Letter From Ravenswood
A COMPANY TOWN TORMENTED AND TORN
After a potluck dinner featuring the homegrown talent of the Papa Band, hundreds of steelworkers from Local 5668 congregated outside their union hall. Their breath visible in the chill mountain air, they collected cash from other United Steelworkers (USW) locals, preached solidarity, and prayed for deliverance from their ordeal. Finally, over the public address system, came their closing chant: "Hey, hey, whaddaya say? Kick a scab in the ass today! Hey, hey, whaddaya say . . . "
Fighting words, meant to be taken pretty literally. A year-old lockout at Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. deep in the Ohio River Valley has become a symbol of just how desperate and down-and-dirty a labor confrontation can be.
The lockout has cost 1,750 union members their jobs but has given work to 1,100 nonunion replacements, mostly from nearby communities. At a time when the clout and memberships of unions are on the decline, the steelworkers simply can't afford to lose this battle. In the meantime, Ravenswood, W. Va., population 4,189, is a town torn apart.
Tension is pervasive. Husbands who were hourly laborers in the plant watch as wives go off to work their salaried jobs in RAC's offices. On Sunday mornings, churches are sometimes split along pro-union, pro-management lines. Every stranger in town is suspect. "You look first to see if they're wearing hard-toed shoes, to see if they're scabs," says Janice Crawford. After losing her job as a millwright to the lockout, she lost her car. Adorned with pro-union stickers, it was destroyed by a pipe-bomb.
So far, one side alone--the company--has reported two persons shot and well over 700 other acts of intimidation and violence--an average of about two a day. Sometimes the incidents are anonymous, sometimes not. Months ago, Bobbie Ray Albright and his wife, Lucille, stopped talking to a certain neighbor, a salaried, nonunion RAC worker who they say "had been super-nice for 17 years." Then, the neighbor "just lost it" and tried to pick a fight with Albright, a 25-year union man, at the local Pizza Hut, Lucille said.
The weeks went by, the lockout got uglier. The Albrights say their son was intentionally hit by a car. The brake cables of their car were cut, and their driveway was blanketed with jack-rocks--tire-flattening devices made by welding two bent nails together and sharpening all four ends. Whenever she came home after dark and her husband wasn't home, Lucille would beep the horn so a neighbor could look out for her.
On the night of Oct. 24, though, her honk touched off the wrong reaction from the wrong neighbor--the salaried worker. He came out of his home with a rifle and fired it in the air. As she got out of her car, he fired it again, and once more after she rushed inside. The man was jailed for a night and faces charges. Lucille Albright attributes the incident to "paranoia."
While bitter labor battles have been common in West Virginia, all this is new and terrible for this little community of pretty homes and manicured lawns. Four decades of good-paying RAC jobs spared it the hardships of Appalachia. Now, its citizens yearn for the life they once had. "Everybody used to be so nice," says Lucille. "They said good morning, and they smiled. Today, you look at people, and they all have long faces and are afraid to speak. You just don't do it because what used to be your friends -- you have no friends now."
OVERRULED. It was a nasty dispute from the get-go. Ravenswood owner R. Emmett Boyle had been a manager at the plant under its former owner, Kaiser Aluminum Corp., who sold it to him in a 1989 leveraged buyout. He knew the ornery, militant reputation of Local 5668, which had rejected every national contract since 1980. "Hell yes, we turned them down," affirms Charlie McDowell, a 5668 official. "We're not dumb asses." But 5668 was outvoted by its brethrenat other locals, and give-backs wereratified.
Boyle was set for a fight. With talks approaching on the first independent contract with Local 5668, he spent $1.5 million fortifying the plant, hired paramilitary guards, and shipped in enough food and supplies for his 450 salaried employees to live at the plant for a month. Well before the contract deadline, RAC placed help-wanted ads in nearby newspapers. Jobs paying $30,000 a year easily attracted replacements in a state where the average wage-earner income is about $13,000.
Just after the negotiators missed the midnight, Oct. 31, 1990, deadline, guards escorted second-shift workers out one door as their replacements filed in another. Thomas Slone, who had a pregnant fiancee to support, was among them. Needing pay and health benefits, Slone, 24, took a crane operator's job at $13 an hour. The burly former college football lineman has been threatened and had two tires flattened. He no longer wears his RAC cap in public. The venom can come from anyone, he says: "I saw an old lady lean out a window and plant a big hocker on a windshield."
The flat tires came from jack-rocks, and both sides use them. "You can tell these are scab jack-rocks," says a union man, displaying a handful. "They're not very well made." The devices do more than ruin tires: Two picketers have suffered facial injuries from hurled jack-rocks. They have become perverse symbols, with miniature jack-rock earrings fashionable among union wives.
In fact, you can buy a pair at the USW assistance center in the local strip mall, along with other anti-RAC paraphernalia sold to help the strike fund. As one of the 15 regulars who man the center, former millwright Crawford sees the hardship faced by union families every day. The center gives out food and cash for those whose utilities are about to be cut off or whose mortgages are in danger.
HIDDEN HAND? The USW international has launched a huge campaign to force Boyle to either settle or sell the plant. RAC customers, banks, and suppliers have all been pressured. The union has even lobbied Swiss authorities to extradite
fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, who the USW charges is the real power and money behind Boyle (BW--Nov. 11). But it's a National Labor Relations Board judge who may have the biggest say on Ravenswood's fate. If the steelworkers prove bad-faith bargaining, Boyle may owe $68 million in back wages and benefits, a sum that could cripple the debt-laden, $600 million company, already facing a tightening market. If Boyle wins, the replacement workers keep their jobs, and there will be no end to the acrimony. Either way, Ravenswood is the big loser.
"It's just like a nightmare," says Lucille Albright. "You think to yourself: 'Please pinch me. Wake me up.' "MARIA MALLORY; Mallory covers labor from BW's Pittsburgh bureau.