Alcoa Was Once a Friend to Akwesasne Mohawk Territory

A column by Ray Cook about Alcoa.

I remember looking through a book on Massena (Akwesasne Mohawk Territory) history, studying the pictures and seeing my uncle, Noah Cook. It was 1922. Uncle Noah had to have been 18 or so years old at the time. He was pictured in a blacksmith shop with a very old sod that was showing Noah the ropes.

How young Noah looked. He worked many years at the “plant” and, as many did then, also worked the family farm. He retired decades later, when there were no more horses or metal wheels to maintain. It was the industrial age and Massena and Akwesasne were an integral part of it. At that time, our communities became one economically. And Alcoa was part of that coming together of people, of skills.

A family of communities began. And Alcoa was part of that.

A few years ago, I had the grand opportunity to visit with Ana Thompson, the mom of iron worker union member Ray Thompson. She was 104 years old then.

She told me a story about waking up at 3:30 in the morning in the dead of winter to harness the horse to the family cutter (winter sleigh). By 4 a.m. she was on her way to work, taking the frozen river from Cornwall Island west to the still new Alcoa plant. She was 16 years old and it was December 1917. And she was not alone. She said the river was a highway of women coming and going to work at the plant.

She was working at Alcoa was because the men were away, “over there.” World War I was raging and America had just joined the war effort—many of the men were gone. So, women were recruited to fill the void on the lines. They worked hard, not just for the war effort, but also for the company goals of Alcoa and for the economic needs of their own families.

During those trying times and many since, an unspoken social contract was established. The community takes care of Alcoa by providing man/women power and Alcoa takes care of the community.

Today, Alcoa forgets that history that we all share in this region. They forget the loyalty of the workers, the camaraderie of the workers and the communities Alcoa assisted in beginning and later sustaining. That reciprocal relationship today seems to be weakening. Separating the community of workers that sustains Alcoa from the management needs of the big corporation that Alcoa has become.

So this past week, it was heartening to see the picket lines grow as the Alcoa building trades join the line with the ironworkers. Our community of workers unite in a common struggle. To remind Alcoa management of the community they are reciprocally obligated to.

This community and this county provide a wide berth for Alcoa. Our collective community provides huge tax incentives for Alcoa by allowing Alcoa to pay only $2 million a year in taxes—a pittance—split between the state, county and municipality.

If that is not enough incentive, the collective community allows Alcoa basement-sale rates on electric power set-asides. That electricity could be used elsewhere to stimulate economic development in both St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. But no, the counties allow that allotment of potential developmental power to go to Alcoa so they can remain competitive in the open market by having a nearly cost-free source of energy to do their job.

And the young management team of Alcoa thank our communities by saying that they will no longer hire local. Alcoa believes that it will further cut costs if they buy foreign and out of state unskilled labor and move them here. How does hiring foreign workers assist our communities' economic needs? It doesn’t, and that is the stick in the eye.

Sometimes, good neighbors turn bad. When a relationship goes bad, it’s best for the affected parties to either clear the slate and make up, or just part company and say goodbye.

What’s it going to be Alcoa? We have a vast community to sustain, and right now you are in the way. Are you part of this vast community with which you have a long history, or are you a bad neighbor?