Writings and observations

Where are the jobs?

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Al Link is a vanishing breed: a labor leader born and raised in a union household. He defies the stereo-type, however. There’s no cigar or dark glasses, no four-letter word laced talk.

He wears a suit with tie or a sport coat, is soft spoken, articulate, and a great advocate for unions. He possesses a sense of humor, is organized, disciplined and accountable. His father, Roy, was for many years the president of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 329, and his mother, Mary, was the long-time COPE Director for the Spokane County Central Labor Council.

Link is proud to be a second generation union member, and proud of the role unions played in the 20th century that helped America become the industrial power envied by the rest of the world.

Unlike some labor leaders, Link does not hate “management.” In the early 1980s, when I was the regional vice president for northwest public affairs for Kaiser Aluminum and Link was the vice president of the USWA Local 329 at the Mead Smelter, he and I co-chaired a Labor/Management communications committee that tried to save 14,000 good-paying union jobs held by men and women employed by the nine facilities operating in the northwest.

The job multiplier for such good-paying manufacturing jobs is two for every one manufacturing. In other words, close to 50,000 pay checks were derived from the industry.

They first came to the region prior to and during World War II, attracted by the cheap hydropower generated by federal dams in the region. One-third of the cost of a pound of aluminum is the electricity. When one holds a beer or pop can in hand, they are holding fused electricity.

When the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power from the federally-built dams, went off on a binge of financing construction of nuclear power plants to meet projected load growth that did not factor in price elasticity, the cost of this power soared 900% overnight. Almost all the aluminum companies, especially Kaiser, began to hemorrhage.

The industry response was to advocate that BPA adopt a “variable power rate:” the price companies paid would be tied to the price the metal would fetch on the London Metal Exchange. If the price of metal was low, the price for power would reflect that. Of course if the metal price was high, so would the price of power.

The labor/management committee ran a classic campaign and Link was everywhere. We traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby the members of the northwest state’s Congressional deleggations. Majority Leader Tom Foley put out the red carpet, not because the Kaiser regional pooh-bah was seeking an audience, but because he was accompanied by the union leader who helped to provide campaign volunteers and dollars.

Link delivered union members who testified forcefully at BPA hearings. He delivered thousands of union-made yard signs as well as workers to handle the phone banks set up across the region. He delivered.

We won that battle. BPA adopted the variable power rate. The first year it kicked in Kaiser’s power bill was reduced by $105 million. It wasn’t enough, however, to save the industry. Like big business everywhere, the companies began to build more modern facilities overseas where costs, especially labor costs were less.

Link went on to become in 1994 the highly regarded secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, and has held a number of prominent posts within the still influential in Washington state labor movement. When Kaiser was taken over by the corporate raider, Charles Hurwitz, I left and founded the Gallatin Group, a regional public affairs firm.

It was my privilege to introduce Link as the speaker at the 13th Annual North Idaho Democracy dinner last weekend. Both of us are supposedly retired, but still active .

Link delivered thoughtful comments on an all too familiar theme – the movement of jobs that helped make America great overseas. In particular he, like his colleagues in Labor, denounced the effort being led by President Obama for the United States to adopt “fast trade, free trade” rules that can only lead to even more jobs going overseas.

My friend is of course correct. The major problem, however, is that train left the station years ago. Powerful as Labor still is, and as influential as Link still is, both of the state’s pro-labor senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, are supporting fast trade.

When organizations from Boeing to MicroSoft to the Washington Wheat Growers care more about international market share, protecting American jobs all too easily is forgotten. Our grandchildren are already paying the price.

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