Kaiser, union talking

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 12, 1998

By LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / October 12, 1998

CONVENT – Ray Milchovich, Kaiser Aluminum’s president and chief operating officer, announced Thursday that new labor negotiations are under way and the company is ready to deal.

“We’re prepared to go back to the table, as long as it takes,” Milchovich said during a press conference at St. James Parish President Dale HymelJr.’s office.Milchovich said the 1995 strike, Kaiser’s first in 50 years, came as a “major surprise” and that the company was totally unprepared. This time,with better management, “we prepared much, much better.”Those preparations, however, seemed to be a surprise to the strikers of the United Steelworkers of America Local 5702, who have loudly protested being shoved closer to Airline Highway by a chain-link fence at the property line. They’re also unhappy with the construction of aguardtower and the posting of silent guards armed with cameras, photographing every vehicle stoppage.

Such security measures make for a safer picket line, Milchovich claimed.

“Last time we had three people hit by cars. This gives us better controland visibility,” he said.

Plant manager Bill Kirsch added, “There has to be a high degree of security.”Questioned about the prompt arrival of the replacement workers, even as a last-minute offer was on the table from Kaiser, Milchovich said Kaiser was, nonetheless, negotiating in good faith.

“It’s just good management,” he said. “I would have been thrilled to makethe call to turn the buses around.”He continued, “Our objective was to get a labor agreement. We thought, upto the last day, that we were going to get a labor agreement.”Meanwhile, according to Milchovich, life for the replacement workers includes 12-hour shifts balanced with free cafeteria food, volleyball, basketball and movies. All the replacement workers are being housed onsite for their own protection from possible harassment in the community.

The Kaiser plant, he asserted, is running at 100 percent capacity to satisfy customers.

“They’ve done an outstanding job,” Milchovich asserted. “The plants arestabilized and running very well. Gramercy is the standard other plantsare aiming at.”Two events were due to happen Friday, Milchovich said. Salariedemployees working the plant were due to go home for the first time since the strike was called, and labor negotiations were set to reopen in Minnesota.

The last-minute offer made by Kaiser, Milchovich said, included a five- year agreement, a 15 percent wage increase over the life of the contract, 17 percent pensions improvement, $750 signing bonus, $10-15,000 stock payout and improved medical benefits.

“We had an economic package on the table that was very fair,” he stated.

“Now, that’s off the table.”Milchovich also described Kaiser as a company in economic trouble, unable to stretch its resources to meet the union’s demands.

“The company’s been in poor condition for awhile. We have more capitalneeds than the cash we need,” he said.

However, the union is asking for a contract far beyond what the company can afford, Milchovich declared.

“Alcoa is 10 times our size, but their pay is not the industry standard,” he said.

Milchovich stated: “In 1982, we made a labor agreement we couldn’t afford. In 1985, we asked for concessions to stay afloat. We can’t sign adisabling labor agreement.”Nonetheless, the company president said he remains hopeful the negotiations can be successful. “Reasonable people eventually have toagree on things. When, I don’t know,” he said.

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