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Labor Negotiations begin Between Union, Aluminum Plant Management

by Craig Howard
The Goldendale Sentinel, September 27, 2001

Union leaders frustrated with tactics, timing of discussions

Representatives of local steelworkers' unions began a weeklong schedule of negotiations with management from Golden Northwest Aluminum on Monday Sept 24.

The two sides are trying to hammer out a new labor contract while dealing with a gloomy local and national economy, energy restrictions and sagging aluminum prices. Golden Northwest's facilities in Goldendale and The Dalles have dramatically reduced manufacturing output beginning in October of last year, laying off hundreds of workers while trying to keep both plants operating at a minimum level of production.

The current labor contract in effect for Steelworkers Local 8147 in Goldendale and Local 9170 in The Dalles ends at midnight on Sunday, Sept. 30. Unemployment compensation, generated by energy sales to Bonneville Power Administration (BPA,) also will be discontinued as the month of October begins.

According to Local 8147 president, Ken Berry, leaders of both union groups proposed that the current contract be extended through May of next year, but management declined the request and now both parties are left with one week to construct a new agreement. Berry says union leaders feel the situation could have been handled differently.

"For some apparent reason the company wanted to go into full-blown negotiations." said Berry. "In a way, it's a form of excessive force. We feel we're being pushed into a corner, but we do want to have a fair contract that helps the owner out and does not force us into any type of labor dispute."

Mac Seyhanli, cheif operating officer of Goldendale Aluminum, told The Sentinel that the depressed aluminum market has made cutbacks in prodction necessary, but he expressed optimism that the discussions would produce a contract that would benefit both sides.

"We're bargaining in good faith," Seyhanli said. "Right now, we're just making proposals back and forth. Our focus, as these (BPA) funds are depleted is looking at new sources of funding. We are trying to get some partners among the major energy marketers in the country, but right now, nothing is finalized."

One of the workers' primary concerns is the distribution of a reported $280 million generated from curtailing energy use at the plant and selling the power back to BPA. The funds were intended to develop alternative energy projects from sources such as gas and wind, as well as to assist the hundreds of workers laid off from the plants. Berry says that union members are concerned about the utilization of these funds.

"I have a hard time believing that these resources will have been used up by the end of September," he said. "We haven't seen any kind of movement in the new energy sources that they were supposed to have looked into."

Berry also expressed frustration with management's handling of benefits and compensation for seniority positions and premium pay for weekend and overtime work.

"We have people who are working weekends, holidays and graveyard shifts and not being paid any more," said Berry. "We don't feel like this is fair that the workers are spending this quality time away from their families and not being compensatted for it."

In a prepared statement, Goldendale Aluminum owner Brett Wilcox addressed the concern over the dwindling BPA funds.

"For the last nine months, we've had the luxury of enjoying payments because of a very fortuitous sale of power," said Wilcox. "We have used a big chunk of these proceeds to cover the costs of carrying employees during the period and our other shutdown costs. We have invested the balance in developing new power supplies to meet the half of our needs BPA won't supply from 2001 to 2005, and all of the power we need after 2006. Unless we make this investment and develop a long-term power supply, we have no realistic hope of surviving long-term."

Craig Howard
Labor Negotiations begin Between Union, Aluminum Plant Management
The Goldendale Sentinel, September 27, 2001

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