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Economic and dam related articles

Intalco Workers Approve New Contract,
Avert Strike at Ferndale Smelter

by John Stark
Bellingham Herald, October 28, 2011

FERNDALE - Union workers at Alcoa Intalco Works have voted to ratify a new four-year labor contract, ending two weeks of uncertainty at the aluminum smelter west of Ferndale.

The polling ended at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, and the counting of the paper ballots took less than an hour. The ratification was reported on the union's Facebook page.

Glenn Farmer, union business representative, said the vote was "very close," but he declined to give an exact figure. He added that the fallout from the standoff with management would linger.

"I don't think Alcoa Intalco will ever be the same," Farmer said.

He noted that employees had joined management to help Alcoa lobby for a power sale agreement with Bonneville Power Administration that was vital to keeping the smelter in business. Workers expected something more from the company when it came time for a new contract.

"But they just refused to move past what they called their parameters," Farmer said.

The labor situation at the 500-employee aluminum smelter west of Ferndale had been tense since Oct. 14, when members of Local 2379 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted to reject an earlier offer from management and authorized a strike. But they also agreed to stay on the job while talks continued.

Alcoa spokesman Josh Wilund confirmed the ratification vote and said company officials were pleased that operations can get back to normal.

The company brought replacement workers into the plant for training in the event of a strike, but on Oct. 22 they dismissed the replacements, and labor and management went back to the bargaining table the next day.

Shutting down the plant would have been a drastic step for both the company and its 500 workers. The aluminum smelting process involves constant operation of potlines that convert ore to molten metal with a massive stream of electric power, and shutting down those potlines and restarting them is difficult and costly.

The company website says the four-year proposal will provide workers with a $1,000 lump sum payment in January 2012 and a 6.5 percent increase in base pay rates, as well as some added compensation to help employees cover an increased share of health insurance costs. The contract also contains new rules and restrictions on mandatory overtime - a sore spot with many workers.

Union representatives said they presented management's proposal to the rank-and-file without any recommendation.

In recent years, the union and the company have worked hand-in-hand during the long political and bureaucratic battle to get the smelter a secure supply of low-cost federal hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration.

That's a battle that will heat up again in 2012. Intalco's current power purchase agreement with BPA expires in May.

The Intalco smelter, which began operating in 1966, is among the last in a region where the industry once flourished, thanks to abundant and cheap hydropower from federal dams. But many smelters have shut down in the past 10 years as regional power demands increased and prices rose.

Pittsburgh-based Alcoa is the world's largest aluminum producer, with 200 locations in 31 countries, according to the company website. The Intalco smelter represents about six percent of Alcoa's worldwide aluminum-producing capacity, the website indicates.

John Stark
Intalco Workers Approve New Contract, Avert Strike at Ferndale Smelter
Bellingham Herald, October 28, 2011

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