Back in 1990, a few months after the Ravenswood Aluminum
Company had locked out 1700 Steelworkers Union members, the
women of Ravenswood, West Virginia, started to behave in
unexpected ways. For instance, they’d get up in the middle
of the night and dress in black from head-to-toe, including
ski masks. Then they’d slip out of the house bearing cans of
And that’s how all those references to the bosses —
"Sugar Booger" and "Rat Face" — started
appearing in huge graffiti letters on the sides of barns along
the roadsides of Ravenswood.
That was only the beginning of what turned out to be one of
the most creatively fought and most successful labor struggles
in recent history. The whole story is recounted with style and
wonderful detail by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich in
their new book Ravenswood: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the
Revival of American Labor.
A Joy to Read
It always seems like a great idea to write down the details
of a fascinating labor struggle like the one at Ravenswood.
Unfortunately it’s not always such a wise impulse. Many such
accounts are dust dry, conveying none of the thrill of a union
Not this book. Starting and ending with workers themselves,
enriched by scads of funny and moving quotes, it’s a joy to
read. And thankfully, although these two seasoned labor
activist/academics underlay their story with clear-eyed
analysis, their theories and observations aren’t the
centerpiece. This is an earthy story about what a bunch of
tenacious workers did to get their jobs back — with the help
of some of the labor movement’s craftiest warriors.
Granted, Bronfenbrenner and Juravich have a lot of material
to work with. There’s Marc Rich, the secretive billionaire
fugitive from justice who controls Ravenswood from a
mountaintop mansion in Switzerland. There’s the eight-foot
puppet of Mother Jones, which had to be sawed in half to fit
on the plane to Switzerland. There’s the nerve of workers
handing out "wanted" posters of Marc Rich at
high-society London cocktail parties.
Back at home, workers kept a close eye on the Ravenswood
plant by dressing up as fishermen and floating up and down the
Ohio River on their boats, reporting suspicious activities
back to the local. Meanwhile, the union nailed the company for
pouring cyanide into the river and mobilized thousands of
people to come to "Fort RAC" to be entertained by
the Paw Paws, a bluegrass band made up of union-militant
Ravenswood is published by Cornell University Press, Sage
House, 512 E. State Street, Ithaca, NY 14850; 607-277-2211.
Copies are $29.95 each; postage is $3.50 for the first book,
an additional 75 cents for each additional book. You can also
order copies from online booksellers.