When union contract negotiations broke down at Ravenswood Aluminum in Ravenswood, supervisors turned away workers reporting for the midnight shift on October 31, 1990. A bitter struggle ensued with members of Local 5668 of the United Steelworkers of America, lasting until June 29, 1992, and becoming one of the most widely reported labor disputes of the late 20th century. While commonly perceived as a strike, the union considered the dispute a company lockout.
Ravenswood Aluminum, located in Jackson County, began as a plant of Kaiser Aluminum as the giant metals company expanded in the aftermath of World War II. From its opening in 1954 until Kaiser sold its aluminum plants in 1988, Ravenswood workers had never been on strike. But with the globalization of the industry in the 1980s, manufacturers sought cost-cutting measures that workers said jeopardized their safety and health. Indeed, during the summer before the lockout, four workers had died on the job at Ravenswood.
Local 5668 made safety and health a prime bargaining issue when negotiations began in the fall. The union confronted new owners with different ideas; the plant had changed ownership several times between 1988 and 1990. The current owners had acquired the plant through a leveraged buyout with a determination to cut production costs. Management demanded concessions and refused to budge on safety issues.
The next 20 months nearly tore the town apart. The plant owners decided to operate with replacement workers, known as ‘‘scabs’’ to the strikers. The practice was illegal if the company had in fact locked out the workers, but the state’s panel from the Department of Employment Security ruled that Ravenswood Aluminum had not engaged in a lockout. The union appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, where hearings and a decision would take months. Local 5668 worked to maintain morale through rallies, pickets, support groups, and a pooling of resources led by strikers and their families. Both the company and the union claimed that the other side engaged in violence and intimidation, and there were shootings, destruction of property, and other incidents in the community and around the plant and picket lines.
Meanwhile, the union began a ‘‘corporate campaign,’’ charging illegal activities by the ownership group, which included the international fugitive Marc Rich. Union members found themselves in demonstrations at corporate headquarters and government meetings in such places as Switzerland and the Netherlands. This campaign attracted such attention that negotiations finally reopened in April 1992. With an NLRB decision imminent, negotiators reached an agreement that allowed all union members to return to the plant.
The plant became part of Century Aluminum in 1995. In February 2009, Century Aluminum shut down the plant, citing low prices for metal and high energy prices. Six hundred and fifty workers lost their jobs. The company, however, has said it may reopen the plant if it can negotiate new contracts with Appalachian Power and with the union.
This Article was written by Ken Fones-Wolf
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Juravich, Tom & Kate Bronfenbrenner. Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.