By Don McIntosh
A worker-led effort to unionize the 498 employees of ATI Cast Products in Albany, Oregon, ended in defeat Feb. 22, with 179 voting to join the United Steelworkers (USW) and 285 voting against.
“People are genuinely terrified,” said Hoskins, a titanium straightener at the plant. Hoskins said he’s been through seven attempts to unionize the plant since he started there 15 years ago. “There’s always the week where those of us who are part of the campaign start wearing our union t-shirts and hats. When that happens, people are afraid to be standing next to you. It’s almost like people are wearing a hammer and sickle in the middle of Reagan’s America. They’re afraid of you.”
Again and again, plant managers have waged an all-out effort to stomp out the union. That’s in spite of the fact that USW represents workers at many other ATI facilities around the United States, including two plants in Albany itself: the titanium plant known as Oremet ( Local 7150) and the specialty alloys plant known as Wah Chang (Local 6163).
The ATI Cast Products plant is best known to locals as PacCast, short for Pacific Cast Technologies. It makes large, complex titanium components used in aircraft engines and spacecraft. Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) — a $3.5-billion-a-year specialty metals manufacturer headquartered in Pittsburgh — took ownership of PacCast in 2011 when it bought Ladish Co.
PacCast is a high-turnover workplace where employees work a grueling rotation of 12 hour shifts and make as little as $13 an hour. Pay, benefits, and work conditions are worse at ATI Cast Products than at Albany’s two unionized ATI plants. Their health insurance has been steadily deteriorating, going from a $250 deductible 15 years ago to $3,000 today. So why did most workers vote against the union?
Mandatory paid-time anti-union assemblies are a big part of the answer, says Nick Gaitaud, a millwright at ATI’s Oremet plant. Gaitaud led a group of USW members — volunteer organizers — who helped PacCast employees on their union campaign. On Jan. 25, when USW filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an election, a majority of PacCast workers had signed union authorization cards, Gaitaud said. Then ATI managers led nearly a month of mandatory 30- to 90-minute long anti-union meetings, as often as two to three times a week. An Oregon law supposedly makes those meetings illegal, because it prohibits employers from disciplining workers who refuse to attend. But at PacCast, no workers refused to attend the meetings.
At the meetings, management stuck to the standard anti-union script, harping on the burden of union dues, the union’s inability to promise specific gains, and the supposed fees and fines that unions levy against members who cross strike picket lines. As ever, the union was portrayed as a “third party” that would come in and speak for workers, robbing them of their ability to speak for themselves. Anti-union workers began wearing t-shirts that said “I’ll speak for myself” Never mind that this particular campaign didn’t even deploy paid staff organizers — all the union organizers were PacCast coworkers or USW members at nearby ATI plants.
“Our union isn’t someone from back East,” said Gaitaud. “It’s someone with a baseball hat and Carhartt jeans, people you see in your community, at your kid’s game.”
USW says ATI management also violated labor law during the campaign. In 12 separate “unfair labor practice” charges, USW alleges that ATI threatened, surveilled, interrogated, and disciplined employees to squelch the union. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the charges, and the cases are pending.
One of the charges was over a discipline Hoskins received. He was talking in the restroom about a company policy, and later gave a coworker a printout of a company email. Management said that was campaigning on company time. A supervisor marched Hoskins through the plant to the office — to send a message to his coworkers, Hoskins says. There, the company vice president and human resources chief confronted him and issued a written warning.
Hoskins said managers made it personal, but missed the point.
“I think they thought our problem was we were mad at the company, or didn’t like them,” Hoskins said. “This wasn’t a bunch of angry employees. This is a bunch of people who want a better workplace and a better company.”