The United Steelworkers of America ratified a new contract Tuesday with Kaiser Aluminum Corp., ending an eight-day strike against the company.
Results of daylong voting at six union locals were announced shortly after 7 p.m. Within minutes, pickets started coming down and officials began arranging for members to return to the Mead smelter and Trentwood rolling mill.
The other Kaiser facilities involved in the strike were a smelter in Tacoma, a refinery in Louisiana, and a rod-bar plant in Ohio.
Only the Mead workers voted to reject the contract.
The overall vote was 1,672 for, 1,050 against.
According to figures provided by Steelworker Local 329, which represents Mead’s hourly work force, the vote there was 351 for, 498 against.
“The message this vote sends to management is that we are tired of what’s been happening to us at Mead for the last 13 years,” said Bobby Jack, acting steward for local 329, shortly after the ratification became apparent.
“But we believe in majority rule,” Jack added, “so we’ll go back to work, and in a week we’ll have that plant running like it was when we left.”
At Trentwood, where there are two locals, the vote was 806 for, 251 against. Tacoma voted 118 for, 113 against. Toledo, Ohio, voted 157 for, 81 against.
And Gramercy, La., voted 240 for, 107 against.
“We have a contract,” said a happy Bob Rudd, financial secretary of the Trentwood local, when the totals were telephoned in.
Rudd and other local officials were to enter the Trentwood plant with the graveyard shift to assure a smooth transition from the salaried employees who have operated the facility at a substantially slower pace during the strike.
“We plan on being right back to normal,” he said, adding, “We’ve got some ground to make up.”
Ground must be made up at Mead, too, where the animosity between management and labor has been simmering for a long time. Tuesday’s vote may have done little to quell that.
“We realize we’ve got to change,” Jack said of the union’s attitude toward management. “But they’ve got to change, too.”
The weary supervisory personnel who have kept the Mead smelter running the past nine days indicated late Tuesday that their experience may have helped lay the groundwork for those changes.
“I’ve gained a lot of respect for the guys that do this every day,” said Jim Winingman, who normally works as a research technician at Kaiser’s facilities in Pleasanton, Calif.
For the past few days, Winingman has been working on Mead’s potline number 7, one of the most physically demanding jobs in the plant.
Dave Kjos, manager of the Mead smelter, has spent time setting carbon at the smelter over the past week.
“We’ve learned a lot about their work,” Kjos said of the Mead Steelworkers. “I think we’ve learned how to try and make things better for them.”
While out-of-town folks like Winingman were headed out of the plant Tuesday evening, local supervisors like Kjos were staying on the job to fill in for Steelworkers who might not have gotten word to show up on the midnight shift.
Working alongside union members who only hours earlier had been on picket lines “might be a little tense” Kjos conceded, “but we’ll get the job done.
“I think this will be one of those significant evolutionary events that is a real catalyst for improvement,” he said.
Official comment from Kaiser was limited to a statement issued jointly with the union that said, “This contract addresses the most important objectives of the USWA-represented employees while preserving the competitiveness of the company in the various markets it serves.”
The Steelworkers went on strike Feb. 20, three days after a vote that rejected, 1,448 to 1,211, a tentative contract negotiated in January.
The old contract had expired Oct. 31, but the two sides agreed to an extension to allow more time for talks. There had never been a general strike against Kaiser in its 49-year history.
The contract approved Thursday was negotiated in Salt Lake City on Saturday by presidents of the Steelworker locals and other representatives of the union and Kaiser.
All signed a letter recommending ratification, but Mead local President Jerry Miller said Tuesday he voted against the contract.
He said he signed the letter because he wanted members, many of whom said that before the first contract election they did not know a “no” vote meant a strike, to vote again.
“I don’t want to hear ‘I didn’t understand,”’ he said.
The new contract added the option of two personal leave days over the 47-month life of the contract in lieu of a $200 signing bonus.
Also, medical benefits will be extended to spouses earning as much as $15,000, instead of $10,000 as the earlier contract provided.
But the prickliest issue, a letter of understanding restricting management freedom to redefine positions and combine jobs, was finessed.
Union officials came away only with the assurance they would be consulted before jobs were identified for cutting.
The letter was particularly important to workers at Mead. Reductions in force there have not been as deep as at Trentwood, where almost 300 hourly and salaried positions have been pared in the last year alone.
“They didn’t change nothing, so we’re not going to change nothing,” Mead worker Forest Reynolds said before the vote. “The only ones who will change their votes are those who are scared.”
“We might as well stay on our old contract,” added Wade Buckle.
“I would take the old one,” agreed Tony Nolan. “They can’t take away any more.”
All three are among the younger workers at Mead. Because they lack seniority, they could lose their jobs if management gets the additional leeway it wants to combine positions.
But, they noted, they have already survived the hard work inside Mead that drove off most employees hired the same time they were.
“I’m glad I’ve been off a week,” said Nolan. “My body has never felt better.”
At Trentwood, Will Sim said he voted for the first contract, but was insulted by the second.
The meager, immediate gains in the pact will be undermined by a company perception of worker weakness, Sim said. He was disappointed Steelworker negotiators had returned from Salt Lake City with little to show for the trip.
But Ken Stockard, the last picket to leave the curb outside the Trentwood local, said he was glad to see the strike end.
“I don’t want to lose my retirement,” said the veteran of almost 30 years in the plant.
“I think we made our point,” said Ron Ragan, who warmed himself by a burning barrel outside the Trentwood gate as the last of the pickets headed home.
He predicted a period of readjustment as the hourly work force returns to its duties. After about a week, he said, “It will be back to business as usual.”
MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: THE VOTE Union workers approved the contract by a vote of 1,672 to 1,050.
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