March 12, 1995 in Business

Labor Relations Sharply Different At Two Kaiser Plants Trentwood Plant Enjoys Peaceful Relations, But Conflicts Continue At Mead

Michael Murphey Staff writer

The contrast couldn’t be sharper.

“In my opinion, we didn’t burn any bridges with the company during the strike,” says Joe Thorp, president of the Steelworkers local that represents Kaiser’s Trentwood employees.

“We’ve got to roll up our shirt sleeves and all work together now, but nothing has happened that can’t be overcome.”

“The response we got coming back into this plant was like a slap in the face,” says Jerry Miller, president of the local representing Kaiser’s Mead employees. “When are they going to quit pointing the finger at us and saying we’re the problem?”

When the Mead workers returned following the strike, they were met with changes in work rules that some of the employees feel were punitive.

In Thorp’s view, the company and the union are working effectively together to achieve goals that will benefit everybody at Trentwood.

In Miller’s view, Mead has a long history of mismanagement in which the workers are continually made the scapegoat for failure.

The nature of the relationship is evident, too, in the comments of the plant managers.

“This union leadership deserves high credit,” says Ray Milchovich, who runs the Trentwood rolling mill. “Our relationship with union leadership is as good or better than it was prior to the strike because we did a lot of productive work together during that difficult time.”

Milchovich says the union leadership was instrumental in minimizing poor behavior on the Trentwood picket line and worked closely with management in a smooth transition back to work following the strike.

“A change in union leadership here would allow us to start fresh,” says Dave Kjos, Kaiser’s Mead Works manager. “But the approach management has to take is that we have to find a way to work with this group.”

The next union election, Kjos adds, is not scheduled until 1997.

Labor relations at the two Spokane County facilities have swung back and forth over the years. Kjos says the 1991-94 period produced a productive relationship at Mead. In 1991, a faction headed by Al Link, who is now secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, presided over the union. When Link departed, the faction represented by Miller regained power, and labor relations deteriorated, Kjos says. He says the 1985-91 period, in which the same faction was in place, was a similarly stormy period in the company’s history.

The Trentwood labor-management partnership, on the other hand, was essentially forged out of necessity.

“The history of the Steelworkers,” observes Kjos, “is they wait until a plant is on the verge of closure until they decide they are going to become a partner.”

Trentwood faced that proposition a few years ago, and the Steelworkers joined management in planning a restructured plant based on independent work teams with 300 fewer labor and 70 fewer management jobs. The workers also tied their financial fortunes directly to the plant’s performance with a gain-sharing, profit-sharing bonus package.

Mead went through a more traditional restructuring in the 1980s, sacrificing some 600 jobs to modern competitive realities. The union’s attitude now is “been there, done that,” but management says a broader restructuring in the Trentwood mold must now take place.

“Once they have all control of everything, then who are they going to blame?” asks Miller. “We’ve got the oldest plant in the system producing the highest quality metal money can buy, yet they continue to lose money.”

Whatever the past was, however they got here, the real point now, Kjos says, is they must build whatever is to be built from this foundation.

“Mead has an opportunity right now,” Kjos says, “but we have to change the way we function.”

Thorp says he is comfortable in a role in which management sees him as a partner.

“You’re always going to have your 10 percent of people who think you have sold out,” Thorp says, “but 75 percent of our members voted to accept this agreement, and were very glad to get back to work.”

Of the profit-sharing bonus package that his Mead counterparts are so wary about, Thorp says, “It’s a good system. Our previous experience with it was real good. It should continue to put some extra money in people’s paychecks. But I guess time will tell about that.”

And, Kaiser’s key managers say, only time will tell what Mead’s long-range viability will be within the Kaiser system.

“Given today’s competitive environment,” Milchovich says, “if labor and management aren’t working arm-in-arm to be as effective as they can and share the gains, than I think that is a major strategic negative for that business.”

“The last thing on our minds,” says Kaiser CEO George Haymaker, “is to move back into adversarial relationships.

“We’re not going to be dragged back into the past.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email