November 19, 2016

Funeral for a friend

I got some sad news this week. A friend of mine I hadn't seen for years died after a long illness. We met over 20 years ago in the midst of a huge struggle between the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) and the 1,700 union members and their families who were locked out of the plant.

RAC used to be owned by Kaiser Aluminum but its ownership had been kicked around over the years. The management at the time was eager to get rid of the union, even though the workers agreed to continue working under the terms and conditions of the old contract.

At midnight Oct. 31,1990 they were informed that they would be locked out of their jobs and permanently replaced.

The average age of a union worker was over 50 with over 20 years of service at the company.

What followed was a fight that lasted nearly two years and bitterly divided the community.

I visited the area with a union  miner friend shortly after it started. We had some experience in that kind of thing and offered solidarity, but nobody seemed interest. It was around a year later that I got a call from inviting me to come and meet with some steelworkers and members of the women's support group.

We met above a place called Ike's and it was there that I met my friend Sue. She was active in the support group but was the most unlikely labor militant you'd ever meet. She was a devoted homemaker and mother of three, active in her church and community. Neither she nor any of the other people impacted by the lockout ever imagined they'd be in this kind of situation.

We met regularly with folks for several months, trying to think of things to keep morale up while events took their course. I worked a lot with the women's group. This may not be a surprise to anybody, but I found they were more concerned with how everyone was doing and were more likely to follow through. No one seemed to look out for others as much as Sue. She was part of the glue that held people together at a critical time.

Eventually and against all odds, they won the lockout, thanks to unsung heroes like Sue. After two years of living dangerously, folks readjusted to a "normal" life.

No victory is permanent, but the plant stayed open and stayed union for until 2009. It's now closed.

It was a good fight, and the best part for me was meeting and standing together with people like Sue.

When you're in a struggle like that, people often swear to stay in touch. Sometimes you do, but often the tides of life cause us to drift apart.

I had lost contact with Sue until I got the news and it  hit me pretty hard. I guess a lot of the people I knew from that fight have passed. And I'm not getting any younger.

I guess the main thing is to do what we can with the time we have. She did anyway.

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