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Marc Rich's Hidden History as a Union-Buster

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

As they got closer to Rich's significant financial interests, union reps received death threats
Longtime fugitive from justice Marc Rich has become the most notorious recipient of a presidential pardon since Richard Nixon. President Clinton issued a pardon for the commodities trader in the final hours of his tenure in office.

What is now widely known about Rich has cast a dark cloud over what Clinton hoped would be a glorious exit from the presidency. Charged with income tax fraud and conspiracy, Rich fled to Switzerland, from which he could not be extradited. Living in the lap of luxury, he continued his wheeling and dealing in international commodities markets, including through trades with apartheid South Africa. He invested heavily in seeking a pardon, courting the Israeli government (dethroned Israel President Ehud Barak personally lobbied Clinton for Rich's pardon), hiring top-ranking officials from Democratic and Republican administrations to represent him, and relying on his ex-wife to lavish money on Democrats during the Clinton years.

What is not widely known, at least outside of West Virginia and certain labor circles, is that Rich played a central role in one of the highest profile union-busting efforts the United States has seen in recent decades.

In the early 1990s, Marc Rich was the power-behind-the-scenes at the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) facility in Ravenswood, West Virginia, site of one of the most embittered U.S. labor-management disputes of recent decades.

The Ravenswood conflict has been chronicled by Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner in their inspiring account, Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor (Ithaca, New York: ILR/Cornell University Press, 1999).

In 1990, in a premeditated effort to break the union, RAC locked out its 1,700 workers, members of the United Steelworkers of America, and hired permanent replacements.

As the contract deadline neared, RAC installed surveillance cameras, new security systems and a chainlink fence around the perimeter of the facility. The night of the lockout, the company brought in a goon squad security force equipped with riot gear, clubs, tear gas and video cameras used to constantly monitor the workers' pickets. The goons introduced a climate of fear and made violence on the picket lines, and in the town, an ever-present fear.

Caught unprepared, the Steelworkers' local was able to keep all but a handful of workers from crossing the picket line and union solidarity was strong and militant, but RAC was ready to wait the workers out.

As the lockout progressed, the Steelworkers' international union became engaged, and eventually launched a corporate campaign to complement the local's efforts. That corporate campaign took them to Marc Rich.

The Ravenswood plant, which had been owned by Kaiser Aluminum for four decades, passed into the ownership of RAC in 1988. The union discovered that, behind a convoluted corporate ownership smokescreen, stood one man with a controlling interest in RAC: Marc Rich.

It is unlikely that Rich initially knew what RAC was up to when the lockout began -- RAC was just a piece in his global corporate puzzle. But about four months into the conflict, the union had made the Rich connection and was calling on him to end the lockout.

"From that point on, Rich was culpable for what went on and the suffering the Ravenswood workers went through," says Bronfenbrenner.

For 20 long months, the workers lived on minimal strike benefits, six months worth of unemployment benefits and donated food and supplies. Being out of work for so long, even from a lockout where union solidarity remains high, takes an emotional toll to match the financial one. It is no exaggeration when Bronfenbrenner speaks of the suffering of the workers and their families.

As the Steelworkers tracked Rich to Switzerland and began applying pressure on his business operations in Europe, the corporate campaign moved to a new plane and the union discovered how extensive was Rich's reach.

Soon they found themselves negotiating with Leonard Garment, White House Counsel under Richard Nixon, and William Bradford Reynolds, the number two at the Reagan Justice Department. Both Garment and Reynolds worked for Rich -- who would later show that he was right to trust in high-priced, politically connected legal help when Jack Quinn, former Clinton White House Counsel, would do the crucial work to win Rich his pardon.

As the Steelworkers' campaign got closer to Rich's significant financial interests, union representatives received numerous death threats.

When left-leaning Michael Manley was elected president of Jamaica in 1989, the Steelworkers were hopeful he would follow through on promises to cut his predecessor's close ties to Rich -- ties which gave Rich access to Jamaica's alumina at less than half the market rate. But when Manley faced immediate pressure from the International Monetary Fund to raise foreign capital, Rich gave the government a $50 million cash advance. Manley then backed down from efforts to end the Rich connection.

But the Steelworkers' comprehensive international campaign did achieve major successes, including blocking Rich's purchase of the Slovakian National Aluminum Company and a majority stake in a luxury Romanian hotel, convincing Budweiser and Stroh's not to buy RAC aluminum, and heaping unwanted publicity on Rich. Meanwhile, local solidarity remained strong.

This all cost Rich. In April 1992, Rich finally moved to replace management at RAC and end the lockout. The final contract terms were not entirely favorable to the workers, but they had at least succeeded in defeating the company's vicious attempt to bust the union.

Asked about Clinton's pardon of Rich, Dan Stidham, who was president of the Ravenswood local during the strike and is now retired, says it is "really disappointing."

Stidham modestly says that he's "pretty upset that Clinton would pardon that guy after all we went through for 20 months."

In granting the pardon, Clinton probably did not know of Rich's odious role in the Ravenswood lockout. Perhaps, as he claims, he did not know of Rich's ex-wife's support for the Democrats.

But neither of those facts, if they are facts, makes the pardon smell any better.

If Clinton didn't know, he should have. And if he didn't know, it only highlights how in an increasingly corrupt political system, money not only can gain you access to the highest levels of influence and but can enable corporate lawbreakers to launder their image and reputations.

Ironically, even though Rich has won the right to return to the United States without facing trial, the attention surrounding the pardon has permanently stained his reputation.

That may be some small solace to the workers at Ravenswood, who will forever know Rich as a criminal in more ways than one.

© Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor February 26, 2001 (

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