March 02, 2012

Ravenswood Rebirth?: Century news heartens workers, community | Charleston Gazette

Ravenswood Mayor Lucy J. Harbert says she believes the effects of reopening of the Century Aluminum plant in her town will ripple throughout the community. 

“People aren’t spending now. Homes are up for sale,” Harbert said. “People aren’t making money. Our local food pantry gets wiped out every week.” 

The tentative agreement, announced Wednesday, apparently will restore retiree health benefits and spur efforts to re-open the plant, which employed 651 when it closed on Feb. 15, 2009, at a time when aluminum prices were falling because of the economic downturn. Century cut health-care benefits in January 2010 for hundreds of retired workers who were already eligible for Medicare. In January 2011, Century announced it was dropping health-care coverage for “early retirees” between the ages of 55 and 65. 

Karen Gorrell’s husband, Michael, worked at the smelting plant for 33 years before he retired. She organized retired workers, their spouses and other supporters to pressure Century Aluminum to restore their health benefits before the plant could reopen. 

On Wednesday, Karen Gorrell praised union officials, political leaders and company executives for reaching the tentative agreement. That agreement must be ratified with a vote by the retirees. 

“We have been working diligently with the retirees and the union for a considerable period of time and are pleased to have reached an agreement,” said Michael Bless, Century’s president and chief executive officer. “We have worked long and hard with Karen Gorrell, the retiree committee and the Steelworkers and sincerely thank them in their efforts toward our common goal.” 

Bless also praised Ravenswood residents and Harbert, who estimated that Century initially could rehire 450 workers if it reopens the plant along the banks of the Ohio River. 

In a statement, Bless also praised U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W. Va., as well as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for their “constant support” during this process. 

Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union said, “This victory is a tribute to the solidarity of Century’s retirees and the diligence of the union and political leaders who stood by retirees as they fought to win back coverage earned over a lifetime of hard work.” 

In a statement posted on the USW website, Gerard also thanked Rockefeller, Manchin and Tomblin “for their instrumental efforts in bringing the parties to agreement. We’re pleased at the possibility of good jobs returning to Jackson County.” 

Restarting the smelting plant, Gerard pointed out, also depends on other factors, including Century receiving proposed state tax breaks for its electric power needs and reaching a labor agreement to cover production workers who will be represented by the USW. 

Gorrell said the support received from Rockefeller, Manchin, Tomblin and state legislators was “the key that opened the door and allowed us to sit across the table from Century and gave us the chance to win our health-care benefits back.” 

The retirees, Gorell said, “cannot wait to see the parking lot at Century filled with cars and semi trucks, which gives the signal that Century is back in business, the laid-off workers are back to work and producing metal made in the USA.” 

In a statement, Century said, “While encouraged by our progress and the cooperation and support we have received from all parties, we recognize that this is a first step and a great deal of work lies ahead.” Century, whose offices are located in Monterey, Calif., operates major aluminum plants in the United States and Iceland.

By:  Paul J. Nyden