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Bitter Kaiser Aluminum strike ended 20 years ago this month

Wives of Kaiser Aluminum Steelworkers union members, from left, Michelle Walker, Ginger Yaeger and Jeanne Jokkle, cheer employees returning to the Trentwood plant on Oct. 23, 2000, after two years on strike.  (The Spokesman-Review archive)
Wives of Kaiser Aluminum Steelworkers union members, from left, Michelle Walker, Ginger Yaeger and Jeanne Jokkle, cheer employees returning to the Trentwood plant on Oct. 23, 2000, after two years on strike. (The Spokesman-Review archive)
By Thomas Clouse The Spokesman-Review

Twenty years ago this month, the gates at Kaiser Aluminum reopened to union members, ending a strike that lasted more than two years.

The Trentwood rolling mill continues to churn out products, and the company’s influence on the local economy remains important but diminished.

John Witt, 70, worked in the accounting department along with managers he considered friends. He volunteered to be a part of the negotiating team for a labor dispute that left the community scarred.

The strike was particularly hard on couples with both members working at Kaiser or on single parents who lost their only revenue stream.

“Time heals a lot of wounds,” Witt said. “Some don’t vanish.”

Despite the bruising dispute that forced hundreds of workers out of manufacturing jobs, the mill continues to employ about 950 people and pays a wage – about $60,000 for millworkers – that continues to outpace the average occupational wage in Spokane County of about $40,000, based on a 2019 Bureau of Labor of Statistics survey.

Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista, moved to the area in August 1999 to teach at Eastern Washington University. That date was almost exactly at the midpoint of the strike that started on Sept. 30, 1998.

“It was pretty contentious,” Forsyth said of the Kaiser strike. “You had a lot of people’s financial interests at stake. That’s going to produce a lot of antagonism in all the parties involved.”

The Trentwood rolling mill, at 15000 E. Euclid Ave., currently produces aluminum plates and sheets for aerospace and general engineering aluminum applications in the global market. It counts Boeing and France-based Airbus as two of its largest global buyers, according to the company website.

While it doesn’t carry the influence it once did, Kaiser represents more than 5% of the 18,000 manufacturing jobs in the Spokane region, which includes Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, said Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the Washington state Department of Employment Security.

“Manufacturers have an outsized impact on our economy,” Tweedy said. “They produce things, sell things and bring things back into our community.”

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser

Kaiser also once operated a smelter in Mead in addition to the Trentwood rolling mill. The plants were the remnants of the nation’s industrial buildup during World War II. Aluminum was trucked to the mill, where workers rolled it into sheets that became the wings of bombers and other aircraft used to win the war.

After the war ended, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser purchased the plants from the government and began selling the aluminum commercially. The blue-collar jobs provided wages good enough for employees to purchase homes and send their children to college. At the time of the strike, Kaiser employed about 2,100 employees at both the smelter in Mead and the rolling mill in Spokane Valley.

“Kaiser was the largest industrial employer in Spokane, period,” said Witt, the former employee. “And they were good jobs.”

In September 1998, negotiations between Kaiser and the United Steel Workers of America broke down over health benefits for retirees. The union also wanted a master contract for Kaiser’s five aluminum plants that included other operations in Tacoma, Ohio and Louisiana. Company officials wanted to be able to negotiate different agreements for each plant.

With both sides digging in, the contract expired and workers streamed out of both Spokane-area plants at 4 p.m. on Sept. 30. The strike then became a lockout on Jan. 14, 1999. The case went to court, and both sides eventually agreed to enter arbitration.

“If you meet somebody, that’s the first thing they ask, ‘What do you do?’ It’s a just a huge part of a person’s life,” Witt said. “To all of the sudden lose that, and especially for that to go on for two years, that’s indescribable.”

The strike finally ended with an agreement on Oct. 23, 2000. When Kaiser opened its doors, Witt was among 600 workers who returned to the Trentwood plant, about 500 fewer than it had before the strike.

“I was in accounting and I worked right alongside my managers,” Witt said. “I really enjoyed my manager co-workers. And when I went back, I think there was a higher level of respect on both sides. We didn’t have near the problems” that other returning workers had.

But the turmoil wasn’t over. The company, whose representatives were unable to respond to written questions submitted for this story, then decided it could make more money selling the cheap allotment of electricity and shuttered the Mead smelter in December 2000. It was eventually scrapped.

Two years later, Kaiser filed for bankruptcy , emerging from it in 2006.

Forsyth, the economist, said the story of Kaiser played out with many manufacturers across the country.

“The reality for a lot of manufacturing companies was they held a pretty dominant position after World War II because the rest of the world was kind of a mess,” he said. “But the rest of the world had grown up a lot economically. Companies like Kaiser have a lot more competition.”

It began the process of what economists call “hollowing out the middle,” in which good-paying, blue-collar jobs across the country began disappearing.

“Its important to the extent that (Kaiser) is still providing those middle-wage jobs that have been under pressure for the last three decades,” Forsyth said. “We’ve had the rise of the service sector relative to manufacturing jobs since then.”

Now retired, Witt said it takes about one beer to peel back the scabs left over from the labor dispute. But, he still has friends working at Kaiser, and he understands that both the union and management have enjoyed a much better working relationship in recent years.

“For me, personally, it’s behind me,” Witt said. “I had to take a lot of strides to not let it affect me the rest of my life. I saw a lot of people suffer during that. And, I felt from the get-go that it was definitely not necessary.”

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