March 15, 2000
Locked-out Steelworkers camp out in state Capitol
Sixty supporters plan to stay put until lawmakers help or session ends
Craig Welch - Staff writer
OLYMPIA -- Keeping one eye on the FOX TV sitcom "Malcolm in the
Middle," Tammy Baxter took a breath and slipped into a rant she's
honed so well it sounded almost mechanical.
Her husband, a locked-out Kaiser Aluminum Steelworker, has been away
from his job since September 1998. Families are going broke. Children
got second-hand Christmas presents. Republican lawmakers are wrongly
blocking an extension of Steelworkers' unemployment benefits.
Reminded that she'd actually been asked why she chose this place to
retell her story, Baxter snapped from the TV (normally tuned to the
state's version of C-SPAN) and surveyed her surroundings.
It was 9 p.m. on a quiet Monday inside the state Capitol. Some 60
Steelworkers and supporters lounged on blow-up mattresses, reading,
dozing and whispering. On the Rotunda's cold marble steps, Rep. Laura
Ruderman, D-Redmond, taught a state employee union leader a card
game. Nearby, a thin lad twirled a yo-yo. A gray-bearded man in
comically immense gorilla slippers slid along a glassy corridor like
an ice skater.
Somewhere, a very large man snored.
"Yes, we've told our story over and over," Baxter said. "We've been
called lambs being led to the slaughter. We've been called a
sideshow. But we're tired of being laughed at. We're tired of being
ignored. So we're staying put."
Five days into a special legislative session called so lawmakers can
finish tinkering with state budgets, locked-out Steelworkers pledged
to have a nonstop slumber party until lawmakers help their cause --
or pack it in for the year.
On Tuesday, Democratic supporters in the Senate made yet another try.
They passed a new bill to the House that would have capped new
unemployment benefits to an additional 30 weeks -- rather than extend
"A lot of House Republicans have told us there's no way they could
vote for something unlimited," Spokane Steelworker Steven Peak said.
"They kept saying `Give us an escape clause. Give us a back door."'
But the measure faces the same obstacle it did last week: House
co-Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, who has already once used
a procedural move to block it. Tuesday, Ballard said his objections
"I have real concern about the state of Washington entering into this
(labor-management) dispute," Ballard said. "I feel for these people.
I really do. But if we do it now, what do you do next time? This is a
whole new arena."
Regardless, having already spent a few nights under the dome this
year, Steelworkers arrived Monday preparing for a potentially long
They came with extra clothes and board games and boxes and boxes of
pizza. They arranged to shower in 15-minute intervals in a single
motel room a few blocks away. They booked a local band to jam in the
Rotunda. They prepared seminars on "common sense economics." One
labor leader spent much of the evening on a cellular telephone
chasing down friends who'd bragged of connections to Grammy Award
winning musician and labor-backer Bonnie Raitt.
By 10 p.m. the normally spare Capitol looked like a fraternity house
after a 25-year reunion party.
Men and women -- some in long johns, others in day clothes --
stretched out every 15 feet on two floors. One heavy-faced man slept
crammed into a chair, one cheek mashed against the wall, a union hat
resting on his brow. A father read to two grade-school girls huddled
on a mat outside the Senate chambers. Along a glass wall separating
the Capitol's public space from the state's reception room, a fuzzy
red blanket didn't quite cover two dirty, naked feet.
They grumbled, a bit, about the soft lights that never dimmed. They
debated the weight of the Capitol's enormous centerpiece chandelier,
arguing lightheartedly about how they'd change the bulbs. They traded
cigarettes, smoked outside the building's only unlocked door, and
lamented not being able to bring a bottle of wine.
About 11 p.m., a trio of 20-something dreadlocked eco-activists
stopped by to show support, and deliver munchies: a plastic box of
sugar cookies, one apple, one orange and a bag of popcorn --
The young environmentalists share the Steelworkers' disdain for
Charles Hurwitz, the financier whose Houston-based company owns a
controlling interest in Kaiser. One vented about Hurwitz's legendary
environmental track record, dubbing him "the poster boy for Bad
Dudes." Then he launched into a nearly incomprehensible
conspiratorial tirade evoking the International Monetary Fund and
U.S.-financed clearcutting in Third World countries.
Six Steelworkers, stretched out in thin iron chairs like buddies at a
pub winding down after a nightcap, listened politely and merely
Finally, Steelworker Richard Prete added, "Well, my theory's always
been, `Just outlast the bastards.' Someday they'll be gone, but I'll
still be here."
"Yeah, good. That's how the Vietnamese won the war," one of the young
activists replied, apparently oblivious to the veterans in her midst.
By midnight, Prete was amusing himself by taunting friends across the
Rotunda with a pen-shaped red laser beam. Steelworker Dan Sampson
told stories about the old Kaiser foremen he liked -- and others that
he didn't. Their friends were asleep.
"This? This is a cakewalk," Prete said, stifling a yawn. "We've got
folks at home standing in the rain and snow on the picket line. We're
inside. And we've got bathrooms."
* Craig Welch can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at
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