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Kaiser Workers Seek Change in BPA Contract

by Jennifer Bjorhus
The Oregonian, January 7, 2000

The steelworkers ask the utility to require "good corporate citizenship"
of industries getting low rates

Steelworkers battling Kaiser Aluminum are taking a new tack in their struggle: asking the Bonneville Power Administration to include a "good corporate citizenship" clause in its contracts.

The insert would hold BPA customers such as Kaiser Aluminum Corp. accountable for the cheap electricity they receive.

About 15 union steelworkers from Spokane and Tacoma on Thursday delivered a petition with 5,000 signatures to the BPA's headquarters in Northeast Portland. The petition asks the BPA to do business only with customers that don't engage in union busting, that maintain clean environmental and worker safety records, and that have good community relations.

"A fair requirement for preferential rates," the United Steelworkers of America flier reads.

The BPA is renegotiating the rates it charges as its struggles with deregulation of the electricity industry. For their part, aluminum executives have complained that they may have to lay off workers if they can't get low-cost electricity.

Jon Youngdahl, an organizer with the United Steelworkers of America, said the union isn't attacking cost-based power and has no beef with the BPA. Its "corporate citizen" campaign is an outgrowth of its battle with Kaiser, he said.

"What we need to have is accountability," he said.

The steelworkers who presented the petition are among 2,900 workers that have been locked out of five Kaiser Aluminum plants in a long and fierce labor dispute. The rift has hit particularly hard in the Spokane area, where Kaiser's two aluminum plants are big employers.

Kaiser workers first went on strike in September 1998 to protest the company's plan to cut health benefits and about 700 jobs, replacing some 240 of the jobs by contracting with lower-paying, nonunion businesses, Youngdahl said.

When weary strikers offered to return to work while Kaiser and the union negotiated, Kaiser executives imposed a lockout, refusing to allow workers back unless they dropped their demands. The strike is in its 16th month.

Kaiser argues it must cut costs to survive cut-throat competition from overseas and from large rivals running newer plants.

Kaiser is a major BPA customer. The BPA is currently setting the rates it will charge Kaiser under a new five-year contract, said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey.

Under a 1937 law created when there was excess hydroelectric power and a need to create jobs, Kaiser is to receive the "preference rate" that the BPA charges to public agencies such as rural cooperatives, Mosey said. Aluminum companies are the BPA's only retail customers eligible for the lower industrial rate, which is about one-third cheaper than the market rate.

Mosey said BPA officials were taking the request seriously.

"There's great empathy here at Bonneville for these workers," Mosey said.

BPA itself is involved in its own soul-searching. The utility is struggling to find its place as state and federal governments deregulate the electricity industry. State regulators have questioned the low-cost electricity going to aluminum companies, suggesting more low-cost electricity should go to small businesses and residential users.

Jennifer Bjorhus
Kaiser Workers Seek Change in BPA Contract
The Oregonian, January 7, 2000

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