Labor Dispute Splinters Town
RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. (AP) _ The barbed wire-topped fence around the Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. plant also extends invisibly through this Ohio River town, dividing most of its 4,200 people into labor or management camps.
The strike, as the company calls it, or the lockout, as the union calls it, has gone on since Nov. 1 with no end in sight.
″It’s making friend hate friend, neighbor hate neighbor. I never thought I’d see that here,″ said video store owner Diane Roberts.
Being neutral, however, is tricky in the sometimes-violent standoff between 1,700 mostly older United Steelworkers and the salaried workers and 1,030 replacement workers who have taken their places.
The dispute began over bonuses and profit-sharing, but the replacement workers have emerged as a new issue.
A federal investigation into related fires and bombings brought the indictment of a union member and another man on weapons charges. The National Labor Relations Board has charged both sides with harassment or assault and is investigating further.
Both sides have accused the other of destroying property, assault, brandishing firearms, hit-and-run incidents and harassing telephone calls, state police said.
The plant, on the Ohio River a few miles south of town, held the promise of a secure, well-paying job for decades. Todd Smith, for example, left his job in a hardware store to work there.
″We thought we finally had a chance to have it made,″ said his wife, Angela, 29. ″But we’ve been struggling ever since.″
She’s been working part-time job at a supermarket to support their four children.
″The union and my measly little job are all we have,″ Mrs. Smith said. ″I told him if they don’t go back to work, we’re leaving. ... I don’t want to leave, but there’s just nothing to do up here.″
Lisa Duncan and her husband, Darrell, returned to town three years ago from North Carolina so that he could work at the plant like his father and father- in-law. He worked for only five days.
″We only have one stoplight and everybody knows everybody,″ Mrs. Duncan said. ″It’s kids you went to school with and the people you’ve known all your life who are taking your dad’s job and your father-in-law’s job and your husband’s job.″
The replacement jobs, however, have rescued many from unemployment. Those who crossed the lines have little sympathy for the union.
″In the beginning I felt bad about crossing a picket line,″ said a 27- year-old replacement worker from Ohio who spoke on condition of anonymity. ″My father was a union member for 32 years. But I feel he would have understood the situation.″
The father of two, unemployed five months, said he ″traveled through four states and went to 350 interviews.″
Union reaction is virulent. ″Scabs are Scum″ is spray-painted on a rock near the plant entrance. Six stuffed ″scabs″ hang in effigy from a tree in front of the union hall.
The state ruled the dispute a lockout, so union members are getting unemployment checks. But benefits probably will run out by mid-July, according to the state Bureau of Employment Programs.
The company has filed a lawsuit charging the union and 47 individuals with racketeering in more than 2,000 acts of violence, 90 percent of which involve damage to cars.
The union has complained to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration about safety practices at the plant.
The government has fined the company $41,700 for violating safety procedures in the deaths of four workers at the plant last summer. One man was burned while trying to change a fuse, two were overcome by fumes trying to put out a fire, and the fourth had a heart attack after two eight-hour shifts. The company is contesting $37,700 of the fines.
No contract agreement has been reached after seven meetings with a federal mediator.
The union claims Ravenswood Aluminum engineered the dispute to get rid of the union’s predominantly older workers. It says 42 percent have 30 years or more of experience.
″They started trying to get rid of the union way back in 1989 when they bought the plant,″ Doyle said. Ravenswood bought the plant from Kaiser Aluminum.
Ravenswood spokeswoman Debbie Boger denied that.
″What people have to remember is that this is a totally independent company in a very, very competitive business. We’re trying to compete with aluminum businesses around the world who have a lot lower raw material, labor, energy and environmental costs than we do,″ she said.
The average union worker, with 27 years of experience, was making about $12 an hour before November, according to union officials.
Labor agreed to a company proposal to eliminate bonuses that the union says were averaging about $4,000 a year. In return, the union wanted a $1.54 per hour wage increase.
The company offered profit-sharing; Doyle said the union is skeptical.
The main sticking point now is the replacement workers. The company says they’ll stay and the union says it won’t return if they do.
″I’m not going back in that plant with those workers in there,″ said Franklin Wilson, a 24-year veteran. ″I don’t think the union will go back with one scab in there.″