Steelworkers Ratify Agreement to Return to Kaiser After Bitter Labor Dispute Lasting Nearly Two Years

“The United Steelworkers of America announced last Friday that its 2,900 members at Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, including those at Tacoma and Spokane-area facilities, have ratified a tentative agreement guaranteeing an end to their 22 month labor dispute. Voting in five locations nationwide, members ratified the agreement by a 74 percent margin.This has been an epic struggle for our union and the labor and environmental movements in the Americas, said David Foster, Director of USWA District #11 and Chairman of the union’s Kaiser Negotiating Committee. We now know that whether through continued negotiations by mid-August or through interest arbitration by the end of September, our members will proudly march back to their jobs with a fair and equitable agreement. Without the incredible support of the labor movement in the Northwest and throughout the country and the inspirational support of environmental organizations and activists, this day would not have come.While we still have differences to negotiate with Kaiser, our fundamental goals of protecting retirees’ health insurance and improving our safeguards against contracting out our jobs have been achieved, Foster said. In addition, we have preserved our claim for potential back pay for the illegal action taken by Kaiser in locking out our members on January 14, 1999.The agreement ratified by union members ensures Kaiser and the USWA will continue to negotiate over remaining issues in dispute throughout July. If a complete agreement is not reached by that time, the parties will exchange last best offers on remaining disputed items and present them to veteran labor arbitrator Seymour Strongin during a one week hearing, August 21 through 25.Strongin will have 21 days to deliver a final and binding decision on remaining issues. A return to work process has already been agreed to that will include the displacement of all temporary workers hired by Kaiser during the labor dispute.The Kaiser steelworkers will long be remembered for their progressive and far-reaching alliance with environmentalists around the country, and particularly in Humboldt County, California, to bring corporate accountability to Kaiser’s parent corporation, Maxxam, Inc., Foster said. Kaiser steelworkers will also be remembered as the labor movement’s shock troops in the WTO protests that opened the eyes of the world to the linkage between trade and social issues.In my twenty-five years in the labor movement, I have seen few struggles contribute more to the growing awareness in our country of the need for Americans of conscience to bridge their differences and focus on building a global movement for economic justice, Foster said.Other provisions of the agreement agreed to by the USWA and Kaiser include a new expedited contracting out procedure and removal of a medical inflation cost cap through which Kaiser retirees’ would have been forced to pay increased costs of medical insurance starting January 1, 2001. Additionally, as part of the agreement Kaiser will immediately reinstate health insurance for all locked out workers and their families while final contract issues are in the process of being resolved.The interest arbitration agreement sets limits on what either party can ask in the August hearing.Neither party can retreat from its positions of June 30, 2000, Foster said. For instance, the wage difference between Kaiser and the USWA at that point was $.48 per hour over a five year contract, $3.30 vs. $3.78. Essentially, the arbitrator would have to pick between those two positions. Kaiser can’t go down; the union can’t go up.During the nearly two-year long labor dispute the union launched a campaign for what it refers to as economic justice and corporate accountability at Kaiser and its parent company, Maxxam, Inc. Included among its activities were two shareholder campaigns that sought to elect former U.S. Senators Howard Metzenbaum and Paul Simon to the Maxxam Board of Directors.These shareholder campaigns were run jointly with environmental allies at the Rose Foundation, As You Sow Foundation, Friends of the Earth, and others. Other key environmental allies included the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters and Earth First, who both were involved in fighting Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber in it’s logging practices. One Earth First member was killed protesting the company’s logging of California redwoods.A reported by-product of the USWA-environmental alliance was the formation of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, originally co-chaired by renowned environmental activist David Brower and Foster. The alliance has played a role in bringing together labor and environmental activists on campaigns for corporate accountability and fair trade policies, including support for activist and author, Julia Butterfly Hill’s long and widely publicized Luna tree-sit in protest of Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber logging practices.During the labor dispute the USWA called for a boycott of Kaiser products and got commitments from Pepsi Bottling Group, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Anheuser-Busch, and others to discontinue their purchase of Kaiser metal. At the Port of Tacoma, USWA pickets and their allies at times delayed the unloading of Kaiser alumina shipments. Public officials including U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, Governor Gary Locke, ten Northwestern members of Congress and a number of Pacific Northwest residents joined together in calling for a Good Corporate Citizenship Clause (GCCC) at the Bonneville Power Administration. The GCCC would require companies that purchase electrical power from the BPA at below market cost to adhere to certain labor, environmental and other regulatory standards.On June 30, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board formally charged Kaiser Aluminum with illegally locking out 2,900 USWA members to pressure and coerce them into accepting the company’s bargaining proposal.The formal complaint also charged Kaiser with unlawfully discriminating against employees to discourage membership in a labor organization, and with failing and refusing to bargain in good faith with the union as required by federal law.As part of the remedy for Kaiser’s actions, the government will seek full back pay and benefits from January 14, 1999, the date the company began its lockout, and has set a hearing date of November 13, for the company to answer the charges.USWA members struck Kaiser Aluminum on September 30, 1998, and offered to return to work on January 13, 1999. On January 14, 1999, the company locked out over 2,900 USWA members at its plants in Tacoma and Spokane, Gramercy, Louisiana, and Newark, Ohio.”