was possible mainly due to the good relations Kaiser had with its employees at the time. These concessions were worth millions of dollars.


But according to the union, this was supposed to be temporary - implicit in the deal was an understanding that when profitability returned, the workers parity with the employees at the other big aluminum producers, Reynolds and Alcoa, would be restored - their wages and benefits would again be comparable to those workers.


Over the next fifteen years, Kaiser slowly regained profitability. But while the company turned itself around, it hasn't shared this bonanza with its employees. The wages and benefits of the Kaiser employees still fall considerably short of those working for Reynolds and Alcoa.


So, when the union members went into negotiations hoping to recapture some of the past concessions, they were dismayed to find that instead, the company wanted even more givebacks.


Among the company's 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.


From the onset, Kaiser appeared to be preparing for a strike - advertisements for strikebreakers appeared in newspapers well before the start of negotiations. When local negotiations finally started - one month late due to delays by Kaiser - rather than work round the clock till an agreement was reached, the Kaiser management team insisted on taking four-day weekends. According to the union, the company presented their demands with a cavalier, take it or leave it attitude that suggested they were attempting to actually provoke a strike.


As a legal response, the union filed unfair labor practice charges against the company for failure to bargain in good faith. These charges are being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board.


Since the strike started, the company has managed to keep the Tacoma plant operating to some degree, using management employees, a few retirees and strikebreakers brought in from out of state. The exact level of production attained by the composite work force has been debated. According to Steelworkers Union Local President, Bob Marsden, "If the plant's running at the capacity Kaiser says it is, apparently they've learned to smelt aluminum without making smoke."


The strikebreakers themselves have been the target of complaints by the union. Under state law, a company may not contract with a third party to bring strikebreakers in from out of state. The union charges that an Ohio based company, International Management Assistance Corporation, recruited strikebreakers from other states. The strikebreakers are housed in trailers at the Kaiser site on Taylor Way.


In an effort to cover this illegality, Kaiser is reported to be converting the strikebreakers to direct Kaiser employees. The union has filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries, which is studying the charges to decide if they have jurisdiction.


Hopefully, Labor and Industries will assume jurisdiction. And if it is found that Kaiser's actions were illegal, then they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They shouldn't be able to commit crimes with impunity.


The Kaiser workers should have our support. While it's difficult to assess blame in a complex situation like this, the record strongly suggests that there may be credence to the union's claims of unfair treatment.