Aluminum Smelting

“Go to Work!”—Letter from an Aluminum Smelter Worker

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the message sent to the working class by the bosses from the safety of their homes has been clear: “Go to work!” This is also the case at my place of employment, the Intalco aluminum smelter in Ferndale, WA. With the aluminum industry considered essential, it’s been business as usual for me and my coworkers for much of the pandemic.

The company that owns the plant, Alcoa, assured us that if any workers tested positive for COVID-19, those working in close contact with them would be informed. The entire plant was notified of the first confirmed case, offering us hope that Alcoa would be proactive about stopping the spread of the disease. However, a week later, a second case was confirmed and only a handful of coworkers were notified. Even though the infected coworker and I shared the same workspace and equipment, I somehow did not qualify as having had close contact, and was only informed by other workers in the plant. We can assume that this isn’t the first or last time the company has failed to implement its own health and safety policy to avoid disruptions.

Other policies implemented by Alcoa clearly reveal their disregard for their workers’ lives and wellbeing. The company’s only concern is to ensure that enough people come to work to keep production running so as to keep profits flowing. For instance, if another employee in our immediate work group or someone in our household tests positive for COVID-19, we are still expected to come to work unless we exhibit symptoms—despite the risk of asymptomatic transmission. After pointing out that this was counter to all advice by health officials, managers told us that this shouldn’t be an issue if we practiced safe social distancing—something that is physically impossible in an industrial facility with hundreds of people on site.

Workers in smelting facility
The company’s only concern is to ensure that enough people come to work to keep production running so as to keep profits flowing. / Image: pxhere

My coworkers did not take the failure to implement safety protections lightly, including those who would normally show a lack of working-class consciousness or who are openly anti-union. When management told us that “it’s hard, but we just have to keep coming into work,” the overwhelming response was “no, we don’t” or “if we don’t come to work, you’ll have to give us what we want”—casually raising the idea of strike action. This sudden shift in consciousness reflects a broader trend taking place across the country. As capitalists urge their employees to continue working, putting their health and that of their families at risk, class antagonisms are growing. Hundreds of thousands of workers in the US, and millions around the world, are beginning to realize that their interests are in complete opposition to the bosses’.

But the spread of the disease is not the only battlefront of the class struggle during this period. The virus has triggered a deep economic crisis that has put a tens of millions out of work—with many more to come. It was recently announced that, due to the global fall in aluminum prices, the plant would begin to slow production immediately and be completely idled by July 2020. So while we were being urged to ignore the health risks and continue coming to work, Alcoa was simultaneously planning on shutting down operations at Intalco. This means 700 Alcoa employees will be laid off, and 700 additional contract, maintenance, and other related jobs will also be lost.

This is not the first time Intalco has been on the brink of a total shutdown. In 2015, Alcoa announced that the plant would be curtailed due to high energy costs. A deal with the local power authority to have access to “some of the lowest energy prices in the nation,” a tax break worth $2 million a year, and $3 million in immediate relief from Washington state helped the plant continue operations—and making profits.

Alcoa’s narrative about the current curtailment has been to blame everyone but themselves, claiming to be deeply saddened by the closing of the plant. They have asked workers and their families to contact their political representatives, handed out yard signs printed with “We support Alcoa Intalco Works and the aluminum industry,” and hosted a rally in support of Intalco employees.

Alcoa is using these tactics to shift the responsibility for the closure away from the company. They hope to use the threat of hundreds of job losses to secure government bailout money and tax breaks, as they did in 2015. And even though the company claims to be heartbroken about the impact of this closure on workers and their families, their finances tell a different story.

In 2019, the company made $227 million in profits. If Alcoa truly cared about their employees, some of this windfall could be invested to continue operations at Intalco. Instead, these millions will go to shareholders and highly paid executives, the top seven of whom took home almost $27 million collectively in 2018.

Alcoa Headquarters
In 2019, the company made $227 million in profits. If Alcoa truly cared about their employees, some of this windfall could be invested to continue operations at Intalco. / Image: Tony Webster via flickr

Under capitalism, this situation has two possible outcomes. If Intalco shuts down, 1,400 jobs will be lost. If the state or federal government gives the plant millions to continue operations, that money will eventually have to be paid back by taxpayers. Both options require the working class to pay, either through job losses or austerity measures. The only way to ensure a positive outcome for the plant’s workers would be to nationalize Alcoa under democratic workers’ control as part of a nationally—and ultimately—internationally planned economy.

Like all business decisions made under capitalism, unsafe working conditions or the closing of the plant are a result of production built around the need to maximize profits. Under democratic workers’ control, workplace decisions would instead be made on the basis of the expertise of the workers on the ground and the needs of the broader working class. If Intalco’s production were to be deemed unnecessary, all workers would immediately be guaranteed new jobs elsewhere or would be retrained for new fields of employment. If Intalco’s production was deemed necessary, money that now goes toward the CEO’s $12 million salary would instead be invested in providing PPE and implementing proper safety measures, getting the plant running more efficiently, reducing the working week for all workers, and doubling their wages.

Humanity could quite easily get through this pandemic with minimum economic impact and loss of life—if production and distribution were integrated into a broader, democratic, and rational economic plan. However, as the pandemic continues to unfold, capitalism is forcing millions to choose between their health and their jobs. In the case of myself and my coworkers, we’ve had to give up both. Only socialism can ensure that such life-and-death decisions are relegated to the prehistory of our species.

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