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United Steelworkers of America (USW)

Capital Blight: Reflections on the August 3rd, 2013 Protest in Richmond, California

By x344543 - August 11, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

On Saturday, August 3, 2013, I--along with approximately 3500 others--attended the Summer Heat: Together we Can Stop Climate Chaos rally, jointly organized by 350.org and a coalition of local environmental and social justice groups.

The coalescing of these forces reflected a confluence of several factors, including:

  • The struggle of a predominantly people of color community to wrangle some justice for the environmental and economic transgressions committed by the Chevron corporation, which has for all intents and purposes run Richmond like a company town (and this corporation's refinery--a piece of the once ubiquitous Standard Oil monopoly--actually existed before the town which we now call Richmond was established);
  • A massive explosion and fire that occurred at the refinery a year previously, which investigations later revealed was due to corroded pipes, which refinery workers complained about to management, but were allowed to let stand, lest the company's profits be lessened by so much as a penny;
  • Chevron's connection to the extraction of tar sands from Alberta and elsewhere which represent a form of "extreme energy" which endangers the environment, workers, and communities along the transport routes of this stuff (whether by train, truck, ship, or pipeline), and has already caused massive devastation and death in Kalamazoo, Minnesota; Lac Megantic, Quebec, and Mayflower, Arkansas, just to name a few places; and
  • The increasing realization that continued unabated use (and increased use) of fossil fuels (and for that matter, capitalism in general) has the human race on a collision course with doom, because (capitalist) human caused global warming--which has already progressed past the dangerous two degrees Celsius threshold that gives 350.org its name--will almost certainly condemn the human race, and quite likely all of the Earth, to a Venus like end, and must be stopped...yesterday.

Due to the participation of my fellow IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus members, Elliot and Ryan, an idea that they planted as a seed blossomed into a sizable labor contingent, composed of over thirty unions--including the Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch--that endorsed the rally and participated as an organized force in one way or another. The idea became so popular within the coalition organizing this particular campaign, that 350.org hired an organizer, Brooke Anderson, to make it happen--which she did to great effect. Ultimately 208 participants, including all three of us, my wife, 350.org spokesman Bill McKibben, ILWU Local 6 president Fred Pecker, and Richmond's mayor, Gayle McLauglin.

The event began with a meet-up at the Richmond BART station--the Bay Area's principal public transit system--an electric heavy rail network, whose union workers--represented by various ATU and SEIU Locals were embroiled in a nasty labor dispute with the agency's management and had (before the date of the rally) engaged in a one-week strike. Due to my efforts, and in no small part because I am a transit worker myself, a ferryboat deckhand at another one of the Bay Area's public transit systems, I suggested to Anderson that she make overtures to the BART workers as workers who work as part of the solution to capitalist fossil-fuel driven climate change; she agreed. At the other end of the equation, as a member of the rank and file opposition caucus, Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, to which several rank and file members from the various BART unions have since joined, I pushed for the committee to reciprocate; they did.

As one would expect, corporate media coverage of the event, while extensive, was overall mediocre to atrocious.

Animation of Fire at Chevron's Richmond Refinery, August 6, 2012

What happened to Teamsters & Turtles? Arctic Drilling, the Labor Movement, and the Environment

By Alexis Buss - Industrial Worker, October 2001

"They couldn't have done it without the unions," is the sentiment echoed across the environmental movement, as U.S. President George Bush's energy plan passed 240-189 in the House. Although few expect the plan to drill for domestic oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to pass the Senate (although with the potential for war around the comer, political dynamics are bound to change), many are left scratching their heads, wondering what the future will be for a fledgling environmentalist-labor coalition dubbed "Teamsters and Turtles" during 1999's anti-WIO protests in Seattle.

Media pundits had long labeled the ANWR drilling plan as politically unviable because of the Democrats' control of the Senate. A last-minute intervention by the Teamsters played a major part in pushing the plan through the House, and Teamster President James Hoffa plans to help target the Senate when the bill hits the floor in late September.

The Teamsters came aboard as a lobby group for the plan after a closed-door meeting in May with Vice President Dick Cheney and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Leaders from over twenty labor organizations were present, mostly from construction and maritime. The AFL-CIO also endorsed the Bush plan late in the game, which came as an unexpected move as several power-hitters in the federation including the Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America had stated their opposition to the scheme. (The AFL-ClO's 1993 convention passed a resolution that, in part, called on the country to explore ANWR for oil with safeguards to protect the environment.)

Bush's energy plan - supposedly instigated by the California energy crisis [1] and unstable gasoline prices - calls for building almost 2,000 new power plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines over the next two decades. The Bush teams figures indicated that each new power plant would create 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs, while every 1,000 miles of pipeline would bring with it another 5,000 jobs. And there would be another job boom if nuclear power plants came back into the picture. All told, over 700,000 jobs would be created, according to a 1990 report of the Wharton Econometric Institute, paid for by the American Petroleum Institute. (Not to mention the plethora of jobs to be had cleaning up from environmental disasters, guarding radioactive wastes for tens of thousands of years, and such.)

Unions at the Cheney meeting have joined a business-led coalition called "Job Power: Americans for Energy Employment." It's worth noting that Cheney earned more than $20 million last year as CEO of Halliburton, an oil-field services company that would benefit greatly from loosening regulations on refineries and pipelines.

Summing up the Kaiser strike and lockout 1998-2000: Union Leaders Fear A Self-Directed Rank And File More Than Defeat

By Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan - November 5, 2000

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Eugene Debs asserted that the role of the established AFL union leadership was "to chloroform the working class while the ruling class went through its pockets." This was accomplished through blocking workers' participation in direct democracy in the unions, short-circuiting activist strategies that were favored by the majority, and ignoring or persecuting critics. Unfortunately, this tradition is not dead yet.

When the Kaiser steelworkers' strike and lockout began in 1998, their union, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), published an article comparing the good old days in the company under Henry J. Kaiser with the bad new days of vicious anti-union and anti-worker practices since Kaiser has been owned by MAXXAM, under the direction of Charles Hurwitz. Henry Kaiser was cited for recognizing and rewarding his workers for their intelligence, craftsmanship, achievements and hard work. Mr. Kaiser was also praised for being responsive to workers' concerns. The article said, "

It's no secret that Henry J. Kaiser is dead, because if he were still alive, we would not be on strike at Kaiser Aluminum. That's because labor relations at our company used to be governed by Mr. Kaiser's philosophy. And as a result, a job at Kaiser Aluminum used to be something special. In contrast to many of today's corporate executives, Mr. Kaiser insisted on treating us like 'human beings', not as disposable tools in the production process. The company's strategy for improving productivity was based on recognizing our "ability, skill and good will."

And when you got a job at Kaiser, it was a job for life." ("Kaiser, Then and Now," from USWA Trentwood Local forum, Why We're On Strike at Kaiser Aluminum A Message to our Communities from the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local Union 329, Spokane, Washington, Local Union 338, Spokane, Washington, Local Union 341, Newark, Ohio, Local Union 5702, Gramercy, Louisiana, Local Union 7945, Tacoma, Washington. Published in Mid 1998 and available at http://www.choicenet1.com/steelworkers/forum/default.asp)

This union perspective helped to define the workers' struggle in artificially limited terms. By romanticizing Henry Kaiser and his workforce policies, it downplayed the real significance of the workers' struggles that convinced this savvy New Deal era businessman to give his employees better-than-average wages and benefits in order to head off the disruptions and financial losses resulting from insurgency. It glossed over many currently relevant issues, including the recent trends in capitalist "restructuring" and "downsizings" which have become standard practice for corporations throughout the world in the past 20 to 30 years. The union bureaucrats also encouraged people to think of the recent problems with Kaiser's policies as due to unusually greedy and evil managers, guilty of bad business practices. They held off placing the Kaiser worker's problems squarely in the context of current trends toward intensified workforce exploitation--as corporations strive for higher rates of profits by simultaneously eliminating skilled jobs, in offices, stores and factories, etc., and demanding that people work harder for lower wages. And on a more basic level, the union leaders continued to encourage the rank and file to believe that their problems lay in having to fight against bad bosses, rather than against the usual interests of employers and socio-economic relations in the world.

They also distorted the realities of Kaiser Aluminum's exploitative practices before 1988, when MAXXAM acquired the company. Even before 1988, Kaiser was periodically demanding that the workers accept sacrifices, including layoffs and lower wages. But at that time union leaders encourage the workers to be "loyal" and accede to those demands. They only began to consider resistance when it became clear that the company was directly attacking the union, by closing unionized facilities and moving production to "right-to-work" states, where laws make it extremely difficult for unions to organize and bargain.

Striking Kaiser Employees Say Hurwitz is the Real Problem

Don Kegley, Mike McIntyre, Carol Ford, and Stan White, interviewed by Mikal Jakubal - River and Range, Winter 1999

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. 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.

Kaiser Infiltrated by One Sly Spy: Environmentalist Goes Undercover; Union Housed Secret Worker

By Hannelore Sudermann - Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Spokesman-Review, December 19, 1998

An environmentalist has been working undercover at Kaiser Aluminum plants until this week. Mikal Jakubul, said hes been a spy for the United Steelworkers during several weeks of the union's lengthy strike at Kaiser.

To the surprise of the security guards, Jakubul, 35, walked out of the Trentwood plant Thursday to great a waiting group of pickets.

This is the second time hes exposed himself as a spy at Kaiser.

Just a few weeks ago, after working at the Tacoma smelter, Jakubul said he walked out in the middle of a shift and told my supervisors and my co-workers what I had been doing there. He briefed the union on activities inside the plant, and gave news media interviews about inefficiencies he said he observed.

Then he came to Spokane. Jakubul, an environmental activist from Humboldt County, California, applied for work at both Mead and Trentwood. He took the job Trentwood offered, which had him working in a lab one week and on the aluminum slitter the next.

His application was identical to the one he filled out in Tacoma, he said. They're so disorganized, he said, I didn't lie about my name or anything. The union was aware of his activity and housed him while he worked at Trentwood.

Tacoma Pier Shut Down!: Sea Diamond, Laden With Kaiser Aluminum Scab Cargo, Idled By MTW-Organized Solidarity Action

By x337969 - November 1998

Tacoma, Washington - At sunrise on Monday, November 7th, Puget Sound Marine Transport Workers and other Wobblies set up a picketline at Pier 7 in the Port of Tacoma in solidarity with locked-out Steelworkers from Kaiser Aluminum.

The Sea Diamond, a cargo ship loaded with bauxite destined for Kaiser's Tacoma and Spokane facilities, was delayed for 24 hours, after members of Earth First! (EF!) occupied a crane and a conveyor belt at Pier 7.

The action was called for by members of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) who have been on strike for the last three months. The strike was prompted by Kaiser Aluminum's refusal to talk to the union over issues such as downsizing, cuts in medical and retirement benefits. Kaiser began moving trailers to house its scabs onto the polluted factory site before negotiations with the union were even set to begin.

Management at Kaiser--a subsidiary of the infamous Maxxam Corporation, owned by junk bond baron Charles Hurwitz--has conducted a determined effort to break the Steelworkers' union through the use of scab labor and strikebreaking goons from the International Management Assistance Corporation (IMAC).

The first ILWU dockworkers began arriving to work the ship at about 7:00 am. Jeremy Read, Branch Organizer of MTW-IWW San Francisco Bay Ports Local 9, explained to a crane operator the nature of the picket. The crane operator, realizing his right not to endanger the health and safety of anyone on the job site, promptly went home.

Longshore workers honored the picketline without hesitation. Many who had not been dispatched to work the Sea Diamond came down, out of both support and curiosity. Many were surprised that EF! had acted in solidarity with union workers, as many had viewed its past actions as opposed to workers' interests particularly in the lumber industry. Other longshore workers grabbed "bulls" (or forklifts), and moved checker shacks around to the picketline so pickets could get out of the rain.

EF! activists scouted Pier 7, and the first two were arrested after attempting to occupy the crane. Fortunately, others had made it up to the crane's boom, and some were posted in the scaffolding of the conveyor belt to the silos150 feet above ground.

As members of the press arrived, crane climbers rappelled from their position aloft in an attempt to unfurl a gigantic banner which read "HURWITZ CUTS JOBS AS FAST AS HE CUTS TREES". The wind ended up whipping the banner and the climbers about, creating a spectacle eagerly filmed by the TV crews. The climbers were cited for criminal trespass, but were not hurt. Climbers descended the crane in the afternoon, and were not cited or arrested.

The Sea Diamond dropped anchor at about 10:00am, and water craft ranging from an Wobbly sailboat to personal boats drifted around the port, preventing the ship from docking. Foss tugboats, operated by Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific members, cruised by to check out the action, as did Coast Guard vessels.

Throughout the action, Steelworkers maintained their legal six-member, informational picketline.

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