May 20, 1999
Steelworkers confront Hurwitz
Maxxam CEO tells locked-out workers he's not involved in Kaiser dispute
Julie Sullivan -- The Spokesman-Review
Spokane -- WATERWOOD, Texas -- Charles Hurwitz faced Spokane Steelworkers
on Wednesday but took almost no questions or responsibility for the
seven-month strike and lockout at Kaiser Aluminum.
Nearly 300 Steelworkers, environmentalists and attorneys flew to Texas for
Maxxam Inc.'s annual stockholders meeting. They found the remote country
club, then cleared six armed deputies at the gate and twice as many armed
officers inside. They passed metal detectors, donned color-coded bracelets
and stood in line to speak to Hurwitz. Steelworkers wore suits and dresses;
some environmentalists wore costumes. But all eyes were on the Maxxam CEO.
"We think he needs to look into the eyes of the families and workers whose
lives he's been ruining," said Leo Gerard, the Pittsburgh-based
secretary/treasurer of the United Steelworkers union.
But Hurwitz said he is not running the longest and most bitter battle ever
waged in Kaiser history, although he controls 63 percent of Kaiser Aluminum
"Kaiser has its own management team and board of directors," Hurwitz said.
"We are not managing what they are doing. We're not asking them, we're not
telling them to do anything. We're listening," said the 58-year-old
Hurwitz heard from shareholders, including the Steelworker-led coalition
that waged a campaign to wrest some control of the closely held Maxxam
board of directors.
The coalition nominated and campaigned for two former Democratic members of
Congress -- Howard Metzenbaum and Abner Mikva -- to serve as independent
directors. Its actions drew the support of large public employee pension
investors from New York to California who are critical of Maxxam's poor
financial performance, charges of illegal logging practices at Pacific
Lumber Co. and the Kaiser lockout.
The results of the proxy vote were not final Wednesday, but Maxxam
spokesman Joshua Reiss said preliminary results showed the company's choice
of directors would prevail.
The labor-green alliance needed to win an extraordinary amount of the votes
not held by Hurwitz. But they claimed victory, saying the sheer number of
endorsements received by their candidates and the call for revised
corporate governance sent a "stunning message," said David Foster, a
District 11 director for the United Steelworkers.
National union leaders hammered at Kaiser and Maxxam's performance, saying
the firms' stock was worth half what it was a few years ago.
Forest protection groups leveled criticism at how Maxxam treats timber and
people. Activist Darryl Cherney, dressed in glasses, a sport coat and
chewing a cigar, told Hurwitz he was appearing "as your conscience."
Only twice did the drumbeat of criticism Wednesday seem to affect Hurwitz.
Rabbi Les Scharnberg of Humboldt County in Northern California drew the
CEO's ire when he noted that the Talmud exhorts Jews to not even keep a
servant's wages overnight "much less for seven months in a lockout."
When the rabbi asked about human values in the running of his corporation,
Hurwitz shot back: "You've had your turn, now it's my turn. We are
concerned about people. We are not here for the short term. We've invested
$140 million in the (Humboldt County) community. We give large
scholarships. There are more employees at Pacific Lumber now than when we
But Hurwitz and others were obviously moved by Cindy Allsbrooks, whose son,
David Nathan Chain, was accidentally killed at a Pacific Lumber protest
when a tree fell on him. In a soft Texas accent, Allsbrooks asked Hurwitz
what was being done to ensure no more young activists are beaten or die. "I
would like to say how sorry I am ..," Hurwitz said.
"I know you are," she said quickly. "I hold no malice in my heart for you
because I know you have sons, too."
After the Maxxam meeting, Kaiser Aluminum's annual shareholders meeting was
held, drawing more than 230 shareholders (Steelworkers) instead of the
usual one or two.
The locked-out workers questioned Kaiser CEO George Haymaker and President
Ray Milchovich about reports that a Phoenix can company was rejecting
Trentwood aluminum as flawed.
Haymaker acknowledged there had been flaws with aluminum made by
replacement workers but painted a flush forecast for the future. Later,
both men reported that free of union job restrictions, there had been
substantial productivity gains and reduction in costs at all five plants.
Steelworkers questioned whether the company hadn't maneuvered into the
situation all along.
"We didn't call the strike, you did," Haymaker told Henrietta Wolfe, whose
husband, father and grandfather were Kaiser employees.
"Why would you bring in trailers and replacement workers before the strike
then?" she asked to loud applause. "You don't have to pack a suitcase if
you're not going on a trip."
The gathering left many Steelworkers invigorated. Others wondered which
side to believe and still others think it is now time to start looking for
another job. Negotiations resume next week in Denver.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how well organized and peaceful the week's
events were, with many crediting John Goodman. Goodman is a Spokane
Steelworker raised in Houston whose uncle, C.V. Buster Kerns, was the
sheriff of Houston's Harris County for 24 years. It made for warm
"Almost everyone we talked to John had played football against, knew their
second cousin or was related to," said one union official.
At last sight, Goodman was outside the shareholders meetings with San
Jacinto County sheriff's deputies, and like them, wearing cowboy boots and
a Stetson. He was talking passionately and gesturing earnestly about Kaiser
jobs -- and redwood trees.
Return to Home