Steelworkers still waiting for Wah Chang contract

ALBANY, Ore. - A "solidarity rally" Sunday, Feb. 17, for 690 locked-out Steelworkers at Allegheny Wah Chang turned into a "victory rally" of sorts when leaders of Local 6163 announced the company had agreed to "a framework for settlement" during federal mediation in Portland Feb. 13-14 that could have workers back on the job in a few weeks.

However, as this issue went to press (more than a week later) the company still had not signed off on any deal and, in fact, was still trying to include regressive language in the contract proposal.

"We thought we would have something (to take back to members) by now," said Linda Johnson, vice president of Local 6163 and a bargaining team member.

Steelworkers have been involved in the labor dispute since Sept. 4, when they were locked out of their jobs after giving five days' notice of their intent to strike. They have been surviving on strike benefits from the International Union Strike Fund, which as of Feb. 5 has paid out more than $1.5 million.

Johnson said at the last mediation session the sides agreed that the union would accept the economic proposal that members had voted down prior to the lockout Sept. 4 in exchange for the company "fixing a couple of health insurance issues for actives and retirees" and removing all regres- sive language changes it had made during earlier bargaining.

"We had tentatively agreed to all contract language a year and a half ago," said Johnson.

Allegheny Technologies of Pittsburgh acquired the Millersburg, Ore., company in 1996 from Teledyne. The plant produces specialty metals including zirconium niobium, tantalum used in nuclear fuel rods, missile guidance systems, and heat resistance tiles for space shuttles.

The previous labor agreement expired Oct. 1, 2000. Negotiations had been under way for several months, but stalled primarily over the issue of medical insurance for retirees and who should pay for it. In December 2000 the company presented a final offer.

At that point, Local 6163 was invited by the international union to join Steelworker locals at other Allegheny plants whose contracts were about to expire. The union did so and, according to the international's Web site, it was "able to make very substantial progress in many areas, including in active health care retiree insurance, wage restoration, guaranteed wage increases, pensions and signing bonuses."

In spring of 2001 some 4,000 Steelworkers at the other Allegheny plants - including Albany's Oremet - came to terms on a new six-year contract.

Local 6163 members at Wah Chang overwhelmingly rejected the offer. Johnson said it was turned down because the local wasn't included in the medical portion of the national agreement.

Local 6163 members continued working under the terms of their old contract while negotiations continued, but the talks went nowhere. The company actually started bargaining backwards on such items as wages and benefits and twice the union gave notice to strike. None of those threats came to fruition until late August when again bargaining stalled and union members gave notice to strike. But before they could, Allegheny locked out its union workforce.

At the Feb. 17 rally, more than 250 members of Local 6163 and their supporters from the community and other unions paraded down a half-mile stretch of Salem Road before rallying in front of Wah Chang's east entrance. Albany police cordoned off the entire road for several hours while private security guards hired by Wah Chang maintained their posts on the ground and atop scissor-lifts videotaping the activity.

Some of the speakers praised union members for their fight against the Albany area's largest private employer. Others chastised Allegheny for its greed. "This company has no respect for its workforce. It sees you as a number, not as a person or an employee," said Al Dorgan, president of Steelworkers Local 7150 at nearby Oremet, a subsidiary of Allegheny.

Former Steelworker international representative Wayne Anderson told the crowd that the Pittsburgh-based company has "destroyed families, the community, even businesses downtown. What they've done ... this community would be better off without Wah Chang."

Ted Kulongoski, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor with the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, sent an aide to read a letter of support for the Steelworkers, along with an offer to help resolve the matter "in any way that I can."

State Representative Dan Gardner, a vice president of Portland Electrical Workers Local 48 and candidate for state labor commissioner, promised to introduce legislation in the 2003 Legislature to extend unemployment benefits to locked out workers.

Albany City Councilwoman Sharon Konopa spoke briefly in support of the union, as did Joe Novak, who is running for the Democratic nomination for state representative in District 15.

While the union waits for an answer from management, picketing will continue at the plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once a tentative agreement is reached, Local 6163 will call members together to explain it before setting a date for a ratification vote.

March 1, 2002 issue

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