May, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 5
Book reviews from past issues
RAVENSWOOD: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the Revival of American Labor. By Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner. New York, Cornell University Press, 1999, 245 pp. $29.95.
The labor market in the late 1990s can only be described as "tight." To attract new qualified employees, companies are forced to compete against each other. Bonuses, stock options, and attractive benefit plans are common incentives. So, is Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner’s book, Ravenswood, worthwhile? Essentially they chronicle the story of a small, dying West Virginia town that was revitalized by a Kaiser Aluminum plant in the 1950s, and then almost destroyed by it in the early 1990s. Perhaps if the above picture of the labor market as being a worker's paradise was completely accurate, then the Ravenswood saga would be simply an interesting chapter in the history of the American labor movement. However, downsizing, corporate mergers, and intense global competition are as common now as they were 10 years ago. While some segments of labor are benefiting greatly from today’s high tech job market, others, like those in the manufacturing sector, are still on the defensive.
Ravenswood is an account of the United Steelworkers of America’s strike against the Ravenswood Aluminum Company in the early 1990s. Juravich and Bronfenbrenner integrate interviews from the locked-out workers, members of the Ravenswood local community, and others who played a pivotal role in the union’s struggle in order to describe the Ravenswood experience. The vivid accounts given by those involved in the 20-month labor dispute reveal the importance of examining the Ravenswood case. While the clash between the Steelworkers and the Ravenswood Aluminum Company was not the largest strike or the longest in American history, it is a clear example of how the nature of a strike evolved into a multistage, multinational assault. No longer were workers merely relying on the local press to cover their picket lines. Instead union strategists mobilized laborers from across the globe, organized an end-consumer campaign and fostered union solidarity.
Juravich and Bronfenbrenner, while extensively trained in labor relations, wrote Ravenswood to appeal to a larger audience. The average reader will be able to understand and appreciate the strikers’ accounts of the struggle against the company and the corresponding analysis by the authors. Ravenswood, however, did contain enough detail so that a reader versed in union rhetoric would find it appealing also. Although the book is written clearly with a unionist slant, the authors managed to write a gritty portrayal of the extremes each side was willing to go to and what each side accomplished or lost as a result of the strike.
The stage for battle was set in the first chapter with a stark rendition of the inhumane working conditions of Ravenswood’s pot room during the summer of 1990. By the end of that summer, four people had died and the union’s outcries about deteriorating working conditions, according to Juravich and Bronfenbrenner, fell on the deaf ears of the management. The clash between union officials and management was exacerbated when the existing union contact expired. The conflict continued when management declared the negotiations to be at an impasse. When union employees went to work on November 1, they were locked out of a fortified plant and antagonized by permanent replacement workers.
The union’s fight would not be an easy one for several reasons. Prior to the Ravenswood lockout, unions across the country in different industries were forced to make large concessions to management. In addition, one of the new owners had a personal vendetta against the union. To complicate matters, Marc Rich, an influential member of the aluminum industry, was also involved. The confrontational tone established in the first few chapters is continued throughout Ravenswood.
Although the steelworkers ultimately went back to work, they did not achieve all their goals.
Juravich and Bronfenbrenner do a commendable job of examining the union’s struggle in terms of its impact on the small West Virginian town and on the labor movement in general.
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