March 14, 2012

Rockefeller, Manchin praise Century retirees' effort | Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the eve of a vote by Century Aluminum retirees about the company's proposal to restore at least some of their health-care benefits, U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin spoke together on the Senate floor for the first time, praising the deal.

The two Democratic senators praised the efforts by Karen Gorrell to lead protests seeking to restore health-care benefits to workers who retired, benefits taken away by the company, beginning in 2010.

Retired Century workers will meet at Ravenswood High School at 6:30 p.m. Thursday to read the company's proposed settlement of the dispute, then to vote on that proposal.

If Century Aluminum reopens, 450 jobs could be restored almost immediately and 200 more jobs could follow.

"This is a wonderful event we hope will be happening tomorrow, an enormous event for the people of West Virginia," Rockefeller said. "Retirees at Century Aluminum in Ravenswood will hopefully ratify a decision which has been reached by the [company and the] Steelworkers, led by a local heroine, an icon of Appalachia, Karen Gorrell."

"In 2009, the plant closed," Manchin said. "In 2010, all the employees were told all of their health care benefits, that had been promised to them and negotiated in good faith, were gone by the stroke of a pen. And the courts upheld it."

Manchin believes Century Aluminum's new management team, headed by Mike Bless in Monterey, Calif., wanted to resolve the issues.  

"These people came in. They saw the fabric of this town and the fortitude of these people. And so you had management say, 'We need to do something.'"

Manchin said Gorrell and other retirees "just never let up. All they're saying is that, 'We want fairness. We want to be treated fairly. We want what we were promised.'"

Rockefeller agreed, "What these men and women wanted was to be treated fairly."

Both Rockefeller and Manchin praised the work done, and negotiations held, to frame the tentative agreement between Century's new management, state legislators and the Ravenswood retirees.

"Sen. Manchin and I wanted this situation to work out. We both worked very hard on it. The parties weren't very far apart," Rockefeller said.

"Each side didn't get exactly what they wanted. But there are very high stakes for losing everything. Everybody rose to the occasion."

Rockefeller hopes tonight's vote will be "an example of a good corporate leadership and good union leadership coming together at precisely the right moment, after a tremendous amount of strain and stress and anger."

Manchin said, "Our hat is off, from the corporate end to the union end, to people working together from the community."

Manchin said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, was "a rock. The Steelworkers stood behind their retirees. They wouldn't take anything less than the retirees being treated fair. That really brought everybody to the table.

"Today, West Virginia is a brighter spot, Ravenswood is a brighter place. The hopes are up again. People are enthusiastic," Manchin said. "You can see they got a little skip in their step. That means an awful lot.

"These are the hardest-working people. They don't ask for a whole lot, just an opportunity to take care of themselves and their family. That's what they've done."

Manchin and Rockefeller both praised Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state Legislature for promising to help Century Aluminum financially, especially with electric power costs at the smelting plant, but only if Century did not abandon the retirees.

"We're going to show the rest of the country that we can compete with anybody in the world," Manchin said. "We're going to start rebuilding America one job at a time. This is 400 jobs at one time."

By:  Paul J. Nyden