Sheet Metal Local 16 members lose to China

SALEM — Seventy members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 here will be getting pink slips for Christmas this year, due to competition from China and other countries, their employer says.

Neilsen Manufacturing, a family-owned business, makes computer cabinets for customers like Intel, Tektronix and Sun Microsystems. Altogether, Neilsen is terminating 124 of its 175 workers, with the second batch of 54 layoffs to come March 31.

Company chairman Tom Neilsen, the son of the founder, said in a statement on the company Web site that low-cost foreign competition is making it difficult for medium-sized American manufacturers. “Over the years we have changed our focus as markets have changed. But we have always grown. But now is different. We believe the market forces and global trends that are creating our reality today are just beginning.”

Neilsen, founded in 1957 to make custom parts for local food processors and hatcheries, shifted in the 1980s to serving Oregon high-tech companies.

At one time, producing a good product at a good price was sufficient. Now, says Local 16 union rep Del Brown, big high-tech companies demand that suppliers like Neilsen lower their price — every quarter — sometimes as much as 10 percent. And they put contracts out to bid in a kind of Internet auction that works opposite the way EBay works: Companies vie to underbid each other in real-time.

Neilsen said sometimes foreign producers offered to sell finished products for less than the amount it would cost him to obtain the raw materials.

As skilled workers — and members of Sheet Metal Local 16 — some of those laid off may find similar work elsewhere. And under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, the workers will be eligible for a package of government-paid retraining benefits. For workers close to retirement, learning a new trade isn’t as appealing.

Those who do find other work may take a drop in pay. Under their union contract, they’ve been earning $15-17 an hour plus pension benefits and full-family health care.

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