Why the United Steelworkers of America and Humboldt County Resident are Joining Forces

ESP News Service

The United Steelworkers of America are striking against MAXXAM’s Kaiser Aluminum in five plants in four locations around the country. Meanwhile, Charles Hurwitz, the Chairman of MAXXAM, is about to receive $500 million, tens of millions in tax breaks plus 8500 acres of prime forestland from the federal government in exchange for a mere 7500 acres of Headwaters Forest, half of which is clearcut. Should Hurwitz get this money, he would have a warchest to outlast the striking steelworkers.

There is one more hoop, however, Hurwitz has to jump through before he gets his dough. He needs an approved Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). An HCP is a land holdings management plan that allows the massive killing of endangered species in exchange for a small set aside, always biologically inadequate to preserve much of anything. The Clinton administration, in typical pro-industry fashion, wants to give Hurwitz and MAXXAM the HCP. Without the “HCP,” according to federal law, the Headwaters Forest deal can’t go through and Hurwitz cannot get his half a billion bucks.

Before the public comment ended on November 15th, USWA members decided they had something in common with Headwaters Forest activists and sent a thousand letters off to the Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that Hurwitz be denied his HCP. In an historical alliance between labor unionists and environmentalists, common ground was found. Both groups could act in their own separate interests by striving toward the identical goal, the killing of the HCP. Neither side must adopt the other’s values. Steelworkers don’t have to become eco-freaks. Environmentalists don’t have to put on hard hats. But together they can recognize that they must fight corporate greed to improve our collective standard of living.

Steelworkers have also taken notice of Charles Hurwitz and MAXXAM’s failed savings and loan of the 1980’s which cost taxpayers $1.6 billion to bail out. Hurwitz and company are currently facing an administrative court proceeding in which billions of dollars are at stake. Environmentalists want Hurwitz to lose the big bucks so he can consider trading his debt for nature. Steelworkers don’t want Hurwitz to be let off the hook in a “pennies on the dollar” out of court settlement because that will let Hurwitz off the economic hook. Additionally, both groups are taxpayers who don’t appreciate having to subsidize Hurwitz’s takeovers of both Pacific Lumber and Kaiser. It’s kind of like paying for the bullets for your own firing squad. And so steelworkers, along with environmentalists, are petitioning the banking regulators to force Hurwitz to pay the full amount he owes.

There is a third and perhaps most important piece of common ground. Environmentalists appreciate unions because it gives workers a voice they just don’t have under unadulterated corporate control. Never could an environmental activist sit alone in a room peacefully with 150 timber workers in Humboldt County, nor could that same activist even talk to one logger in public without fear of reprisal against the logger by the company and/or his friends. Unions guarantee that workers have freedom of speech and assembly. In other words they ensure our constitutional rights and help keep democracy alive in America.

To that end, 150 members of the USWA from Spokane and Tacoma, Washington; Gramercy, Louisiana and Newark, Ohio are traveling in a bus caravan to Humboldt County on December 4th. This unprecedented and historic event will allow two sets of MAXXAM factory workers, one unionized and one not, to meet. In fact, there will be two opportunities. The first will be at a steelworker rally at the Pacific Lumber Headquarters on December 4 from 11 to 1 pm. The second will be at a USWA open house at the Riverwalk Inn in Fortuna from 6 pm til 9 pm or later.

Whether or not this will lead to the unionization of Pacific Lumber, or whether that is even the intent, remains to be seen. Still, the sight of 150 steelworkers in Scotia should bring the fear of God into Charles Hurwitz and offer the union additional leverage in their negotiations for decent pay and retirement benefits. It could also stave off some of the “scabbing” (being a replacement worker) that Pacific Lumber employees are engaging in. The voice currently pretending to speak for PL workers is company flak Mary Bullwinkle, who has no experience as a timber worker. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing Bullwinkle as their representative, except Charles Hurwitz, of course. A union at Pacific Lumber would offer workers a voice they do not have now. With a woodworkers’ voice in place in Humboldt County, peace talks between enviros and timber workers could begin in earnest.

Wouldn’t it be something? Hurwitz and MAXXAM try to break the steelworkers union but instead get an additional union at Pacific Lumber instead. Instant karma. The notion is one is savor. Judi Bari must be smiling down upon us now.

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