Interview with Art Buckner
Q: What did you do before you went to Kaiser?
Buckner: Mostly I was a roofer. I worked at a couple of drug stores and service stations but mostly, for about five years, I was a roofer.
Q: What was working at Kaiser like?
Buckner: Well, in the beginning I hated it. When you're in production, there are schedule changes -- you know, it can happen anytime and you work round the clock. You'd go in on Thursday planning on having Sunday and Monday off and you'd end up not having Sunday and Monday off and being on a totally different shift with a totally different crew. And the money wasn't good. I mean it wasn't really a living wage. But once I got into maintenance I made more money and my schedule was more stable. I still had days off in the middle of the week but they didn't suddenly change. And the money was a lot better. There were overtime opportunities that you didn't have in production. Things got a lot better when I went into maintenance and then I liked it.
Q: Was it a good working atmosphere?
Buckner: Yeah, for the most part it was. With days off in the middle of the week and working oddball shifts and everything, we didn't have a normal family life like everybody else. You know, the rest of the world's off Saturday and Sunday; they're off with their kids, with their wife. And I wasn't -- I'd be off Tuesday and Wednesday, or Wednesday and Thursday, and so if I was going to have any life outside -- you know, go fishing or whatever -- I had to go with other guys on my crew. That's who you really had your social life with.
You didn't get a lot of time to spend with your kids because you only got a couple of weekends every twenty-one weeks. You just didn't have a normal family life. But you got real close to the people you worked with.
Q: What was Kaiser like in its heyday -- the activity, the numbers of people?
Buckner: My recollection is that it maxed out around twelve thousand people when all the mills were running and everything. It was big; it was a city within itself. You can imagine all the businesses it supported in the area.
There was a good period of time when there were like ten thousand people. And I'm not sure of the figures... you know... say a couple of years prior to the shutdown, but I think it was around four to six thousand.
Q: What kind of money were you making at Kaiser?
Buckner: You know, I'm not sure, I think the best year I had was around forty-two, or something like that... forty-two thousand. I didn't have a lot of those. You go back a few years prior to that and I probably made thirty-two, twenty-eight, but it was a good living. From the time I went into maintenance we were never really hurting for money. It was good living.
Oh, I would spend the rest of my life at Kaiser. I mean this was one of the only sure things in the world, is you get a job at Kaiser. If you don't mess up and get fired you're going to have a job the rest of your life.
And once I got into maintenance, I felt I'd spend the rest of my days at Kaiser Steel. You know, I'm not one to plan ahead fifteen years or something like that. In my mind I was going to work thirty years and then see if I wanted to retire or if I wanted to stay there and work till I was sixty two or ninety two or whatever. That was my plan. Kaiser was... that was where I was going to finish my career as an ordinary working guy, you know.
Q: When did you realize that Kaiser was in trouble?
Buckner: Oh, I'm not sure... I heard rumors for at least two or three years and didn't believe them. I just thought the company had a tendency to lie -- I never really believed it, and at some point... I don't know when -- a year ahead of time or a year and a half -- I began to realize, hey, they're shutting this place down...
Lots of people were smarter than me and realized it a long time before I did. It didn't really change things that much. I mean your buddies were your buddies; we still did things together. Nobody likes to lose a good job, but the saddest thing to me about the closure was that we were going to lose a lot of friends. There were guys I'll probably never see again. To me that was one of the saddest parts of the whole thing.
Q: What were the signs that things weren't going well?
Buckner: Well, they shut the coke ovens down. That was probably the first thing. And I didn't really consider that a sign that they're going to shut the whole mill down. I thought, well, they're just going to have to ship the coke in from somewhere else, you know. Of course, the coke ovens were a big polluter. They had slogans that the coke ovens would burn again and all that... I almost believed it. It took a while... I'm a little thick headed, it took a while for me to believe it and I really can't remember the exact thing that made me say, hey, it's over. I think it was more a process of osmosis with me... it just kind of slowly soaked in. And there was a point where they told me, you are going to be laid off.
I like life just to come along... I just kind of do my thing. I've been lucky, you know, things seem to work out when they need to. I don't worry about it. And I don't believe what people tell me. I listen, and I'm going to keep it on file up here but I'll let the real evidence come in and I'll prove you wrong or right. When it happened, like I said, it was a sad time but so what, you know, I mean there's nothing I can do about it. I never really fretted over the whole thing.
Consequently I think I survived it pretty good... I've been lucky.
Q: What were you hearing from the top about why the plant was closing?
Buckner: You know, I really don't have a recollection. They lied so much that I didn't want to listen. You know, to me, all they could do was cloud my mind and I just thought whatever's happening is happening. I tried to avoid listening to all the things they told us because upper management was super duper liars. To me you couldn't trust anything they said. So I didn't pay a lot of attention.
Q: They say that one of the reasons that this happened was because steel was just too expensive, that cheap steel could be imported... did you hear arguments like that?
Buckner: Well, I read that Japan would ship steel in here at below cost... I heard this from the news media. And, you know, our government allowed that. The Japanese protect their people, but our government doesn't protect us.
They give us this TRA... trade readjustment allowance I think they call it. They throw money at us temporarily, you know, and say, oh, here's your payoff for our selling your job to the Japs.
That's the most sour thing to me... that our government allows other countries to do that. I think Japan might be paying a little for it... now, they've got Korea taking their work, now China is taking their work. It happened to us, now maybe it's going to happen to them. Sounds fair to me.
Also, the big money guys don't want guys like me to have a really good life. They don't want me to have full hospitalization like I had at Kaiser. Man, we had a health plan that would blow your socks off. I've had plans since but they're not close to what Kaiser's was for steelworkers. They don't want you to have a motor home and a boat. They don't want you to get independent. They want you to need to go to work when they tell you to be there. And it's more difficult for them if you've got money in your pockets.
So they take the jobs to the Mexicans, and to the Japs, to the Koreans, to the Chinese... the more abused they are, the easier it is to get the product made. In my opinion we don't have quality products like we used to because of this.
Management is telling us that they're losing money and I think the cheapest bonus that they got in the last years was a hundred thousand dollars. They got like two fifty, three hundred thousand dollars... you want to do some checking into that. Can you imagine... getting a bonus for losing money...
If I lose their money, they fire me. Management loses the money and guess what -- they get a quarter of a million dollar bonus. And if you look around at all the countries, at all the big companies... they complain about a three per cent raise and the politicians complain about a three per cent raise, but check out what their raises are -- thirty per cent, thirty five per cent... They do very well. It's going to bankrupt this country if, according to some people, if the minimum wage is raised.
Q: Don't you feel that the unions priced guys like you too high and gave the foreign competition a way in... that you priced yourselves out of a job?
Buckner: No, I don't believe that. You know who I really blame? Do you know who's really to blame for this? The American consumer.
At one time the most powerful organization in the world was the American consumer... they had money to spend... they could buy whatever they wanted. They'd go out and get a Jap car... if it was a few hundred dollars cheaper, they'd buy it. Then they'd park them in that steelworker parking lot and now they're out of a job. If they had bought American, they'd have a good job today.
Q: When the job ended and you weren't working for a while -- what did you do for money?
Buckner: Well, in the beginning we had unemployment, sub pay and what they call TRA, so I was actually making about as much money as I was when I was working. And that continued clear through till after I went through the air conditioning school. And I had medical coverage so there wasn't any great urgency... you know, it wasn't like I was starving, but there was a deadline coming. But it wasn't a bad time immediately after they shut down because the money was still coming in.
That lasted for near a year and a half. The official shut down day was December 31, 1983, and I completed the school in January of '85. I don't know; it was a couple of months after that that it came to an end.
By that time I was working for a friend's hydraulic shop and a sandblasting company and just where ever. I had a couple other little jobs I'd do... I'd work for a guy in Corona for a few days and he'd only pay like five bucks an hour but it was a little refrigeration shop. I did that for the experience more than anything else. But I never really had it too bad. There were a couple of times when I thought, man, something's got to give or I'm going to lose everything. But for the most part we just had to tighten our belts real good. I've been lucky not to have any real bad times. I've had some good times since then.
Q: Tell me about your work in aerospace at Aurora...
Buckner: Aircraft and space products -- that was it. All facets of aerospace -- defense, commercial airlines -- we worked on Titan Missiles. They called it a maintenance mechanic there instead of a millwright. It was basically the same job, and it was kind of like dying and going to heaven for a mechanic. I mean this place was clean, most of the buildings were climate controlled, most of the work was little, lightweight, baby stuff, I mean, man, I thought, Jesus, I've died and gone to heaven. And the money was good you know.
At Kaiser you didn't work ten or twelve hours -- usually you worked sixteen. Well, that's tough on a guy you know.
Over there, at Aurora, the money was just great. You know, it just snowballed on you. And the work was easy and clean. Working conditions were really good, but they didn't want to spend money on that any more. I guess somebody's going to have to bomb us to get us to build some fighters, I don't know. The economy's so bad that different airline outfits are... you know, they're canceling orders instead of placing new ones. Sooner or later they're going to have to do something or all the planes'll crash.
Q: Let's talk about your job today. Some people say being a steelworker is a "real job." You get your hands dirty, but there's a pride in it. Do you feel that working in the service sector is less of a "real job?"
Buckner: Not really. I don't care what my job is... if you tell me to clean toilets ... the question is whether I do the toilet right. If I clean that toilet well, I'm a man. If I mow your lawn well, if that's my job, I'm a man. There's some jobs that may be more appealing, which is natural. Aurora was a very appealing job to me because of the working conditions. I wasn't any more of a man working at Kaiser under bad conditions than I was at Aurora.
As a kid I mowed lawns... never did it as an adult. But I've cleaned toilets as an adult, and I'll tell you -- the guys that worked with me did not want to clean toilets. I think there were four of us, we had two bathrooms to clean. I ended up telling them, hey, you take care of that bathroom, I'll take care of this one. I did a good job. You know, if I've got to do it I'm going to do it right.
Q: How many different jobs have you had since being laid off at Kaiser?
Buckner: Oh Jeez... I've had lot of jobs, some of them just for a very short period of time. Probably a dozen jobs... I don't know. And I've been unemployed... probably out of work a total of two or three years if you added it all up.
That kind of insecurity only bothered me when I was broke. I mean if I've got money I don't care. But I can live cheaper than most people because my house payments are, you know, cheap, cheap, cheap. We don't run up a lot of bills, we do a lot of cash. We can tighten the belt up real quick. When I'm working and things are going well we're liable to jump up and go to Vegas any time, but when I'm not, we tighten the belt up. And we can step way back. I can get by on unemployment. It's not easy, but I can do it.
Q: What's your income like today?
Buckner: I earn about twelve bucks an hour. I can't get it down to the penny; I just don't know what it is. At Kaiser, with all things considered I probably averaged like, fifteen bucks an hour. It would be higher than that now... probably eighteen bucks an hour or something like that for the same job.
My standard of living has gone down a lot. I can keep my head above water and eat good and do all those things I need to do, but I can't run out and buy a new car. If I was still at Kaiser I could.
You know, it's more of a survival wage. I'm not trying to poor mouth or anything, but at Kaiser I had more money left over, a lot more. And at Aurora... jeez, I could just throw money away over there. In three years over there I made more headway... I was starting behind the eight ball because I had been out of work for a while, but then we caught up and did better in those three years than maybe any three years of our life. Kids were gone, expenses were down... you know, it just worked good.
Q: What do you see in the future for this country?
Buckner: Well, I like to think that the pendulum will swing the other way. I think unionism will come back. It may not happen in my lifetime, but I think unionism will come back.
By the way, the workers don't create unions. It's the people running those companies that create unions. All they got to do is be fair and nobody's going to want to pay union dues.
But I deep down I believe the pendulum will swing the other way. The option is a revolution. I think this country's either going to get strong again or it's going to be attacked --from within or without -- and that's a very scary thing, very scary. Maybe one of those countries that used to be Russia might be the one; I don't know.
Q: Do you worry for your kids?
Buckner: Sure and it's scary. When you see the way neighborhoods are changing... the way schools are changing... My grandkids are starting school and schools are a little scary now. It would be nice to think that they could grow up the way I did when I was a kid but it's just not like that anymore 'round here. I'd like to have enough money to get out of this area and to go somewhere more like it was twenty or thirty years ago. There are plenty of places like that in the United States. Plenty of places like that in the State of California. But you've got to be able to make a living wherever you go and most of those places just don't have the jobs. So I'm kind of stuck here. But if I could change my future, that's what I'd do.
Q: What's the main lesson learned from your experience with Kaiser?
Buckner: I think today, at least from my point of view, that you can't count on anything. To believe that I could go to work for a company today and work for them for the rest of my life... that's just beyond belief any more. You know, there's just no real true thing any more, like a guarantee that Kaiser Steel would be there forever. When they shut down it sure shook my foundation as far as faith in ever being able to get a permanent job.
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