The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor
By Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. $29.95

Reviewed by Steve Watkins

Book Review March/April 2000

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Jimmy Rider shouldn’t have been working in the pot rooms at Ravenswood Aluminum that day in June 1990. He had already done a midnight shift as a crane operator, during which he complained of feeling ill. Plus it had been three years since the 39-year-old Vietnam veteran had had to endure the extreme conditions in the pot room, where ore is heated to 1,800 degrees Farenheit. But under new management at the West Virginia plant, workers were being forced to work double shifts, and supervisors were disinclined to make an exception for Jimmy Rider.
in the stifling pot room two hours into his second shift, and after complaining about the heat and even lying on the floor at one point, Rider died of a massive heart attack. His death on the job was no aberration. Five workers in all died that brutal summer at Ravenswood Aluminum. many others were victims of industrial accidents, heatstroke, and chronic fatigue.

But when the United Steelworkers of American Local 5668 sat down with management later in the year to work out a new contract, the company refused to talk about health and safety issues—refused in fact to talk about much of anything at all, except further concessions they were demanding from the workers. And when the union balked, Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) moved swiftly to lock out all 1,700 union workers, bringing in goon squads for security and hundreds of scabs for replacement labor. Management wanted not to negotiate but to try to bust the union, a fight they had been planning for a long time. After two decades of setbacks for labor, including big defeats in the strikes at PATCO, Eastern Airlines, International paper, and Hormel, they expected to win.
What Ravenswood Aluminum didn’t know but Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner make powerfully clear in Ravenswood: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the Revival of American Labor was that by 1990 the union movement had learned a lot from its losses and was primed to break out of its long, painful decline with a host of new strategies. Ravenswood was a test—of those strategies, of the unions’ resolve, of worker solidarity at a time when it wasn’t supposed to exist anymore—and United Steelworkers Local 5668 passed with flying colors. After a two-year lockout, the unionized workers reentered the plant with a new contract, new management, and a new perspective on the world and on their own lives as working people.

“If this ever happens to us again, we’ll be on the front gate, day one,” says Marge Flanigan, a key member of the union’s intensely activist Women’s Support Group and one of the 60 principal figures in the strike interviewed by Juravich and Bronfenbrenner.

Take five away, five more of us come in. Just to make a difference in labor. Make a difference not [just] for unions, for American working people. For others. The government has pushed, forced it on to the people, with the low economy and self-esteem, dog-eat-dog. . . . I’d like to see that change. . . . A labor dispute can almost be the beginning of your life, in some ways.

For the 1,700 locked-out workers and for thousands more in their small West Virginia community, that was certainly the case. All were enlisted to keep pressure on the company in a variety of ways, to force them back to the bargaining table, and to end the lockout. Some did conventional things: picketing, fund-raising, supporting the out-of-work employees and their families with rallies and cookouts, storing and distributing massive food donations from other unions and local supporters. Others became private investigators: monitoring the plant, tailing trucks around the country as part of an “end-users campaign” to identify buyers, who could then be pressured to stop buying their aluminum from RAC. Still others served as expert witnesses, testifying before Congress and West Virginia’s legislature about everything from working conditions in the aluminum industry to environmental concerns. And in the most innovative turn of all, some went global, helping track down and confront, with the help of labor unions around the world, the fugitive financier who ultimately pulled the strings at Ravenswood Aluminum.
When it was all over, even the pro-establishment New York Times noted that at Ravenswood the Steelworkers had shown “that a union can still break an employer.”

Juravich and Bronfenbrenner, labor studies professors who had access to the struggle through their union contacts, have done a masterful job telling the story of the Ravenswood lockout, following the people, the strategies, the sacrifices, the setbacks, and, slowly but finally, the successes of the union’s ambitious, multifaceted campaign. Unfortunately, the authors lacked similar access to management and sometimes serve as apologists for the union in its blunders and excesses.

But these are only occasional lapses in an otherwise compelling and insightful narrative. The authors make a strong case that American labor did see a revival in the 1990s and that the Steelworkers’ victory at Ravenswood played a key role.

In a photo section halfway into the book, beneath an aerial picture of the massive Ravenswood Aluminum plant, is a close-up of Jimmy Rider’s gravestone. It’s there to underscore, for those who would doubt it, the importance of the continuing battles, in the US and elsewhere, for all workers’ rights.

Steve Watkins is an associate professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va, and author of The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire.

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