IT'S Tuesday night and the union hall of Steelworkers' Local 5668 is rocking.
Loaves of donated bread lie on a table. Men play checkers near the front. The hall is so packed and the mood so upbeat it's hard to believe these unionists haven't worked for 17 months. The Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation replaced them with nonunion workers when their contract ran out in 1990.
"Big business can kick a man off the job anytime it likes," says Jim Derrick, a member of Local 5668. Can the union win when the employer hires permanent replacements? Mr. Derrick asks the question in a loud voice.
"One day longer," the audience shouts back, repeating a vow to keep fighting one day longer than the company. "Solidarity. Solidarity forever!"
This feisty local has become a focal point for a national debate over the use of permanent replacement workers. Although the debate is a long-running one, it is likely to get increased visibility in coming weeks.
On Monday, Caterpillar Inc. of Peoria, Ill., told its 12,600 striking unionists to come back to work or risk being permanently replaced. Initially, only 300 crossed the picket line. In the Ravenswood strike, only 17 of the more than 1700 Steelworkers have gone back to work - a stunning success.
Congress is deciding whether to ban companies' use of permanent replacements. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill, but Senate approval is iffy. President Bush opposes the legislation. The two, high-profile labor disputes at Caterpillar and Ravenswood will fuel the national debate.
One hundred twenty miles north of Ravenswood in Wheeling, W. Va., Ravenswood chairman Emmett Boyle worries about the strikebreaker legislation.
"If an employer did not have the right to replace its work force, it could be held hostage by organized labor with unreasonable demands," he says. If such a law is enacted, "you will see a lot more strikes and you will see a lot more companies fail."
Although US companies have had the right to replace workers permanently since 1938, they didn't use it for three decades after World War II. Management and labor seemed to have an unwritten understanding.
That changed in 1981, when President Reagan used replacement workers to break the air-traffic controllers strike. Several companies copied the tactic. They managed to break several unions in a series of high-profile contests, such as Continental and Eastern airlines, Phelps-Dodge, and Greyhound.
Labor, at first confused, gradually developed counter-tactics. Some unions avoided strikes. Others created increasingly sophisticated corporate campaigns to pressure companies into negotiations.
The results of this new style of combat are not pretty. "It has put a lot of strain on a lot of people," says John Taber, Jr. He's a union member who has worked in the Ravenwood plant for 19 years. His father-in-law works for Ravenswood management and continues to work in the plant.
"It's been a year since I have seen him at home," Mr. Taber says, and "about 19 months since he's been to my house. That's something my wife and I don't talk a lot about."
The replacement workers have not had an easy time either.
"When the strike first started, we were projected as scum and trash," says Tom Nicholson, a replacement worker whose car was damaged in an early confrontation with union workers.
In all, the company has collected more than 3,000 incidents of violence against its employees, including a few serious injuries. One union worker was convicted of conspiracy for tossing three homemade bombs in the yard of a steelworker who went back to work.
ANY day, an administrative law judge is expected to rule whether the union workers at Ravenswood were locked out of the plant. The distinction is key. If the company locked out the workers, then by law it has to reinstate them. If the union went out on strike, then they can be replaced permanently once bargaining reaches an impasse.
The problem with the current system, union leaders argue, is that it can take years of wrangling in the courts before that determination is finally made. Union workers out of a job usually can't wait that long.
Ravenswood has restarted all four of its aluminum lines and claims to be setting new production records with its new work force. The union, meanwhile, has initiated a publicity campaign to pressure Ravenswood's shareholders, customers, and banks.
The most damaging evidence union investigators have found involves a Belgian-born fugitive from the U.S. named Marc Rich. Union officials contend Mr. Rich really controls Ravenswood. There are a series of links between the two.
Rich's right-hand man, Willie Strothotte, owns the largest single chunk of Ravenswood - 48 percent. He and another Rich associate sit on the seven-man board. Mr. Strothotte's investment company in the Netherlands provided critical financing for the leveraged buyout of the company. Ravenswood has sold aluminum to Clarendon A.G. - another company run by Strothotte and partly owned by Marc Rich & Co. A.G. A Boyle company, which manages Ravenswood, also runs a manufacturer of alumina plant oxide owned by a Clarendon subsidiary.
Does that mean Rich controls Ravenswood? Boyle and Strothotte deny it. The latter says his investment in Ravenswood is strictly "personal." Boyle points out that Rich & Co. owns only 49 percent of Clarendon stock, not a controlling interest.
Union officials point out that Clarendon used to be Marc Rich & Co. until 1983, just before Rich's 65-count indictment for an illegal oil-pricing scheme. Rich fled the country. (The US is offering a $750,000 reward for his return.) He put one of his unindicted partners in charge and named Strothotte as chief operating officer.
Until the permanent replacement issue is settled one way or the other, these types of campaigns are likely to continue.