Eight Years Since 2008 (and Still Broke)

Eight Years Since 2008 (and Still Broke)

Mhou

For 40 years workers have been told they have to give it all back. To be reasonable, to accept Last, Best and Final offers, to consider lay-offs as routine, to keep the company profitable, to be understanding, to learn that bankruptcy is necessary, to live with every ‘New Normal’ that further debases our working and living conditions. Tiered wage scales in auto, perma-temps in the postal service, career part-timers in parcel delivery, misclassified independent contractors in freight: every industry and sector has its own peculiar manifestation of capital’s insatiable appetites, its compulsive need to forever encroach upon labor as long as it exists.

There’s a line from Goodfellas worth remembering, because it used to be the unspoken anthem of organized and organizing labor:

“Business is bad? Fuck you, pay me

Oh you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me

Place got struck by lightning huh? Fuck you, pay me”

When over 500,000 coal miners defied the war-time no-strike pledge and walked off the job in 1943 over occupational safety and wage demands and FDR threatened to send in Federal troops, he was told “you can’t dig coal with bayonets” (Fuck you, pay me)

When Volkswagon opened their Westmoreland Assembly plant in Pennsylvania and tried to get away with paying lower wages than their counterparts at the Big 3 automakers in Detroit, autoworkers wildcatted, walking off the Volkswagon Rabbit assembly lines in 1978 carrying picket signs reading “No Money, No Bunny” (Fuck you, pay me)

When 1 in 3 construction industry contract negotiations resulted in strikes in 1970, and building trades employers were pleading poverty over inflation, post-strike agreements included an average first-year wage increase of 17%–more than triple the official rate of inflation;

When Business Week magazine lamented the success of the Flint sit-down strike, writing in 1937 that, “Great industries. . . are confronted with demands to sign contracts with groups which. . . demonstrate that they have. . . no conception of the validity or sanctity of a contract, no respect for property rights or for rights of any sort except their own”;

When General Electric attempted to shift health care costs onto its employees in 2003, 20,000 workers struck for 2 days to, in the words of the then UE General President,“exact a price from GE for its action.

(Fuck you, pay me)

Being reasonable is a relatively new development; particularly as the dominant orientation and first resort in labors class struggles. In the case of the current and former Century Aluminum workers in West Virginia, being reasonable has proven to be the poisonous, illusory option that it always was.

Century Aluminum: West Virginia

The Ravenswood Works was an old and relatively small aluminum smelting operation located in Jackson County, West Virginia outside the town of Ravenswood, with four potlines and a full operating capacity of 170,000 tonnes annually.

The average age in the virtually 100% white town is 42 years old—in that regard, it’s a snapshot of West Virginia. Jackson County has a median household income of $41,000 while about 1 in 5 residents live below the poverty line, for a per capita income of $20,000.

Opened in 1957 and completed in 1958, the Ravenswood works was owned and operated by a variety of aluminum companies in its 60 year history. Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation built and then operated the works until 1989, when they sold it to Ravenswood Aluminum. Ravenswood Aluminum changed its name to Century Aluminum of West Virginia in 1997, and in turn sold 500 acres of the works property, including the cast house and fabrication plant, to Pechiney Rolled Products in 1999 which split the works into two separate operations: one owned and operated by Pechiney Rolled Products, the other larger portion owned and operated by Century Aluminum (Pechiney sold their portion to Alcan Rolled Products in 2003).

In 2009, Century Aluminum closed its operations in Ravenswood, laying off 651 workers, while Alcan continued production in theirs—until 2011, when Alcan sold their operations in Ravenswood to Constellium. Workers in Ravenswood had been long represented by the United Steelworkers.

United Steelworkers Local 5668 represented the bulk of the workers at the works, with approximately 1,500 members before Century Aluminum ceased operations and laid-off 651 of their members. At the time Century shuttered their operation in West Virginia in February 2009, the average annual salary for an aluminum worker in the works was $51,000: significantly higher than the regional average. Yet despite these premium wages for the region, they were lower than the national average for unionized aluminum workers; a fact that was pointed out by the International President of the United Steelworkers of America Leo Gerard in an editorial in 2012.

This lower wage was not the result of regional cost of living considerations but was a local bargaining priority. Ravenswood aluminum workers negotiated contractually-obligated, lifetime, company-paid retiree health and prescription drug insurance coverage in exchange for lower wages. It was reasonably believed by the local workers that decades spent doing the physically demanding jobs among the innumerable occupational hazards in the aluminum smelting and rolling works would take an extreme toll on their health as they aged.

Like many unionized industries, early retirement was an option based on benefit formula calculations contained in collective bargaining agreements and single or multi-employer pension and health fund structures, so that a worker who was only in their 50’s could have had over 30 years of credited service and would’ve then been eligible to retire with full, lifetime pension and health benefits. The workers thought they were being reasonable, telling the company, “We’ll take lower wages today in exchange for guaranteed health benefits tomorrow.”

Industrial enterprises have environmental regulations to contend with, particularly when they shut down, becoming responsible for the remediation of environmental damage caused by their operations. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Century to update its cleanup plan due to the presence of cyanide, fluoride, lead and arsenic (and other pollutants) in the soil and groundwater around the shuttered works, confirming that the workers knew what they were bargaining for.

However, contractual obligations negotiated through collective bargaining are not divine ukases. At opportune moments, companies will shed these obligations with little to no consequences. Century Aluminum did not go through bankruptcy or make significant efforts to re-organize their West Virginia works before simply declaring that they would cease operations.

Immediately following this announcement in 2009 two things happened. First, negotiations began between the company and various parties to resume operations—in effect holding the 651 laid-off aluminum workers hostage. Second, to prop up profit margins in the meantime and in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, the company declared that it would cease funding the union health and welfare fund premiums for Century retirees. Initially, the company quit funding retiree health benefits for retirees 65 and older who were eligible for Medicare. Months later, Century announced it would quit funding retiree health benefits for retirees under 65 years old.

In November 2009, the retirees filed suit against the company in the form of complaints for breach of labor contract and for breach of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The retirees wanted a preliminary injunction to stop the cessation of benefits until the case moved through the court and an ultimate determination made. This was denied. Lawyers for the retirees argued, “What is a retirement benefit if it doesn’t last through retirement?” while Century lawyers argued that retiree health and welfare benefits were not vested and so, regardless of what the collective bargaining agreements said, the company was entitled to reduce or eliminate payments to the retiree health and welfare fund at any time. This case carried on in the background of events involving Federal and West Virginia government officials, agencies and representatives, Century Aluminum corporate officers, local union officers, laid-off aluminum workers and retirees and Occupy Wall Street.

Multiparty Negotiations

As soon as the plant was shut down in February 2009, negotiations began to re-start production. A drop in aluminum prices and demand in the midst of the global economic crisis precipitated closing down the works. What Century really wanted was to lower its labor costs and lower its utility costs to offset the drop in its profits.

Ceasing health care payments for West Virginia retirees served a similar purpose as laying-off 651 aluminum workers: to hold active and retired workers hostage to compel the government to give the company a better deal on utility rates and taxes so it would continue to provide good paying, family sustaining jobs in a starving, economically devastated region. But such jobs became good paying, family sustaining jobs due to years of struggle and worker self-organization, and their continued existence as such is irrelevant to the company, for whom the production of profit is their sole reason for existence. However, this narrative is politically valuable. This identity of interest between the company and the workers and retirees in continued production for divergent reasons mainly benefits the company, who can twist arms in government for favorable treatment on taxes, subsidies and various costs like utility rates by using its workforce as political props.

Due to retiree struggles among local politicians, any deal with West Virginia’s state government was contingent on a resolution of retiree health care benefits, dangling their well-being in front of politicians who ostensibly serve the local community. Within a year of cancelling benefit fund payments, a much reduced health care deal was drawn up, offering approximately $44 million over 10 years for a health and welfare fund for retirees. United Steelworkers Local 5668 negotiated this tentative deal and it was formally voted on by the retirees who approved it in March 2012. At that time, the retirees’ case in court was more or less put on hold, as both parties told the judge that they were hammering out a deal that would make the case moot.

With the retiree health care issue seemingly resolved, the West Virginia legislature passed a bill which was signed by Governor Tomblin in April 2012 that would grant Century Aluminum $20 million in tax credits to pay its utility bills if the price of aluminum fell below a certain level, and set up machinery through the Public Service Commission of West Virginia (PSC) in which industrial consumers of electricity could submit a request for a reduced, below-market utility rate from the power company (in this case, Appalachian Power).

In July 2012, meetings between the West Virginia government, Century Aluminum and Appalachian Power in the Public Service Commission were conducted in which Century made it known publicly what they wanted to restart production at Ravenswood: a special utility rate for electricity at the works that was not only below market value, but tied to the market price of aluminum.

This moment represented a time when everyone involved thought they were going to get what they wanted: West Virginia legislators and the Governor could appear to have saved jobs in the midst of the crisis, Century Aluminum would get away with shedding its contractual obligations to its workers and retirees and lower its utility costs to pad profit margins, the United Steelworkers could negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement which, despite being concessionary, would have put most of its laid-off Century members back to work, the power company would get a major consumer back on its balance sheet and the retirees would have gotten their health insurance back– even if it wasn’t as comprehensive as their old plan.

However, Appalachian Power estimated that Century’s proposal, if implemented, would have cost $196 million over 10 years and lead to increases in the utility bills of all other consumers (residential, commercial, industrial) of $3-$5 per month. In October 2012, the PSC submitted its 73-page final report which offered Century Aluminum a fixed, below-market utility rate for electricity at the works that would’ve been locked-in for 10 years, at which point Century would need to settle up and pay the difference between its special rate and the market value rate from that period. Less than a week later Century rejected the plan and over the next 2 months filed two alternative proposals which, in December 2012, were rejected by the PSC and represented the final ‘No’ from the state of West Virginia. A short time later, Century purchased an aluminum smelter in Sebree, Kentucky, seemingly to replace the hole in its operations (and quarterly financial reports) that the Ravenswood works once occupied.

At this point the retirees’ tentative deal for their health care, in the words of the judge trying their case, “evaporated,” and they returned to active struggle against the company. It wasn’t until July 2015 that Century Aluminum would definitively announce that its Ravenswood operations were to be closed permanently. As late as the summer of 2014, Century’s CEO was saying that restarting the Ravenswood works was at the very top of the company’s focus list, but a year later, they said that the inability to secure a better utility rate, a weak aluminum market and imports from China led to the decision to give up efforts to restart the works. West Virginia Governor Tomblin humbly asked the company to reconsider (they won’t) and to settle with the retirees (they haven’t). As of 2016, the retirees are still fighting for health care benefits and the plant space and land is being parted out for a variety of prospective industrial customers—the leading contender is a coal-to-diesel operation.

Century Aluminum: Kentucky

As of 2015, Century Aluminum owned and operated 4 aluminum smelters in addition to the shuttered Ravenswood works:

Ravenswood, West Virginia: 170,000 tonnes per year (shuttered and not producing)

Sebree, Kentucky: 205,000 tonnes per year

Mt. Holly, South Carolina: 224,000 tonnes per year

Hawesville, Kentucky: 252,000 tonnes per year

Grundartangi, Iceland: 260,000 tonnes per year

In May 2015, Century locked out 560 aluminum workers belonging to United Steelworkers Local 9423 at their Hawesville, Kentucky smelter when workers rejected the company’s Last, Best and Final Offer after months of negotiations to formulate a new collective bargaining agreement. Century’s demands leading up to the contract rejection and ultimately the decision to lock-out their employees centered on forced overtime and, predictably, retiree health care.

After a month of vigorous picketing (including formal company complaints of picket violence) and Federal mediation, the Kentucky aluminum workers voted to approve a modified agreement that ended the lock-out in June 2015.

Two months later in August the company informed the union that it intended to combine jobs which would result in lay-offs.  These were carried out in three waves over a two week period, 66 workers total at that time were laid-off. In September, Century began demanding a change to the schedule setup of its smelter workers, at first promising to retain the 8 hour day and only change the configuration of these 8 hour shifts. In October 2015 the union informed its members at the Hawesville smelter that production would drop to a two line operation with further large layoffs coming. On October 15 the union sent out Trade Adjustment Assistance information for its members facing lay-off, invoking a 1974 government program that compensates workers whose wages or hours are reduced or jobs are lost as a result of increased imports or shifts in production to foreign countries.

At some point the company sent out WARN notices to the workers, in effect telling them that their jobs and benefits are now hostages much like those of their West Virginia counterparts a few years earlier. Toward the end of April 2016, Century demanded a change from 8 to 12 hour shifts, a total restructuring of the labor pool based on further job combinations which would require existing workers to re-bid on these ‘new’ jobs in the smelter, and the installation of video cameras in the works, ostensibly to “monitor bath bunkers for contaminants,” but more likely to implement UPS-style surveillance on its employees.

The Hawesville, Kentucky aluminum workers were then the focus of the company to shore up its profits by reorganizing the terms of production at the smelter and chiseling away the wages, hours, benefits and working conditions of its unionized workforce. One spot of good news came for a single Hawesville worker at that time: after being terminated by the company and spending 10 months fighting for reinstatement, an arbitrator ruled that this employee was wrongfully terminated and returned to work.

International Capital

Century Aluminum’s largest shareholder is Glencore PLC, the 10th largest company in the world as of 2015 which also owns Sherwin Alumina. At the same time that Century locked-out 560 aluminum workers in Hawesville, Sherwin Alumina locked out 450 aluminum workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 235A, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Glencore has been involved in similar chiseling tactics against mine workers in South Africa, Colombia, Peru and Australia.

From West Virginia to Iceland, from South America to South Africa, the aluminum industry—like every industry– recognizes no borders. Local communities and local workers have no special significance, merely representing a means to an end in the production of profit.

That Century Aluminum was the largest employer in Jackson County, West Virginia at the time it shuttered its operations or that its retired workers and their families were dying or losing their meager reserves after being stripped of their health insurance, are irrelevant facts to the forces and personifications of capital. There was a coordinated global strategy to offset dropping profits through the despotic power of international capital, leaving the workers to be reasonable and give concessions to their employers orto engage in open resistance and become unreasonable. Ravenswood retirees tried to the end to be reasonable and over the last 6 years have suffered and lost much. The human cost for them has been unimaginable: whole lives ruined, friends and family members needlessly dying too soon. But their struggle produced many lessons, which are urgent now that government and industry have opened a legal path to cut the earned pensions of workers who are already retired in the United States with the 2014 Omnibus Budget and Spending Bill passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Obama.

Occupy Century Aluminum

In 1990, Ravenswood Aluminum (later re-named Century Aluminum) locked-out 1,700 union aluminum workers at the Ravenswood works less than a year after purchasing the works from Kaiser. Virtually all of the Century retirees were involved in this struggle, and the story of it is recounted at the very top of their website, which they launched when they began fighting to regain their health benefits.

The new owners, who bought the works from Kaiser in 1989, were trying to bust the union and they lost. It was an experience that would inform the actions taken by the retirees over 20 years later, and the lesson drawn from it was obviously that if you organized and stuck by your organization, you could defeat the company.

When it was announced that they would be stripped of their health benefits, many of the 540 Century retirees formed a new organization, Century Retirees Standing Together (CRST), and through their old union, United Steelworkers Local 5668, initiated their legal complaints against the company. A website was launched outlining the terms and history of their struggle, which served as a platform to compile and publish news and pertinent information.

Many concerted actions were undertaken beginning in 2010, including traveling to Century Aluminum’s corporate headquarters in Chicago to set up an informational picket (where they set up the large inflatable fat-cat-in-a-suit, a common sight in metropolitan labor disputes) and traveling to West Virginia’s Capitol Complex in Charleston to picket and handbill when Century executives went there to ask for a government handout to restart production. CRST’s slogan: “We may have one foot in the grave, but we are kicking like hell with the other.”

In the background of these events, Occupy Wall Street’s original protest in Zuccotti Park began in September 2011, and by early October had become the Occupy movement. Throughout its existence, the relationship of Occupy to organized and organizing labor and to the working-class was complicated. It was a social movement that often tried to orient toward the workers’ class terrain, for example through the West Coast port shutdowns, giving assistance to organizing retail workers in New York City and later in episodes like Occupy General Strike for May Day 2012. But, in other examples, this orientation caused friction with both local workers and the labor movement, as in the longshoremen and International Longshore and Warehouse Union in their struggle with EGT in Longview, Washington.

In a manifestation which stood this orientation on its head, the Century Aluminum retirees launched their own Occupy encampment in rural West Virginia, with no prior contact with the larger movement, as a tactical move in their struggle for the return of their health benefits. On December 18, 2011, Century Retirees Standing Together launched Occupy Century Aluminum, and set up an encampment on a grass median strip off Route 33 across the street from their former (and then-shuttered) employer: the Ravenswood aluminum smelter and rolling works. Tents, picket signs and burn barrels lined the median when retirees in their 50’s to their 80’s, their families and supporters camped outside in the winter for several months to carry on their struggle.

Soon, Century Aluminum paid to have a concrete barrier installed to protect the occupiers from the possibility of an out of control car sliding into them when the roads got icy. In a second public relations gesture, Century installed portable toilets for CRST retirees and their supporters. 

The retirees’ successful agitation in Charleston and among elected politicians or political candidates like Governor Tomblin led West Virginia’s government to stipulate that any tax credits or rate adjustment for Century would be contingent on settlement of the retiree health care issue first. When Century and the United Steelworkers negotiated a tentative settlement for a new retiree health plan, and the retirees voted to accept this settlement, it looked like they had fought back and won. So, in the spring of 2012, after several months of maintaining their Occupy encampment, the retirees broke down the camp.

However, in December 2012, the deal “evaporated” when it looked as though Century wasn’t going to restart production at the Ravenswood works after all; the company had no incentive to carry through with their $44 million health care settlement. For a brief period in 2013, approximately 50 of the Century retirees re-occupied the median strip adjacent to the Ravenswood works entrance, but it didn’t have the same effect the second time.

It was a novel tactical move in December 2011, after the Occupy movement had become an international phenomenon and a social movement with significant popular support. That it was decided in that moment to transform their struggle from one using traditional tactics into a facet of a wider social movement, which was informed by the general struggle against the effects of capitalism in a time of acute crisis, is what is significant. Unlike many Occupy participants, the Century retirees had a concrete demand, an articulated and defined material gain at the center of their struggle, and a specific target—their former employer—rather than abstract entities like ‘The Bankers’ or the 1%.

In launching Occupy Century Aluminum, the Century retirees represented and personified class struggle necessity. Identifying with a developing social movement and engaging in the tactic of encampment was all predicated on the belief that these actions would facilitate and assist them in their struggle for the return of their health benefits. It can be reduced to utility: can the social movement offer tactical advantages to workers in their resistance to the demands of capital? In this episode in Ravenswood, Occupy offered such an advantage which was successfully exploited by the organized retirees.

However, at the height of their struggle in the spring of 2012, after months of concerted actions culminating in organically joining the international occupation movements stretching the length and breadth of the globe, the offer of a concessionary compromise was accepted, the encampment was dismantled, their civil suit was put on hold and the struggle was effectively aborted on the ‘good word’ of a non-binding tentative offer made by the company.

The retirees were willing to meet the company halfway if it meant they could recover some form of health insurance coverage and in the process clear the way for their active fellow workers and fellow union members to go back to work. It was the reasonable thing to do. The working-class is not inherently so but can be reasonable, it can make sacrifices for the good of all; capital cannot do so unless there is a boot on its throat, and it will forever fight to remove itself from such a situation if only to resume its endless encroachments. No one went back to work and no one got their health insurance back in West Virginia, an outcome being repeated in Kentucky, repeated around the world in the aluminum industry from the miners to the smelter workers, and mirrored in every other industry among active and retired workers everywhere else.

Reasonable/Unreasonable

While the option to be reasonable is based on illusory conceptions, the material gains which prompt the tendency toward being reasonable are most definitely not illusions. Premium wages and shorter work days, extensive work rules, defined-benefit pensions and premium company-paid health and prescription drug insurance are substantial gains won through years of violent, arduous and accumulated class struggles. They express a quality of life which is unmistakably marked by better outcomes for the individual worker, their families and their communities than the most heavily exploited, oppressed and vulnerable fractions of the working-class. They represent greater free time to pursue interests, stability in the knowledge that short and long term needs will be met and the capacity to develop reserves for the infinite uncertainties which pockmark human existence.

This is what the earliest, embryonic, rudimentary signs of human dignity look like as a result of labor’s class struggles in the confines of capitalist society—a very basic expression of what labor’s class struggles, with the movement toward socialism, can begin to offer humanity with the abolition of capitalism: a life of dignity differentiated by stability, comfort and the meeting of needs and desires. For example, there is an unmistakable difference in the quality of life, from the cradle to the grave, of a unionized West Virginia aluminum worker to their non-unionized, service sector, part-time or temp/casual counterpart working two or more jobs for minimum wage (or not much above it), with precarious employment, no real access to health or retirement benefits outside of state plans like Medicaid and Social Security and no path to stability in any facet of life. Working hours are longer but disjointed by being divided between multiple employers, skill and career advancement opportunities are non-existent and higher education is out of reach (for whatever that’s really worth).

Home ownership is the ultimate symbol which divides these segments of the working-class from each other, and represents a tangible gulf separating the quality of life of each. All of these material gains won in the workplace, which diffuse into every aspect of each workers’ personal life, create something to lose; but capitalism itself makes every gain, even the most durable, into something precarious, subject to revocation seemingly at random.

Home ownership as a social institution was existentially shaken by the 2008 economic crisis. Waves of foreclosures and local real estate collapses often occurred in tandem with workplace reorganizations, lay-offs and bankruptcies as a result of the crisis, which compelled previously secure workers to sell their homes at painfully low prices as their modest reserves were tapped or completely consumed.

New generations of workers have been unable to enter the housing market for themselves, even today, 8 years after the acute onset of the crisis. At this historic moment when the better-off fractions of the working-class are unable to defend past gains and recently combative, younger fractions are unable to secure new material gains, the tendency toward being reasonable is being shown in practice and painful lived experience to be based on the illusory conception that capital will be satisfied with some givebacks and will then be content to leave the rest untouched.

The tendency toward being unreasonable is just as latent in the working-class as that toward being reasonable and was at the root of all of the substantial improvements in working and living conditions over the last two centuries. Capital was trying to satisfy us when we were being unreasonable; it was compelled to grant us concessions. But 40 years of cumulative reversals, of giving back in piecemeal fashion (auto since the 1970’s) or in sudden and sweeping industrial restructurings (construction since the 1960’s) the concessions which had been won from capital by labor, is liquidating the modest reserves and improved standard of living extracted by fractions of the working-class through those very rational yet unreasonable struggles.

If being reasonable is derived from the tendency to defend material gains which had earlier been extracted and accumulated, then the agents and forces of capital personified in chiseling employers and anti-labor politicians as well as paternalistic employers and politicians claiming to be ‘Friends of Labor’ have all demonstrated repeatedly– in a nauseating déjà vu all over again, and again, and again–that capital cannot be reasoned with and cannot be satisfied by givebacks. No wage rate, health benefit, pension or job is ever secure.

At Century Aluminum, the active and retired, union and non-union workers held hostage and discarded in West Virginia when they could not guarantee sufficiently high profits merely foreshadowed what is happening now at Century smelters in Kentucky. As it relates to retired workers, the pensioners and widowers who are Too Old To Work/Too Young To Die, the struggle in Ravenswood exemplifies the general and international attack on deferred wages in the form of retiree health and pension benefits happening everywhere. No episode of the class struggle is ever an isolated incident, each merely represents moments in the shifting balance of forces of the contending classes.

It doesn’t matter to capital if every concession it has been forced to grant is returned, because our working conditions can be pushed to greater extremes and our living conditions forced down to the lowest levels of basic subsistence. We never had anything to lose because what we had taken from capital was necessarily precarious to begin with. Compromises and defensive struggles over time are inevitable because the class struggle is not linear in its trajectory. But we must remain intransigent on the fact that we never had and do not now have a stake in the continued existence of capitalism. Fuck you, pay me—higher wages, shorter hours, health care and pensions for now, and we’ll take the rest as soon as possible.

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