by Mike Elk
Ed. note: On October 11,2014, Sherwin Alumina locked out 450 USW Local 235A members at their plant in Gregory, Texas. The lockout came after 235A members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s demands for major cuts in pension and health care benefits for members and retirees, as well as reductions in overtime pay. The lockout is now continuing into its 15th month
Sherwin Alumina is owned by Glencore, a highly profitable Swiss commodities giant that is the 10th largest corporation in the world, with net income of $4.6 billion in 2013.
Glencore is a company set up by billionaire financier Marc Rich, who was eventually brought to terms by the USW after a lengthy lockout at the Ravenswood aluminum plant in West Virginia. Rich, then a fugitive from American justice, was notoriously pardoned by Bill Clinton in the last days of his Presidency.
This article was originally written by labor reporter Mike Elk for Politico in July 2015, but did not appear then because of a labor dispute between Politico management and Mike Elk, who was active in the effort by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA Local 32035) to organize POLITICO.
As one with extensive experience in the global labor movement, I regard Mike Elk’s July article as an excellent case study of the difficult realities of campaigning for international labor solidarity.
December 15, 2015
This morning, I found myself wanting to cry as I spoke on the phone to a United Steelworkers staffer about an ugly lockout of 450 at Sherwin Alumna lockout that has gone on for 14 months. As a labor reporter, I have dealt with PTSD as a result of the suicides, divorces, and bar room brawls that happen during lockouts. It’s just so awful what happens to people during lockouts and the media even the so called “left media” rarely pay proper attention to them.
Ironically, I was unable to publish a story about their lockout because I was locked out from my own job for engaging in union activity. For 8 months, POLITICO illegally forbid me from coming into work claiming they didn’t know if it was safe for my health as a PTSD survivor to come into a loud ,noisy, stimulating workplace like POLITICO’s newsroom. There was no medical basis of POLITICO’s lockout and they did tit against the wishes of Dr Harold J. Wain, the Chief of the Psychiatry Consultation Liaison Service at Walter Reed Bethesda.
During this time period POLITICO forced me to work from home, gave me over a dozen assignments as busy work that I had to complete or be fired, and refused to publish any of them. The company forced me to undergo an in depth psychiatric evaluation in order to keep my job and I was forced to share the most intimate details of my struggles with mental health with all of POLITICO’s top editors. Then, they violated my medical privacy, spread rumors to reporters and potential employers about the severity of my struggle with PTSD.
Refusing to publish my stories played into a public image that I had lost it mentally. I now find myself going into job interviews and being forced to explain to employers why I had no bylines for the last year. It’s utterly humiliating to constantly have to defend my mental competency to potential employers.
Even worse is what has happened to the workers in the story that I have covered.
I was very hopeful that the story I wrote on the Glencore lockout would help these workers stuck in an ugly battle in Texas. POLITICO Managing Editor Carrie Budoff Brown, who was out of the loop on POLITICO’s anti-union strategy, had given a greenlight for the story to run in both POLITICO and POLITICO Europe’s edition. I was hoping that international exposure could shine light on Glencore’s illegal practices or at the very least give the workers hope that someone was paying attention. POLITICO denied these workers that hope.
While I received a settlement from POLITICO for its illegal anti-union retaliation, these 450 workers have never received any settlement from POLITICO for what it did to them. I find myself wondering what may have happened to workers if this story had published. Instead, these workers are still stuck in a miserable lockout where the company is threatening to close the plant.
If there is any publication that would like to pay for me to go down Texas and cover the story, I would love to do it. At the very least, I feel as a labor reporter that I owe to these workers to publish this story.
Here is the full story as submitted to POLITICO on July 24th with light edits for typos.
July 24, 2015
In the early 1990s, the United Steelworkers helped developed the modern international strategic campaign during the Ravenswood lockout when they famously chased fugitive billionaire Marc Rich all over the world. The Steelworkers teamed up with unions in Europe, Asia Africa, and the Caribbean. These unions then put pressure on foreign government around the world to to block government deals with Rich’s companies unless the lockout in West Virginia was resolved.
They also worked with leading Swiss trade unionists to build political pressure to have Rich extradited from the country to face criminal proceedings in the United States for tax evasion, racketeering, and violating the embargo with Iran. Ultimately, the pressure tactics succeeded and created a playbook that unions have been trying to follow for the last 20 years.
Now, Marc Rich is dead, but the Steelworkers still find themselves in yet another ugly ten month lockout with one of Rich’s corporations, Glencore. The company, now run by his protegee, Ivan Glasenberg has locked out of 450 Steelworkers at Glencore’s Sherwin Alumina smelter facility in Gregory, Texas in October. The company demanded that the union accept a contract proposal from the company that would have eliminated retiree health care, eliminated pensions for new hires, and raised out of pocket healthcare costs by 75%. In October of 2014, when the union refused to agree to such drastic cuts, the company locked them out and hired “scab” replacement workers.
Despite the fact that it is illegal under Swiss law to use “scab” replacement workers, Glencore has hired hundreds of “scab” replacement workers; making the likelihood of settling the labor dispute anytime soon unlikely.
However, a new international coalition, is building support for a Swiss ballot initiative that would be the first of its kind in Europe and could finally force Swiss companies to abide by Swiss law when operating overseas.
“It’s just incredible to see the support you get overseas” says Johnny Soto, an aluminum worker, who traveled to Switzerland in April to visit with Swiss lawmakers. “I just can’t describe how good it feels to know that people in a foreign country have your back”.
While in Switzerland, Soto lobbied Swiss lawmakers to pass a bill that would make companies like Glencore liable for their violations A central part of the Steelworkers campaign has been to highlight Glencore’s numerous labor violations around the world.
In July, its Gregory, Texas plant was cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration for three federal safety infractions. Federal statistics show that Non-Fatal Days Lost Injury Rate is more than twice the national average.
In Australia, in 2013, the company locked out 400 union miners at its rural Collinsville mine during a labor dispute, opened a new coal mine nearby to go after the same seam of coal and then refused to rehire ¾ of the union miners that it had previously locked out, instead opting to bring in new non-union miners from the outside. Glencore then evicted the union miners from its company owned housing; forcing many to uproot their families and leave the communities that they had called their homes for decades.
Most egregiously, Glencore has been accused of funding anti-union right wing paramilitary groups in Colombia. These paramilitary groups have been linked to the murders of trade unionists through Colombia.
In June, trade unionists in a dozen American cities as well in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and South Africa traveled to Swiss consulates and embassies around the world to put pressure on Glencore to clean up its act around the world.
“Glencore’s behavior abroad tarnishes Switzerland’s good name and reputation” wrote Gerard.
“Glencore is practicing violence, displacing communities, seeking unnecessary cuts from its unionized workforce worldwide, driving down living standards for workers, and destroying communities and cultures.”
As American unions find themselves frustrated by their decreased clout, they find themselves becoming increasingly reliant on their European counterparts to get European companies to play by European rules when operating in the U.S.
Several decades ago, European unions did not always work as closely with their American counterparts. Cornell University Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations Kate Bronfenbrenner says that many European union’s, who enjoyed good relationships with their companies as a result of their clout, were hesitant to upset their good relations with their companies to help their American comrades.
However, Bronfenbrenner says that as European unions are increasingly seeing their work outsourced to lower wage markets in Eastern Europe, Africa, India, and even the United States that these unions have become more engaged in helping out their comrades overseas. The key to this, she says, is increased interactions directly between rank and file workers in both years.
“When you have a worker exchange that’s when the transformation happened” says Bronfenbrenner. “Workers meet another worker and realize that their lives aren’t that different”.
The United Steelworkers have lead the way in helping to facilitate these types of cultural exchanges by offering foreign language classes to their members as well as frequent delegations of rank and file workers to countries around the world.
The Steelworkers are also members of the IndustriALL Global Union Federation, which represents more than 50 million workers in 140 countries. IndustriALL helps facilities dialogues between unions from various countries who are fighting against common employers. IndustriALL arrange international campaign coordination sessions and facilitates exchanges.
In April, IndustriALL helped arrange the visit of locked out Glencore Steelworkers from Texas to Switzerland to meet with Swiss trade unionists. The locked out Steelworkers also spoke with NGO’s and members of the Swiss parliament about a proposed ballot initiative that could hold Swiss corporations more accountable for their actions overseas.
Over 66 Swiss trade unions and organizations have endorsed the Responsible Business Initiative, which is modeled after the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were adopted by the UN in 2011. If adopted, the Responsible Business Initiative would be the first European law of its kind that could hold European companies liable in European courts for labor and environmental violations aboard.
The initiative calls on Swiss corporations to first review all of their business practices in order to identify how their practices harm the environment and labor. Then, they would be required to develop a plan to combat these practices and regularly report on their violations overseas. The initiative would also allow overseas workers and communities to hold Swiss corporations legally liable in Swiss courts for compensation for the violation of environmental and labor rights overseas.
Now, the groups have 18 months to gather 100,000 signatures in order for the measure to be appear on the ballot in Switzerland. If passed the initiative could become the first such initiative in Europe and the IndustrialALL Global Union Federation says that it could become a sign of things to come as the Global Union Federation gets more ambitious in its pursuit of international solidarity.
“IndustriALL Global Union has had impressive successes with this kind of actions where European union’s apply pressure to European companies to do the right thing in the US”” says South African trade unionist Glen Mpufane of the IndustriaALL Global Union Federation. “It is a growing trend because of the increasing global power and strategies by global union federations and civil society agitation together with a demand for a shift in reporting and accountability requirements”.
While solidarity from European unions may help American unions, Paul Garver a former official with the International Union of Food Workers, worries that too many Americans unions see the strength of their counterparts in Europe as a way to solve their labor problems. However, Garver warns that a union can have tremendous leverage as a result of its European allies, but still can be beaten if they haven’t done sufficient organizing with rank and file workers at the center of the labor dispute.
Garver points to the failed Volkswagen election in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014 as an example of what can happen if a union puts too emphasis on European pressure campaigns while neglecting building strong support among the workers directly in the struggle.
There, the UAW’s German counterpart IG Metall helped secure a neutrality deal that was suppose to make organizing easier. However, the very neutrality deal limited the ability of the union to engage in community-labor alliances or raise workplace complaints. The neutrality deal also contained stipulations about wage increases that lead many anti-union groups to denounce the neutrality deal as a “backroom deal”. Ultimately, despite the strong support from its European allies, the union lost because it was never able to build the type of community and workplace support necessary to win the election.
Garver says that while international labor campaigns can help many unions, it must not forget that organizing as the center of a labor struggle is key.
“For international solidarity to function successfully, two other core components are essential – determined support from the rank-and-file workers and strong backing from other unions and community members in the region” says Garver.
[Ed. end note] As the person quoted here at the end of Mike Elk’s article, I would like to add my best wishes and solidarity for the locked-out workers at Sherman Alumina in this holiday season. It looked pretty bleak as well at Ravenswood two decades ago, but those workers eventully prevailed with strong backing from the USW and the international workers movement. I will be writing more about the courageous ongoing struggle at Sherman Alumina.