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Striking workers talk benefits, negotiations

Chris Dorst
Striking Constellium Rolled Products workers meet at the United Steelworkers Local 5668 in Ravenswood Tuesday to discuss issues that sparked the strike, which began when they walked out just after midnight Sunday.
Chris Dorst Striking Constellium workers hold signs and point fingers at truck drivers leaving the Ravenswood plant on Tuesday.

RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. -- More than 200 Constellium Rolled Products workers gathered at a union hall in Ravenswood Tuesday morning to discuss issues that sparked their walkout just after midnight Sunday.

Randy Moore, subdistrict director for the United Steelworkers Local 5668, said changes that Constellium demanded in its health insurance plan were the major factor leading to the breakdown in negotiations for a new five-year contract.

Striking employees have set up four roadside sites where pickets gather, hold signs and talk to passers-by.

Today, nearly 700 union workers are on strike against Constellium, a major manufacturer of high-quality aluminum used for airplanes, automobiles and other transportation-related products.  

During negotiations that began in May, Constellium had minor disagreements about requests union negotiators made for "modest" wage and pension increases, Moore said. But arguments became "contentious" about health care provisions.

"We do not want to give up what we already have," Moore said.

On July 26 and 27, the USW local held four meetings to explain the company's proposed contract to its members.

"With 690 members eligible to vote [on the contract], 624 voted; 604 voted against the company's offer and 20 voted for the company's offer," Moore said.

A statement released by USW Local 5668 on Tuesday said, "Changes the company wants to make to health care coverage will significantly increase costs to employees and their families.

"The changes could more than wipe out any wage increases the company has proposed. Currently, workers at Constellium make an average of about $19 an hour."

Dave Martin, a member of the USW local's negotiating committee, said, "The company has never shown us any information about health care - not the first figure."

Moore and other union leaders pointed out that they have only asked for "modest wage increases" since 1994, to keep good health care benefits.

"We pay for it every day," Moore said. "Our wages are far more than $2 an hour behind what our major competitors pay."

Constellium's current health insurance benefits plan, Moore added, "includes no vision plan, an antiquated dental plan and our retirement benefits are very modest."

Woody Call, who began working for Ravenswood Aluminum after the 1992 lockout ended, was leading one group of pickets in front of the Constellium plant Tuesday.

A Constellium equipment operator and a former coal miner, Call said, "All we want to do is stand up against corporate greed.

"If we don't, our kids and grandkids won't have anything. We want the company to bargain in good faith."

Ray Burgess, another striking worker who was picketing the plant, said, "We're number one in safety and production at Constellium. We make the best metal in the world, for people flying in the sky and for the military."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in a statement issued on Tuesday, said, "I continue to be in close contact with Constellium and the union, and I'm hopeful a deal can be reached.

"I call on both sides to keep the lines of communication open so that folks can get back to work as soon as possible under a deal that is fair to everyone and protects health care benefits for employees and retirees."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been "in constant contact with us. He is very concerned," Moore said.

A federal mediator brought union and company representatives back to the bargaining table last Saturday. But Constellium negotiators rejected the union's latest offer.

Moore declined to discuss all the details of those negotiations, but said, "We are ready to go back to the table. There are also other issues besides health care."

Moore also pointed out, "In West Virginia, we pay some of the highest health care rates in the country."

In a statement posted on its website, Constellium reported annual health care costs average $19,142 for each employee represented by the USW at its Ravenswood plant, compared to an average cost for all manufacturing employees in the country of $11,984 a year.

"USW-represented employees in Ravenswood on average pay $832 of that cost, compared to employee costs of $4,419 for the [national] manufacturing average," Constellium officials added in the statement.

On its website, USW Local 5668 stated proposed "changes the company wants to make to health care coverage ... will significantly increase costs to employees and their families. The changes could more than wipe out any wage increases the company has proposed."

Based in Paris, Constellium has 9,500 employees working in 26 countries and a market presence in more than 60 countries.

Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. opened the Jackson County aluminum smelting and rolling complex back in 1958, operated it until 1989, and then sold it to Ravenswood Aluminum.

When Ravenswood Aluminum later sold the facility, it split into two plants. Alcan Rolled Products operated one and Century Aluminum operated the other. Constellium bought the Alcan plant in May 2011.

Century Aluminum shut down its Ravenswood plant in February 2009, when aluminum prices were falling. Today, Century executives are trying to reopen the plant.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature and Tomblin agreed to give Century Aluminum up to $20 million in tax credits each year, for the next 10 years, to help it pay electricity bills to Appalachian Power.

In a case pending before the West Virginia Public Service Commission, Century is also asking that its electricity rates be reduced.

If costs to Century are reduced, other companies and individuals who are Apco customers may have to make up the difference. The PSC is likely to make its decision by mid-September.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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