Contract Vote at Alcan

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Brings Back Bad Memories of the 1990s


As you heard in our Saturday (June 12, 2010) 6pm newscast, the union at Alcan Rolled Products in Ravenswood has voted down a new contract with the company. The good news is that work will continue while the two sides try to reach a new agreement.

Hopefully the two sides will be able to work out their differences so that the workers can keep earning good livings and the company can make enough of a profit to stay competitive in the global marketplace on the long term.

This all brings back bad memories of a year-long work stoppage at the same facility in the early 1990s when it was known as Ravenswood Aluminum.

I recall that experience as one of the saddest of all the years I was involved in new coverage.

The former company played hard ball, the union stood its ground, and the whole community suffered. At least one Steelworker went to prison for a bombing incident that permanently damaged the vision of a replacement worker.

The thing I remember most is that the man who headed the Steelworkers at that time, Jim Bowen, said: the union would never go back to work with "scabs," the union's name for the replacement workers who worked at the plant during the work stoppage. After a year of turmoil and heartache, the two sides eventually reached an agreement and the Steelworkers went back to work. Whether or not the deal that was eventually struck was better than any earlier proposal, or whether that deal more than offset what the Steelworkers, their families and the community lost in the intervening year, I can't say. The terms of the earlier agreements and the final agreement were never made public.

But I do know this: when the Steelworkers went back to work THEY DID go back to work alongside some of the replacement workers. I don't know how that went. I'm sure there were tense moments on both sides.

But for all of the speeches and vows of not working with scabs, and how that was a main sticking point in the whole controversy, the union eventually gave in on that issue without much fanfare or discussion.

I don't blame the union. A year out of work is a long time. A year spent manning picket lines in all kinds of weather is a dreary way to spend a year. It was the right decision to make.

All I'm saying to the company and the union is this: don't be trapped by your own rhetoric. Leaders don't always say what their stockholders or their members want to hear. Leaders are people who can see down the road and help people get ready for changes and challenges. They need to take the long view, remember the suffering, and learn from the past.

It takes two to tango, and it takes two NOT to tango. Let's hope the dance involved in these contract negotiations is short, fast, and sweet.

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