By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
ALBANY, Oregon—Monday, Dec. 7. It’s pitch dark at 5:45 in the morning as I pull up across the road from the former Oremet titanium plant —now called ATI Albany Operations. There’s a driving wind, and rain is coming down in buckets. But outside the plant gate, eight men with picket signs walk back and forth in front of a short line of cars and vans.
The signs say “Steelworkers at ATI: Fighting for Good Jobs in our Community.” The men are members of United Steelworkers Local 7150. They’d rather be inside, earning $30 an hour processing titanium that ends up in jet rotors and other aerospace components. Instead they’re out in the cold wet two hours before sunrise, using their bodies to slow down the scabs — the out-of-town workers the company brought in to replace them. The law says union picketers can’t block vehicles, but picketers make a practice of delaying them — 60 seconds each. So cars, pickups and a handful of white shuttle vans with tinted windows cross the line in one-minute intervals.
Soon after the last vehicle crosses the picket line, some of the picketers cross the road to dry off in front of a propane heater under a canvas canopy on a strip of private land. There are coffee urns and camp chairs, and bark dust to stop the mud. Hand-painted signs give passersby a summary of what’s going on: “Locked out. Not walked out.”
Close to 2,200 workers at 12 Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) facilities in six states have been locked out since Aug. 15 — including 180 at the Albany plant. In contract bargaining that began in May, ATI gave the union a sweeping list of demands: including an end to the pension and retiree health insurance for new hires, and a significant increase in what workers would pay out-of-pocket for family health coverage: Premiums would go from zero currently to $215 a month by the end of the contract, and annual deductibles would rise by up to $400 a year.
“It was all, ‘this is what we want, and you’ll take it,’” said Local 7150 president Josh Hall, who served on the union bargaining team. “There was no bargaining in good faith.”
When the union didn’t jump to take that offer to a vote, ATI locked out all 2,200 union workers in the multi-facility bargaining unit.
They already had a game plan and they were going to cut our throats regardless. hey’re heartless sons of bitches.” — Greg Shaffer, 20-year employee at the Albany titanium plant
“They already had a game plan and they were going to cut our throats regardless,” said picketer Greg Shaffer, 57, who’s worked 20 years at the plant. “There’s no respect at all for the people who work here. They’re heartless sons of bitches.”
The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the union’s charges that ATI was never serious about negotiating an agreement.
USW international Vice President Tom Conway, the union’s lead negotiator in talks with ATI, says the company justified its demand for concessions by pointing to the downturn in steel: Prices globally are in a sustained slump in large part because of a surge of exports from China, which is accused in several pending trade complaints of selling steel below the cost to produce it. But Conway says ATI’s proposal — slashing worker benefits — is a permanent solution to that temporary problem.
“It’s undeniable there’s some pressure, but the company has decided they’re going to use this as an opportunity to try and strip things out of the labor agreement that have been there for generations and that have nothing to do with the crisis,” Conway told the Labor Press by phone.
Not everyone at ATI is being asked to make sacrifices. Last year ATI gave CEO Rich Harshman a 70 percent raise, to nearly $8 million, and paid its stockholders a 72-cent dividend.
I don’t ever remember a more disgusting day than the first day they first paraded all those vans in front of us.” — Jim Wright, 37-year employee at the plant
When I ask picketers about the scabs, and the executives who hired them, I hear surprisingly little profanity — just disappointment, and a sense of betrayal.
“I don’t ever remember a more disgusting day than the first day they first paraded all those vans in front of us,” says Jim Wright, former Local 7150 president and a 37-year employee at the plant. Wright said the lockout took him by surprise. He thought the company was bluffing.
Under the canopy, the picketers reminisce about the days when their plant was a stand-alone company called Oremet (Oregon Metallurgical Corporation), and CEO Carlos Aguirre would visit the shop floor to talk to workers. Back then they earned company stock with every paycheck. ATI bought Oremet in 1997 for $560 million. Now it’s playing a game of hardball, attempting to starve them into accepting far-reaching concessions.
The two sides have met just once since the lockout began — a Sept. 11 session with a federal mediator; USW says ATI refused to discuss anything but its last offer.
Locked out workers in Oregon are eligible for unemployment insurance at least through February, and picketers say they’re determined to hold out.
“You either sacrifice the present, or you sacrifice your entire future,” says millwright Scott Youngberg.
Some, however, won’t be going back. Conway says nationally as many as 200 workers who were eligible for retirement decided in the weeks leading up to the contract expiration that it was time to retire. And others — particularly millwrights and electricians who possess relatively transferable skills — have found jobs elsewhere since the lockout.
Several hours after I arrive, the sun comes up and the rain breaks, and the picketers re-establish their line of signs along the road, garnering regular honks from passing trucks and cars.
“When we get all through with this,” says Wright. “We’re going to be a tougher union.”
I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS The Steelworkers maintain their picket line, in four-hour shifts, from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week, and welcome visits from supporters. But they’ll take a break Dec. 18 to Jan. 4. On Dec. 19, the union is sponsoring a family Christmas party at Pix Theater in Albany, followed by bowling at Highland Bowl in Corvallis.