Employees somewhat encouraged by ruling

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 21, 2002


LUTCHER – In light of a recent court ruling, millions of dollars could be headed to employees of Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp., but workers are not holding their collective breath.

Administrative Law Judge Michael D. Stevenson of San Francisco ruled in favor of the National Labor Relations Board and said Kaiser had illegally locked out its employees at one point during the 1998-2000 strike. The work stoppage kept the employees out for 20 months.

The ruling calls for Kaiser to “make whole the unit employees for any loss of earnings and other benefits suffered as result of the lockout beginning from Jan. 14, 1999 in the manner set forth in the Remedy section of the decision,” the written ruling from Stevenson.

The ruling continued the compensation should be made within 14 days after serving notice at its five facilities in Gramercy; Newark, Ohio; and in Mead, Tacoma and Trentwood, Wash.

One Kaiser employee, Raymond Scroggs of LaPlace, said the ruling is “a victory in the moral stance, but not a victory in the financial stance.”

The husband and father of three said he does not know how Kaiser could come up with the $200 million the ruling could cost the corporation, which has already stated it would appeal, regardless.

“I’m not spending any money,” Scroggs added. “I’m still in debt from the strike.”

The Kaiser strike began Sept. 30, 1998 and had several major events locally during its two-year course – the Jan. 14, 1999 lockout after Kaiser refused the union’s back-to-work offer while negotiations continued; and the July 5, 1999 explosion in Gramercy and Lutcher and opened Kaiser up to litigation from neighbors and fines from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In addition, on June 30, 2000, the National Labor Relations Board formally charged Kaiser with illegally locking out the USWA members.

The strike finally ended two years after it began, and the new labor contract runs through Sept. 30, 2005.

Scroggs said his eldest son, Clint, is now in his third year pursuing a business degree at the University of New Orleans, daughter Amber is an sophomore honor student at St. Charles Catholic High School, and son Jeremy is a freshman at the same school.

However, tuition costs are a burden, and before one loan can be paid off, yet another round of tuitions hit the Scroggs’ household.

A St. James Parish jury ruled in November 2001 that Kaiser, along with two electrical contractors, were responsible for the July 5, 1999 explosion which injured 29 employees, devastated the parish economy and alarmed most of Gramercy and Lutcher. It was based on a lawsuit filed in 2000 where Kaiser and its insurance underwriters were trying to recoup more than $400 million they paid to those injured, to settle with area residents, to rebuild the damaged units and for lost profits.

On the morning of the explosion, picketers at two stations along the Kaiser fence line noticed the power outage and took cover, ready for the explosion which happened several minutes later. Red bauxite dust coated much of Gramercy and, caustic sodium hydroxide, used in the refining process of bauxite in the manufacture of alumina refined ore, splashed and burned several workers, while other workers sustained concussions. Aggravating the problem was an inexperienced skeleton crew of temporary workers on duty for the holiday weekend.

The plant was first built in 1958 and some employees had been there from the beginning. However, the Manpower Inc. temporary workers lacked the experience and training to handle the explosion, the strikers contended. MSHA conducted public hearings in Convent and eventually hit the plant in March 2000 with more than $500,000 in fines for not properly training the temporary workers or to proper maintain the plants.

Kaiser is also in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“Everything was going on good until that strike,” Scroggs concluded.