Locked-out Steelworkers at Kaiser win contract
BY ERNIE MAILHOT
SEATTLE--Members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) who have been locked in a two-year-long battle against Kaiser Aluminum took down their picket lines and will soon be returning to work with their union and dignity intact. A five-year contract was agreed to by the union and the company after several unresolved issues were sent to an arbitration panel for decision. The panel gave its ruling on September 18.
Included in the new contract provisions are an immediate wage raise of $1.18 an hour and up to $2.30 an hour more over the remainder of the contract. Up to 540 jobs will be cut and the company will be able to use more outside contractors. The contract also includes improved pension benefits and eliminates the cap on company contributions to retirees' health benefits.
On September 30, 1998, almost 2,900 steelworkers struck Kaiser's plants in Washington, Louisiana, and Ohio over wages, retirement and other benefits, outside contracting, and the company demand to cut 400 jobs. After three and a half months on strike the union offered to go back to work. The company's response was to illegally lock out the unionists and hire replacement workers. The company demanded even more job cuts--up to 700.
John Walston, vice president of USWA Local 7945 in Tacoma, commented on the final settlement: "The contract is bitter sweet. We were not able to set the pace for the aluminum industry. But overall it is a major victory for organized labor because some people were betting that the union would be broken. An important reason why this didn't happen was the solidarity shown by many groups that made it possible to endure this."
In the two-year battle the steelworkers at Kaiser kept up their picket lines daily and reached out to the labor movement and beyond to build solidarity for their fight. As well, they often were seen offering their support to others at picket lines and labor actions around the country. Their activities included this summer's eastern Washington rallies for the farm workers demanding decent wages for apple pickers and amnesty for immigrants, the picket line of the locked-out steelworkers at AK Steel in Ohio, and much more.
The union is continuing to pursue a $337 million back-pay claim against Kaiser. A hearing on this is scheduled to occur November 13 in Oakland, California. Last July the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Oakland, California, filed a complaint accusing Kaiser of failing to bargain in good faith after they locked out the steelworkers.
John Naubert contributed to this article.