Albany Steelworkers ratify contract at Wah Chang

ALBANY - Members of Steelworkers Local 6163 ratified a new six-year labor agreement with the Allegheny Technologies Wah Chang plant, putting an end to a seven-month labor dispute.

The vote, held March 21, was 473 in favor and 117 opposed. Attending the ratification vote were International President Leo Gerard, Lead Counsel Bernie Klieman, Assistant Director Bob Bratulich and Staff Representative Gaylan Prescott.

The contract took effect April 1.

Key to ratification were pay hikes of $3.16 to $4.16 an hour over the life of the agreement and improvements in health care insurance coverage for active members and retirees. Hourly wages for union employees range from $10 to $23 an hour.

The company had originally offered the retiree benefit during coordinated negotiations held in Pittsburgh in 2001 between parent company Allegheny Technologies and 16 Steelworkers locals. However, due to other issues, Local 6163 voted the proposal down last August, and since then company offers excluded employees hired after May 1, 1990, from the retirement health benefit.

Local 6163 President Wayne Boyd said for the first time in 16 years wages are not subject to reductions because of escalating retiree health care costs, and post-1990 hires -and any new-hires - will have health care when they retire.

The union was able to get its prescription drug costs reduced from 20 percent of the cost to a graduated, flat rate starting at $5 and topping out at $25. Retirees also will have two more options to choose from for health care providers.

Boyd said all available pension dollars were "front-loaded" so that they took effect on the date of ratification and members received a $1,000 ratification bonus.

Boyd said the wage increases "are six times what we netted during the length of our last contract." International union officials called it "one of the best contracts in terms of gains in the steel industry in the past two years," Boyd said.

"I am very proud of our members, they can hold their heads high knowing that they helped make and demonstrate that the Steelworkers Union is one of the strongest, toughest and smartest unions in North America," Boyd said. The labor dispute began Sept. 4, when the union's five-day strike notice expired and the company locked out the workforce of 690 Steelworkers. The plant, which manufactures zirconium and other specialty metals, has been operating with administrative personnel and about 430 mostly out-of-town and out-of-state replacement workers. Boyd said the replacement workers have been terminated and they won't have any hiring rights as jobs come open. The union expects a significant number of union members will retire because of the large pension increase (an immediate 31 percent hike) that was negotiated in the new contract. Boyd said thus far 41 persons have said they won't return.

The new contract requires Wah Chang to hire Steelworkers from Allegheny's other Albany plant, Oremet. "I think the company is going to wait about four weeks to see how it shakes out," Boyd said. "We think they're going to combine a few departments and a few jobs. After that we'll have a better idea of how many new people they'll need."

Two weeks ago the company held two days of training at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center for returning workers. The training is to review work instructions, hazardous-materials procedures and to issue drug tests.

Boyd thanked the labor community and the international union for its support during the labor dispute. During the 29-week dispute the international union paid out strike benefits of more than $2.5 million.

"It will be difficult to express our gratitude to all of those that have stepped up and given us assistance, encouragement, and help," Boyd said. "Thank you all so much."

April 5, 2002 issue

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