On Strike Against Maxxam
Striking Kaiser employees say Hurwitz is the real problem
Interviews by Mikal Jakubal
In 1988, Charles Hurwitz’s Maxxam Corporation gained control of Kaiser Aluminum, a few years after his similar takeover of Pacific Lumber. On September 30 of last year, 3,100 members of the United Steel Workers of America walked out of five Kaiser Aluminum plants in Washington State, Ohio and Louisiana. They claim the company was unwilling to bargain in good faith on such issues as fair labor practices, outsourcing jobs to lower wage contractors, pensions, and wage and benefit parity with Kaiser’s main competitors, Alcoa and Reynolds.
Ever since, employees at both Kaiser and Pacific Lumber–though in different industries several states apart–have been on an intertwining course: Palco employees are replacing striking workers, or “scabbing,” at Kaiser plants; Steelworkers have vowed to unionize Palco and have marched in Scotia; and forest activists and Steelworkers have begun a loose alliance.
The Steelworkers consider Hurwitz and Maxxam the problem–not Kaiser as they once knew it. The Steelworkers first encountered forest activists and issues from Humboldt County through the Jail Hurwitz web site (http://www.jailhurwitz.com). Soon they began working with environmentalists, who blame Maxxam for the brutal changes in Palco’s forest management, to fight a common foe.
My connection with the Steelworkers began in late October, in the fifth week of the strike, when I went up and hired in to Kaiser’s Tacoma, Washington smelter as a spy for USWA Local 7945. After a week, I revealed what I was doing and quit. Despite wide publicity, I then managed to get a job at one of the Spokane plants and worked for two weeks before walking out the front gate to the picket line with a sign that read, “No More Scabbing for Hurwitz!”
USWA members, especially long-time employees who remember Kaiser before and after Maxxam, vocally dislike Hurwitz and what he’s done to Kaiser–”their” company. Like long-time Palco workers, they remember a pre-Maxxam company that cared for its employees and managed their business with recognition of its responsibility to their community and its future. Union workers spoke freely with me about the strike, working conditions, and their concerns for their future and their communities. As the Steelworkers told me stories in the Local 338 Hall, drivers honked their horns in support of the picket line out front. Every now and then a locomotive would come by on the railroad tracks doing the same. The solidarity is strong.
Kaiser severely underestimated the strength and spirit of the union. Less than two percent of union members have crossed the picket line, despite the economic hardships. Recently the union, at the request of local clergy, and concerned about the number of injuries suffered by inexperienced replacement workers, offered to come back to work unconditionally while negotiations took place. When Kaiser rejected that offer, the strike officially became a “lockout.” The “lockout” designation also means that if the union prevails in the unfair labor practices case it has brought with the National Labor Relations Board, Maxxam’s Kaiser could be held liable for back wages since the time of the lockout. There are at press time no negotiations in progress and the strike continues.
I’ve been with the Union for twenty-five years. I’m a third generation Kaiser worker. My dad worked for 38 years. And my grandpa actually worked for the Army Corps of Engineers building the place and then worked for Alcoa. I have a long history with the Steelworkers.
The Steelworkers here don’t have a history of conflict. We have a history of working for a company run by a good corporate citizen, a man who was concerned about people’s welfare as well as the company’s welfare, Henry J. Kaiser. That all changed when Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam took over. Just like with Pacific Lumber, everything changed. How they dealt with people changed.
Maxxam’s Kaiser was expecting at least half of us to have caved-in by now. The fact that we’re staying together is such a motivating and strengthening thing. And they continue to spread propaganda to try to scare our people. One lie after another slips across. But we’re going to be there a day longer no matter how long that is. I personally don’t put dates on this. I just tell myself it’s one day longer.
If we Steelworkers are taken out, then the unions at Alcoa and at Alcan, and all the other Steelworkers, are in jeopardy. We’ll be victorious in this. We can’t lose. We just can’t lose, not only for the Union today, but we can’t lose for our fathers and our grandfathers. To me, that’s extremely important. I feel my father, who died last year, telling me, ‘You must keep fighting. You can’t go back, and give up what three generations of workers have fought for and gotten here in this community.’ To me it would be the complete letdown of the community and of every working person, living and dead. So I spend almost every day here, combating the company.
I work as a furnace operator in remelt. It’s one of the most environmentally-unfriendly jobs in the mill. It’s really hot in the summer. It’s a dirty, dangerous job. I don’t believe that they can put somebody off the street in that job and make a fireman out of him overnight, because I know how long it took to make me a fireman. It was a process, of old guys that have done it for thirty-five years, telling me all the little ins and outs. That’s the way it works.
I have really bad feelings about this company and the people running it. I believe the management people in there have the same choice I have. They did not have to support upper management. They could’ve said, ‘No, we’re not going to do and walked out too and let upper management try to put all new managers in, which would have been impossible. They would’ve had to fold [i.e., give in, or at least negotiate fairly. Those people that I considered my friends at one time are now my enemies and I don't believe they had no choice.
The company is very aware of their ability to starve out someone. They understand they have economic power, and when you don't, you're put between a rock and a hard place. I'm fortunate that my wife has a good job. Otherwise I couldn't be here seven days a week and I couldn't do what I've been doing.
I was once Departmental Griever. I think I was like most of our members in that I didn't have a real drive to do anything. When I stepped forward, it was more out of the stress from the strike. I'm not the kind of person who can sit at home and just wait, day by day, for something to happen. That's a lot more stress than coming down here and doing something. I saw right off the bat that I felt a little better if I was at least here. I felt like I was on top of whatever was going to happen. Every once in a while, people become really enraged and angered when their families are being hurt or getting overly stressed and they let go of compassionate activism and start thinking more in terms of aggressive activism. We have to deal with that. We have to deal our members getting angry about propaganda filtering out of that company we think that they are deliberate to try to incite us, to sway the public against us.
I guess the real activism for me started at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hearings in California. The union told us they would fax us a press release and we could just read it. And we thought, 'well geez, that'll be easy piece of cake! [laughs] As it turned out, we never read it.
There were seven hundred loggers in the building and they’re all standing up singing the company song, about Palco. And it’s looking to us like the thing is being railroaded, so we stood up and just blasted back about the realities of Maxxam and Hurwitz. I guess that really started my activism.
People came out of the woodwork from both sides to help inform us and tell us things. So I learned a tremendous amount and it’s fueled my activism. In fact, I often think about where this is going, if the strike ended tomorrow and we all went back to work. There’s probably a big part of me that’s still going to be saying, ‘Wait a minute. Charles Hurwitz still owns Pacific Lumber. If he’s still cutting trees, the job’s not done.’
I’ve met some good people in California and if I just stopped and went back to work and the way my life was before, I feel like I will have let them down and I can’t let that happen.
Mikal: I’ve been really impressed by the solidarity and commitment of people here. It is great to see someone walk in the door and say, ‘I’m from such and such union and we took up a collection. Here’s seven hundred bucks. Do what you need with it,’ then walking out without demanding credit. It’s just people saying, ‘This is a good fight and we’re going to help you fight it.’
Don: It really is. It’s inspiring. It makes me feel like we’ re doing what’s right. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s right. All these issues, not just Kaiser, but Palco complicated. To understand both sides of it and then pick a position is sometimes hard to do. I think you have to step back from it and search your heart to find out what’s right. Not just your mind. You have to say, ‘What feels right here?’ Does it feel like it’s right to mow all these trees down at this rate of destruction? Does it feel like it’s right to take these two thousand Steelworkers in Spokane and put ‘em out of a job and bring in lower-wage scab employees to take their jobs? After their commitment? Does that feel right?
We hear you guys patting us on the back and saying how much you like what we’re doing, but I’m telling you all the environmentalists, all the people in California have been an inspiration to us. Like I’ve told people here at the meetings, ‘If a twenty-four-year-old girl can sit in a tree for a year and not even wear shoes for months, then, by God, three thousand Steelworkers ought to be able to kick Charles Hurwitz’ ass! So, we really have to thank all the people that are involved for the great inspiration that you’ve given us. I’m not so sure we’d be as strong as we are without it. It’s give and take on both sides and it’s an alliance that I’m proud of.
We are the working class, strong in America. And when we stand up and say, ‘You know, we’re not going to be intimidated by Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam,’ I think it’s given Maxxam something to think about. It’s one thing when they see environmentalists out trying to stop the logging operations. It’s another when they see the United Steelworkers standing up and saying, ‘Speak up for your right to say that this is wrong. Speak up for your right to make this company what it used to be.’ If people have the courage to speak, they can change their futures. The future is not what Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam say it is. It’s not like they have to cut those trees down at that rate. It’s not like that destruction has to go on like that. Palco has a solid history it wasn’t that way for A.S. Murphy. So if it wasn’t that way for the Murphys back then, then it doesn’t have to be that way now.
I’ve always said, from listening to both sides in Humboldt, that if the people would let go of all the anger and all the frustrations, if they would sit down and talk to each other like working men and women in America, and respect each others’ opinions and voices, that they could resolve that whole issue. But Charles Hurwitz is not the guy who’s going to sit down and do that. Like he says, he operates off the Golden Rule: the man with the gold rules. But, as I remind people, that is the kind of rhetoric the Romans used. And the Romans don’t exist anymore. Rome collapsed under that rhetoric. It’s the same rhetoric that the Soviet Union used. And the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the same rhetoric the Chinese use now. And someday they will be in a very bad way. You cannot continue to oppress all the working people and their voices. Their voices will drown you out sooner or later.
I’ve worked at Kaiser for twenty-one years. Been involved in the Union eighteen of the twenty-one years. Started out as a shift steward, ended up as chairman of the grievance committee and now I’m Vice President.
You need organized labor to help combat big corporations. One person cannot take on a corporation. It takes a lot of people willing to sacrifice their time, their energy, in order to pull a corporation down to the level where they can be reachable. Unions, to me, are the only way we can combat corporate greed, the environmental issues, safety and health for everybody. Corporations look at us not as people, but as numbers. When you get everybody together as an organization, they have to deal with us. We can apply pressure to make sure everybody gets treated fairly. We need this in our democracy. Especially now that it seems big government and big business are working together. The people with all the money are trying to suppress the middle class, pushing us down to Third World standards.
Unions stand up not just for organized labor, but for all labor. It’s a way of pulling people together, holding them to ideals, so that with collective bargaining we can all achieve better contracts, better negotiations, better working conditions, retirement. It helps non-union workers because companies have to compete for the union workers. So, whether you’re organized or not, unions help all of us achieve a higher standard of living.
Mikal: It’s also important–both here and at Pacific Lumber–that people need the protection of a union simply to have a grievance procedure, and to be able to speak out and not get fired for it.
Mike: Yeah. It helps you voice an opinion without having to fear retaliation. And that’s a big deal, especially in today’s society.
I’ve never seen anything that pulled people together more than this strike. Being the vice-president, I was here when the call came in to empty the plant. Really tense at the time not knowing what peoples’ feelings were. It was a scary moment. Once the moment passed, the support started coming out. The people were great. Right now the membership is stronger than I’ve ever seen it in my twenty-one years.
Mikal: What is the motivation for the strike? What do you expect to have when you go back in?
Mike: We’re going back in with our heads held high. One of our biggest issues is the elimination of jobs. We’ve been givin’ up jobs around here for too long. We need to keep good paying jobs in America. We can’t allow corporate greed to come in and say the bottom’s going to fall out unless we give up everything so they can make more profits. It’s not right. It’s not humane. Hopefully, we’ll be able to maintain our jobs and a way of living for the community around us.
What motivates me probably more that anything is the people. We have a thousand people that work out of the Trentwood plant. I will protect those people and I will help those people in any way I can. We’re not going to let somebody, especially corporations, come in here and tear us down just for the simple reason they need more profit.
We’re not out here to break any company, put any company into bankruptcy or anything like that. We want to make sure that everybody can eke out a living in today’s world. That’s all we want. Fair and reasonable contracts with corporations. We’re not out to put Kaiser out of business. We are looking for a fair contract. But if it takes the three thousand members here at the Kaiser plants to push this company into bankruptcy to get a fair contract, we will do that. Just because it’s a bankruptcy doesn’t mean the plants go away. We cannot allow corporate greed, corporate raiders, to control every aspect of our lives. Because business needs to focus on human beings, not what the dollar will do.
All I can really comment on is what my life shows me. I took over the chairman of the grievance committee job, stood up for workers’ rights and I was fired by this company a year ago. The union managed to keep my job. Because of organized labor I could go into a company of this size, this magnitude, make some statements, get called on the carpet, have my job threatened, actually be without paychecks for a while, and still come back. I’m back to fight and I will continue this fight as long as I can. Even though I’m a striking employee, I do have a job to go back to.
Mikal: Did you go Northern California?
Mike: No. I have been in contact with a few people over the phone. I cannot believe that going into the year 2000, that we have company-owned towns. It’s really disheartening.
I look at the labor movement as a whole and how labor got started and I see it coming to the forefront again. We’re back in the 1930s again, where labor must stand up to corporate greed and take them on. We’re not afraid to move out and help other people in other places, whether it be in California or in Mexico. We got to bring up people’s standards of living, we got to treat the human race like they were the kings. And we got to bring em’ up to the top of the food chain again corporations being at the top now.
Mikal: What do you think, so far, of allying with environmentalists to fight Hurwitz?
Mike: I’m not much of an environmentalist. I live in North Idaho. I understand the logging industry. And I know what’s happened over on the west side of the state with the spotted owl and how everything was played out. But I also was very misinformed as to what the real reasons were behind some of this stuff. Most of the people I have talked to are everyday people. We don’t put big beautiful spins on things. It’s not a story that can come out that way, for the most part. We see that in the labor movement as well as the environmental. We’re all basically fighting for the same thing justice. Justice, trying to get where everybody can live and be happy in this world we have today.
Mikal: I hear that you often get asked, ‘What are you guys doing, associating with these environmentalists and crazies?’
Mike: Well, if you go back through labor history, when people were trying to organize for the first time, they got the same response. Why would you want to talk to an organizer? Why would you want to listen to them? Because it’s educational. Everybody gains when they have more knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more consistent your judgement’s going to be. It’s vital to be as well educated on issues as you can.
Mikal: What would you say to Palco workers about their situation and what they’re facing, what they should do?
Mike: Not being down at Palco, just talking to a few members I’m hearing everybody’s concerned about where their jobs are headed, what’s going on. Our union will help them.
The folks at Pacific Lumber need to know that we’ll be there to help them. We’ll be down there. If they were to organize, they would have more control, more say in what happens. They will elect their own representatives, who they feel is the best. We can give the workers some resources they can tap into. Palco employees don’t have to worry about somebody from out of town coming in and telling what to do.
And that’s what workers need to know. It doesn’t matter who organizes you. It’s the right thing to do, getting a collective voice. It’s too easy for these corporations to pick off one guy at a time, and get what the companies will refer to as the ‘radicals’ or ‘extremists’ and knock ‘em out. Historically, unions were always the radicals and extremists and have always been painted that way. That happened because working people had no knowledge of what unions really stand for. So we hope we can educate and bring everybody up to speed on what it’s really all about.
Carol Ford and Stan White
Carol: Been here twenty-six years. Hired-in when I was barely eighteen, one of the first women hired. Worked in Remelt and I was management for eight years. I’ve been on both sides of the game. I was the only female maintenance foreman Kaiser’s ever had. I left Montana to see the world. I was going to Haight-Ashbury and this is how far I got. [laughs] I applied at Kaiser at three o’clock and went to work at four.
I wasn’t going to stay. I was just going to get a week’s pay and take my ’63 SS and head to California. Here I am twenty-six years later and I haven’t been to California once!
Even before Maxxam, the union helped. Without the Union, I’d probably still be in Kalispell, Montana. Being a logger’s daughter.
Mikal: That’s your CB handle, right? Logger’s daughter?
Carol: Yeah it is.
I was the first girl out there to get pregnant. They didn’t have any sick leave set up they wanted to fire me! I was running the crane. I ran the crane until midnight, on June eighth. At midnight I told them I had to go home. They were forcing me to work double shifts. I went home, and four hours later, my son was born. With no sick leave I couldn’t afford to take the time off.
My husband was up in Alaska, we were split up. I was a single parent. My son was just barely born, and I was looking at no income because they weren’t going to allow me to come back to work. The guys took up a collection and bought my son a cradle. And they brought it to my home, ’cause I didn’t get to stay in the hospital very long. The union intervened at that point and I got three weeks of medical pay, and the right to go back to work. Without these guys here, I think Kaiser would’ve gotten away with telling me that my job was no longer there because I’d gotten pregnant. That’s a horror story, isn’t it? But people fight. And that’s what we’re in now, we’re in a huge fight.
Stan: This is not about money. Money is part of any contract. This is about self-respect and dignity in the workplace. We want Kaiser mismanaged Kaiser to be able to compete they have to compete in the open market with pay close to what the going rate is. But we also want to be treated as individual human beings.
Carol: It’s not as if the Union has not helped Kaiser. We’ve cut our own jobs. We’ve cut our own wages. We are dedicated employees and we want this place to be here. We’re one of the most dedicated, knowledgeable workforces in the United States. In the Spokane area, there’s no other jobs that pay like this. So we dedicate ourselves to doing the very best jobs we can.
What they’re asking for now is wrong. We know they mismanage. We know something’s wrong then industry average is fourteen workers to one salaried person and Kaiser’s is three-point-five workers to one salaried person. I’ll gladly give my job away when three of those upper management people give theirs away.
Stan: We agreed to all these take-aways over the years when Kaiser needed help. This time, this came out of the goddamn blue. They came out and said need massive cuts in employees. No justification. They couldn’t tell our negotiators where they wanted to make them or why. They couldn’t give them any figures or anything like that. And this is coming after two years of record profitability, two years of production records that have been set out here on the floor due to our last little mutual agreement. Back then, we said we didn’t want to make cuts, but we could see where we had to give them some relief to remain viable as a corporation in today’s market. This time it’s just, ‘let’s give Charley Hurwitz the money and run.’
What we need to do is raise enough hell, bring enough public attention to the fact that all the Savings and Loan stuff is not over yet. That whole Texas thing Hurwitz should’ve bit the big one along with Milken. If he’d gone down on that, we wouldn’t have our problems here today. There’s no doubt in my mind. Every time you let something like that slide, you create more problems. Hurwitz will keep going until he’s knocked down. It’s like cancer. If you don’t cut it out, you’re going to die.
Mikal: That’s what I’ve been telling other environmentalists when they ask, ‘Why should we care about some union or strike somewhere?’ I say it’s about Hurwitz. If we don’t stop this guy, it’s going to be your watershed or your town next. Likewise, Steelworkers don’t have to become environmentalists for us to be able to work together. This is a point Palco employees need to understand.
Stan: That’s how I see it. We’ve got a lot of people in this part of the country who are anti-environmentalist for various reasons. There’s a lot of things we disagree about, obviously. I like to use World War Two as an example. We were allied with some questionable people in the past to fight dictators for the good of the whole world. This is basically what steelworkers and environmentalists are doing right now. We’re going to agree to disagree later on, but for right now, our goal is to get Charley Hurwitz into a position where he can’t screw up the environment or screw over the American worker.
When the Steelworkers go down to Humboldt County, we talk to Earth First! and we try to talk to the loggers. Trying to talk those mill workers and loggers is really tough as an outsider. You can get their families sometimes. You can get their wives and their mothers and their aunts and uncles. I was down there with a bunch of us here in December. We were drinking beer in a local tavern and the barmaid grabbed me and took me outside. She wanted to talk to me about how we could help, what the Union could do for her husband.
Carol: I want to go stand in the middle of the street in Humboldt County and say, ‘I’m a Steelworker first. I’m a logger. I believe in the earth. Talk to me. There is nothing that can stop this community and all of us people from coming together to fight this rotten bastard.’ I don’t think there’s disagreement when it comes to saving the earth. I think sustainable logging is going to be part of this world.
Stan: Some of the Earth First! extremists will argue with you about that. They don’t want to cut a tree down anywhere.
Carol: They can argue all they want.
Stan: The fact is that we have to provide a means of livelihood for the people in this country. There’s a middle ground. You can do business and industry in a safe manner that doesn’t destroy the environment. It costs a little more to produce things, initially, but we have to.
Carol: I gave Darryl Cherney a shirt that has a logger on the front and the words ‘Earth First!’ and on the back it says, ‘We’ll log the other planets later.’ My dad gave me that shirt and instead of saying ‘log,’ he wrote ‘save’ on it. Dad and I got in an argument one day when we were watching the tree-sitter on the news. I was kind of narrow-minded at that time and I said, ‘Okay, they’re sittin’ in that tree. What are they sittin’ on? What is Butterfly’s platform made out of? Another tree. My dad looks at me and he says, ‘Go home!’ [laughs]
Stan: Well, the other side is that if she didn’t have to sit in that tree she wouldn’t need a platform.
Mikal: What sort of changes have you seen in management attitudes?
Carol: When we got the new regime, management people were told that the employees are nothing but workers. I was put on probation for being in a bar drinking beer with my crew.
Mikal: Why couldn’t you do that?
Carol: They said I was ‘fraternizing with my employees.’
Stan: They were installing a class system.
Carol: I went a year and a half without a raise because I refused to let them do that to me.
Stan: We had a tradition for a long time. The maintenance crews especially, you know, you had a rough couple shifts, or you got a major project finished, or you busted your nuts on a major breakdown the boss would come over and buy the first round in the saloon. That’s the way things were done in those days. The corporate fabric changed up on the top and that went by the wayside.
Mikal: So they would actually tell you that you couldn’t be friends with whomever you wanted?
Stan: They’d chastise the hell out of people. Some of us said, ‘screw you, I’m going to do it anyway.’
Carol: The philosophy at Kaiser nowadays is that everybody including the people that they have scabbing in there now are disposable objects. They don’t care that we were committed to our jobs. They don’t care that we were committed to our lifestyle at Kaiser. Because there will be somebody to replace you when you are gone.
Mikal: What is it going to be like when you go back in to Kaiser?
Carol: I’m walking in with my head held high. I’m going to say, ‘Okay, Kaiser, you may have taken a few months wages away from me, but you didn’t take my pride. I’m proud of the job that I’ve done. And no matter what you do to me, no matter how much you try to lower my self-esteem, you won’t be able to because I’ve worked very hard for you. And I will continue to work hard for you.
The day we go back to work, I’m parkin’ outside the gate and I’m going to walk in, real high and proud and punch in and I’m going to put my gloves on and I’m going to do my job. And I’m going to make sure when I go home that everybody who walked in with me walks out with everything they had when they walked in, whether that be fingers or toes or arms and legs or that be their pride and self-respect.
Stan: What Kaiser has accomplished by their utter disregard for people is they’ve created a union that is stronger now than ever. And it shows by the amount of our people who have not crossed the picket line.
Carol: Had a guy that I worked with for twenty-five years. Walks into me while I’m standing at the food bank and he says, ‘I’ve got to tell you something. You know, I never came to Union meetings but I always paid my dues and it really ticked me off because the Union never did anything for me. By goddamn, I belong here now.’ It took this man twenty-five years and this episode to understand what the Union really has been for him.
Community support here is just amazing. I sit out at the desk and I somebody comes in with ten dollars, with twenty dollars. Down south where it’s a farming community, the grain elevator employees have a union. They showed up here one night unannounced and handed me a check for fifteen-hundred dollars. They took a unanimous vote that they didn’t need a picnic this year. I started bawling! [laughs]
The East Valley High School took up a food drive and brought in two pick-up truckloads of food.
Stan: The kids in this town love us. That goes with the territory. High School age and a little bit older are naturally anti-establishment. Their attitude is, ‘Let’s change the rules so they make sense.’
Carol: And that’s what we have to do. I don’t care how much political power Hurwitz has. It’s time for the little people to win.
For more information about the USWA and the Kaiser strike, you can access their website at http://www.uswa.org, or http://www.choicenet1.com/steelworkers, or contact the author at (707) 923-5063. Call the USWA Local 338 at Trentwood at (509) 924-2650 and Local 329 at Mead at (509) 483-1848. We want to hear the Palco worker’ perspective and will publish comments in the next issue.
Posted at Earth First! Media Center June 14, 1999
Originally published in River & Range, Winter 1999, Vol. 1, No. 3
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