Friday, December 19, 2008

The Slow Death of Century Aluminum

This may not fly on the radar of many around here, but it means a lot to my home county. Century Aluminum in Ravenswood, Jackson County, may shut down.

Consider the shock to this region if the paper mill shut down. Job losses, the cut in income to local businesses and other ripple effects would be crippling. Jackson County has to deal with that plus the loss of tax receipts that their schools and local government need.

This facility originally was Kaiser Aluminum, run by the business titan Henry J. Kaiser. Two decades ago, Kaiser ran out of steam and it became Ravenswood Aluminum. I honestly have no idea when it became Century.

This plant faced serious problems in the 1980s that stemmed largely from the steelworkers' union. I remember my stepfather had to travel there several times in one week to perform a simple computer repair. This may sound like a joke, but it is true. The light over the computer burned out and he could not see to do his job. Union rules specified that a certain combination of people must change the light. They could not get that combination for days. My stepfather showed up every day, feeling a little guilty that the company had to pay so much for time that he could not use to do his job. Eventually he offered to fix the light, but it was against union rules.

A few years later the union went on strike and the company hired replacement workers. I was in high school then and the tension was horrible. The same school that made a bold stand against Joe Camel could not bring itself to outlaw union made shirts that portrayed the corpse of a replacement worker with the motto "Scab Hunter" above it. The bedroom window of our quarterback was shot through in the mistaken belief that his brother, a replacement worker was staying there. Unpunished beatings of replacement workers happened over and over while jackrocks made the state highways dangerous to travel.

This foolishness is not over. A union facility in Maryland reprimanded a supervisor for helping employees to clean up a dangerous substance.

The point of this is that American industry is priced out of the competitive advantage it long enjoyed. Archaic and byzantine regulations have made it difficult for plants to keep costs down. Unions do have a role in the 21st century in terms of being safety and quality watchdogs while making sure workers get treated fairly, but it is time for them to decide whether or not it is more important to keep time honored, but bizarre, rules or jobs.

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