Steelworkers Set To Strike Kaiser, Union Fail To Ratify Contract; Sides Won’t Say If Negotiations Possible Before Deadline
More than 2,000 Steelworkers at Kaiser’s Mead smelter and Trentwood rolling mill have been ordered to go on strike Monday at 4 p.m.
“We’ve been directed to conduct an orderly shutdown of the plant at that time,” Bobby Jack, acting chief steward for United Steelworkers Local 329, said Friday afternoon.
Kaiser issued a brief statement late Friday that said, “Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. and the United Steelworkers of America jointly announced that union members have failed to ratify a tentative contract in a mailballot vote that was counted today.”
Both sides agreed not to start a strike or lockout before 4 p.m. Monday.
Fred Gariepy, strike information director for Steelworkers Local 329 at Mead, said that the “orderly shutdown” is conducted so the potlines at Kaiser’s smelters at Mead and Tacoma will not be damaged.
“We do it this way so there won’t be any permanent damage done to the pots,” Gariepy said. “We don’t want to do anything to damage the plant. After all, this plant is our bread and butter.”
Gariepy said he’s received no information that the two sides will hold any talks between now and 4 p.m. Monday.
“But there’s always the chance something might happen between now and then, God willing,” Gariepy said.
Kaiser spokeswoman Susan Ashe said she did not know whether a resumption of negotiations before the Monday deadline was possible.
“We can’t answer that,” Ashe said, “and we can’t reach anyone right now who can.”
Phone calls to Steelworkers Local 338 at Trentwood went unanswered Friday afternoon.
The strike notice follows the rejection by Steelworkers of a proposed four-year labor contract on Friday. The vote, according to Gariepy, was 1,448 to 1,211 to reject the contract that covers 3,000 members of the United Steelworkers of America at five Kaiser plants across the nation.
If the two sides cannot resolve their differences, or at least find enough common ground to resume negotiations and in the meantime keep workers on the job, the Steelworkers will conduct their first-ever sanctioned strike against Kaiser.
In addition to 1,000 Mead workers, the strike would involve some 1,100 Steelworkers at Kaiser’s Trentwood rolling mill in the Spokane Valley.
That would make it among the biggest labor disputes in Spokane history, dwarfing the three-monthlong Safeway strike that involved some 600 grocery workers in 1990.
The strike will also involve 250 Steelworkers in Tacoma, and about 300 each at Kaiser facilities in Gramercy, La., and Newark, Ohio.
The center of the controversy over the contract, upon which Kaiser and union negotiators reached tentative agreement on Jan. 6, apparently is an addendum called the “letter of understanding.”
This is a company-union agreement that establishes rules for job descriptions and limits the company’s ability to combine jobs. According to Mead Local 329 officials, the proposed contract would withdraw the current letter of understanding and replace it with a new one that would broaden Kaiser’s ability to shift and combine jobs.
While unhappy with several aspects of the contract proposal, Steve Sims, Local 329’s grievance committee chairman, said last month that the changes to the letter of understanding were “the strike issue.”
“Under those changes,” said Sims, “we think we could lose up to 100 jobs at Mead during the coming year.”
The union and Kaiser came within hours of a strike over the same issue in 1988. The strike was averted and negotiations resumed when Kaiser backed away from its efforts to change the letter of understanding, union officials said at the time.
Kaiser’s four-year contract with the Steelworkers expired Oct. 31. The two sides began negotiations Oct. 12. When they could not reach agreement by the expiration deadline, they extended the talks with Steelworkers staying on the job under the provisions of the old contract.
Bargaining resumed in November, and in January, the two sides announced a tentative agreement.
But that agreement sharply divided union leadership at Kaiser’s individual plants, with the Trentwood and Mead union leaders urging their respective memberships to vote in opposite directions.
Officials at Mead Local 329 urged their members to reject the contract. But the leadership at Trentwood Local 338 strongly advocated approval of the contract, as did Robert Petris, United Steelworkers District 38 Director, who is based in Kent.
Gary Sites, president of Steelworkers Local 341 in Newark recommended that his members reject the contract.
Petris said union leaders at locals in Gramercy and Tacoma offered the contract proposal to their members without a recommendation.
This sharp division between Steelworkers at Mead and Trentwood represents growing differences in the fundamental labor-management relationships at the two plants.
Trentwood has already undergone the job-combination losses that Mead union leaders fear.
Kaiser officials say the combining of jobs in the interest of reduced costs and greater efficiencies is the only way aluminum manufacturers are going to survive in competition of the modern global market.
They say doing more with fewer workers through technology and innovative relationships between labor and management is the only way facilities like Mead and Trentwood will survive in the long run.
Trentwood’s union leadership has worked with management at the plant over the past two years to participate in restructuring that Kaiser says will keep the plant viable. Together they have redesigned the plant’s operation in a reorganization that cost 70 management jobs and 300 union jobs.
In turn, Kaiser promised to match productivity gains with capital investment in the plant up to $50 million over three years. That investment, the company says, will insure the plant’s long-term future.
Mead’s labor-management relationship, in the meantime, has remained more traditional and adversarial.
Another fundamental difference is the bonus pay provision chosen by the unions at the two plants.
Under terms of the last contract, Steelworkers at individual plants could choose to tie their compensation bonuses strictly to the world market price of metal, or they could participate in a more complex gainsharing, profit-sharing formula that tied the bonus to overall plant performance, among other things.
Trentwood chose the gain-sharing program. Mead chose the metal price bonus. During the life of the last contract, aluminum prices went through an unprecedented long-term depression, and the gain-sharing bonus generally paid higher returns than the metal price bonus.
Given those differences, combined with the volatile period of history Kaiser and the Steelworkers have been through over the past 15 years, the divergent paths undertaken by the two local union groups is probably not surprising.
During that time, Kaiser has twice been on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the subject of a hostile takeover in 1988 that left the company saddled with a stifling burden of debt. It earned record profits at one point, and suffered through unprecedented losses at another.
And in some of the bleakest times, the Steelworkers have helped keep the company afloat through sacrifices.
During the recession of 1983, the Steelworkers accepted a wage freeze and sacrificed benefits. In 1985, they granted more concessions amounting to about $4.50 an hour. In 1988, when times were better, they recouped $3.50 in wages and benefits. But those and the gains they made in the 1990 contract still didn’t return them to their pre-1983 levels, many union members contend.