July 09, 2018

Resilience and tragedy

Ravenswood WV was once a booming factory town. It was the home of a major Kaiser Aluminum plant, with employment in the thousands.

It wouldn't be accurate, however, to say it was a company town. Or only that. It was also a union town and a stronghold of the United Steelworkers of America.

If you're at all aware of economic trends in American since 1980, you can probably guess the trajectory of the story. The plant faced massive layoffs early in the decade and was sold in the late 1980s, morphing into the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC).

In 1990, the company ordered union members, who were working despite the expiration of their old contract, out of the factory, which had taken on the appearance of a factory, and declared them to be permanently replaced.

Thus began "the battle of Fort RAC," which lasted from the fall of 1990 to the summer of 1992. It wasn't a strike; it was a lockout.

I must admit to having fond memories of that struggle, as I've written elsewhere. Despite all odds, the members of USWA Local 5668 won their jobs back.

In 1995, the factory became Century Aluminum, which eventually closed in the Great Recession, laying off 651 workers. Century union retirees had to fight long and hard to secure promised benefits, but eventually succeeded in 2017.

Today, aluminum is still produced there by Constellium, which employs around 1,100 people, most of whom are union members.It's the largest employer in Jackson County.

It's been a tough ride, and there have been plenty of casualties, but union workers have fought hard, won some victories and showed remarkable resilience.

Today another kind of struggle is going on there, as it is all over West Virginia and much of the country. That would be the struggle of responding to the pharmaceutical crime of the opioid epidemic.

This article from The Nation tells some of that story. The title--"These kids are watching their parents die"--is stark, but it's a quote from a local nurse practitioner. It makes the good point that public school teachers are in the front lines of this fight, just as they were in the wave of teachers' strikes that have challenged failed austerity policies in several states.

 Their situation is pretty grim, but, like the Steelworkers before them, sometimes they win.