NLRB judge rules Kaiser lockout of Steelworkers illegal

HOUSTON (PAI) - Kaiser Aluminum illegally locked out 3,000 of its Steelworker members from three plants in Washington state, one in Louisiana and one in Ohio in 1999-2000, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled May 15.

If the decision stands, Kaiser owes the workers what the union says could be $100 million in back pay and damages. It gave that figure to a bankruptcy court overseeing Kaiser's finances.

In his 67-page decision, Administrative Law Judge Michael D. Stevenson said Kaiser illegally imposed the lockout after the union offered unconditionally to return to work on Jan. 14, 1999. The workers struck on Oct. 1, 1998. But Stevenson, who tried the case in 39 hearings in Kaiser's headquarters city of Houston, said Kaiser's lockout was illegal for several reasons:

* It locked the workers out over a non-mandatory bargaining issue - its demand that local union contracts in the five plants override the national Steelworkers-Kaiser contract whenever there was a conflict. Stevenson called that "illegitimate." Kaiser also repeatedly rejected the union's demand that Kaiser, like its aluminum company competitors, agree to neutrality in organizing drives.

* Kaiser also locked them out over a wage proposal that "lacked wage rates for approximately 40 percent to 50 percent" of the workers, Stevenson said.

* Kaiser's reasons - ranging from "a huge gap" with Steelworkers to "the possibility of strike renewal or in-plant tactics to slow production" - were "false" and "shifting or pretextual."

Stevenson ordered Kaiser to pay the workers in Mead, Tacoma and Trentwood, Wash., Gramercy, Louisiana, and Newark, Ohio, back pay and benefits they lost in the lockout.

"We're absolutely thrilled to be one step closer to justice in this struggle," Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said after Stevenson's ruling. It "has gone on far too long and caused needless misery to thousands of working families. "But the greatest tragedy is that it didn't have to happen. Kaiser's bargaining strategy - take no prisoners, obey no laws - was a mistake from Day One."

June 7, 2002 issue

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