11/2/07

Multiple unions strike against Ala. steelmaker

Union workers began manning picket lines at the gates of the Wise Alloys just after 3 p.m. Thursday, marking the first labor strike at the aluminum plant in nearly 15 years.

Members of the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America were the first to begin the picketing when their contract expired.

Workers represented by the North Alabama Building Trades unions joined them one hour later.

"We'd much rather be in there making metal than standing out here holding signs, but they forced us into this situation," said Charles Lamon, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 558. He joined workers at the picket line in front of the Wise Alloys plant on Second Street. "People have to understand that we're just fighting for our jobs," he said. "We'd like to have a resolution tomorrow and put these people back in their jobs. There's nobody out here who wants to have a strike."

Wise officials had little to say Thursday other than noting that a contingency plan was in place should it be needed to keep the plant operating.

Workers at the plant, which was owned by Reynolds Aluminum at the time, had a one-day strike in June 1993 over insurance issues. Wise bought the plant on April 1, 1999.

Wise has nearly 1,000 workers, including hourly and salary workers. Maintenance workers, most of whom are represented by the building and trades union, consist of about 200 workers. They say they are striking because their jobs are being outsourced to other companies.

The local Steelworkers union joined the strike at midnight after negotiations with the company failed to produce a new contract. The Steelworkers represent most of the production workers at the plant and have 330 members. Negotiations were held throughout the day Thursday.

With an absence of a new contract or negotiations with Wise, Keith Huntley, vice president of the building and trades union, said members had no other alternative but to strike.

"We are calling this strike to get better working conditions and to get a contract signed to continue working with Wise Metals," Huntley said. "Up to this point, the company has shown little interest in realistic negotiations and even less interest in the livelihood of local workers and their families."

About 300 union members, family of employees and others gathered across the street from the Wise plant Thursday as the clock approached 3 p.m. Many were there to show their support for those who held signs across the street.

The strike appeared peaceful and orchestrated.

Most union members wore shirts identifying their respective union and some wore bright blue shirts with "Day of Action 2007 - Enough is Enough" printed on the front and back.

Some members wore stickers on their shirts that read "Union Solidarity," while others wore red bandannas around their necks as a message of support for one another.

Several motorists who passed the picket line on Second Street waved at the men and women and sounded their horns.

"We're 100 percent united with everyone out here," said Joe Gronek, business manager for the Teamsters Local 402. "We wish the company would come to the table and bargain in good faith with us."

Steve Crunk, president of the local IBEW union, said negotiations were not made with his union or any others that are part of the building and trades.

Wise has entered into a contract with ABB Inc. to outsource maintenance jobs at the plant.

Although the strike started Thursday afternoon, work at the plant continued into the night.

About 4:30 p.m. Thursday, with the picket line already in place, maintenance employees hired by ABB were brought to the plant on chartered buses. In single file and escorted by security, the buses maneuvered from the back of the plant in an apparent effort to avoid strikers.

A federal mediator has called a meeting at 9 a.m. today between union representatives and Wise officials for discussions.

Lamon said negotiations were not expected to take place during the meeting, though.

"I don't expect a lot to come from it," Lamon said. "It's just an opportunity to get things out in the open and to discuss what each side sees as happening."

Other union members remained skeptical.

"So far, we've heard nothing to give us any hope that the company might come around," said Gary Wills, business representative for the International Association of Machinists.

For now, the affected hourly workers do not have a contract or a job.

"Our guys are out of work at this point," Gronek said. "We're going to do everything we can to get them back to work."

Many of the people who gathered in support of the unions' actions said the plant has been a part of their family for years.

Michael Burbank, an IBEW member, said his father worked at Wise for 32 years and he has worked at the plant for five years as an electrician.

"This is a tough time for my family," he said. "This plant out here fed me as a kid. It was hard to walk out that gate today."

Burbank said he knows many families that have lengthy ties to the plant. He said many people are being affected tremendously.

"It's a sad day. We don't want to be out here," he said. "I've got three kids who just lost insurance today."

Wills said several generations in his family have worked at the plant since it was built in 1941, with its initial purpose of producing metal used in manufacturing airplanes for the World War II effort.

Crunk said the strike is based on the unions' hope to "maintain our members" dignity and pride as humans.

"These guys love this plant and have pride in what they do," he said. "We really hope our folks can just go back to work and be with their families. You hate to see negotiations get to this point."

The unions have said that they are planning to be outside the Wise plant as long as needed, manning the picket line 24 hours a day.

"This is a bad situation," Lamon said. "Hopefully this won't last long, but it's up to the company."

(timesdaily.com)

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