By LAWRENCE MESSINA
CHARLESTON (AP) —
An estimated 400 Century Aluminum retirees attended last week’s meeting that paved the way for a $20 million tax credit meant to help the company reopen its Jackson County plant. But at least 17 retirees did not take part in the Thursday vote, which removed a major hurdle for the restart effort by resolving an impasse over health benefits.
These 17 had died during the fight that followed the California-based company’s decision in 2010 to start eliminating retiree health coverage. Century had shut down the Ravenswood plant the previous year, citing high energy costs and weak aluminum prices, throwing around 650 people out of work.
The retirees, including some who ended their careers at the plant in the 1980s, spoke out at stockholder meetings, picketed outside the homes of company officials and held prayer vigils, said Karen Gorrell, their spokeswoman. Some even camped out for several months just outside the entrance to the sprawling plant along the Ohio River, said Gorrell, whose husband had retired from Century after more than 33 years.
A website set up by the retirees argues their case, chronicles their efforts and also includes a page to honor those retirees who died since the fight began. They include a welder, a millwright, and several former workers who helped run the huge pots that extract aluminum from raw ore before it is refined and shaped.
“The men paid for these benefits. It was a contractual obligation,” Gorrell, 62, said of the retirees. She added, “They took people who were in what you might call middle class and they put them in poverty, is basically what happened.”
Those who did not live long enough to see Thursday’s vote, for an agreement that partly restores benefits, include Bryce Turner. A leader in the fight to regain the lost coverage, Turner was also battling leukemia, Gorrell said. The retired ore loader died in September 2011, at age 59.
“He was the man who got me to my feet,” Gorrell said. “He was a good man. He deserved better. He worked there 36 and a half years. He gave them his life.”
Several dozen of the retirees were in the spectator galleries Friday when the Legislature passed the special session tax credit. Triggered by weak aluminum prices, it would allow Century to seek reduced electricity rates for the next 10 years. The credit would allow the utility to recoup the resulting losses.
Century, meanwhile, has committed $44 million over the next decade toward retiree health care, Gorrell said. With that agreement and the tax credit secured, remaining hurdles for restarting the plant include a new labor agreement with the United Steelworkers union. But those negotiations are ongoing, and some supporters believe the plant could have all four of its potlines back up and running by August.
Tom Heywood, a lawyer representing Century, told the Senate Finance Committee before Friday’s vote that the plant would initially employ 450 people once it reopened, with more planned to follow. Other benefits would include tax revenues, sharing costs with a neighboring facility and easing the burden of electrical costs on other market customers.
Gorrell credits U.S. Sen. Jay Rockeller for championing the retirees’ cause — “Rockefeller got really fired up,” she said — partly by pushing the company to seek federal subsidies that extended benefits. Both Rockefeller and Sen. Joe Manchin, his fellow West Virginia Democrat, took to the Senate floor Thursday to herald the coverage agreement and praise Gorrell and other retirees for their fight.
“There aren’t many issues that have affected me as deeply as the plight of Century’s workers and retirees, and I am hopeful for the day when the plant’s doors are open and West Virginians are back to work,” Rockefeller said in a statement following Friday’s passage of the tax credit measure.
Gorrell also lauded such state lawmakers as Delegates Dan Poling and Brady Paxton, Sen. Jack Yost and the Legislature’s top leaders, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler. Several of these legislators spoke at the Capitol rally held by retirees during the 2011 session, Gorrell said. But other lawmakers, including some who represent the region, appeared blindsided when the retiree benefits issue derailed that session’s version of the tax credit proposal that passed Friday.
Sen. Karen Facemyer was among them. The Jackson County Republican angrily denounced the 2011 bill’s demise in floor speeches at that session’s end. She also voted against at least one unrelated tax credit measure in protest.
“No one had ever contacted me on it,” Facemyer said Friday. “We introduced the bill down here, and then we heard from them and they came out of the woodwork. And rightly so, but at same time if they had come in ahead of time, we could have avoided a lot of the clash that we had last year.”
Facemyer agreed Friday that the retiree issue had to be addressed before the state offered aid toward the plant’s restart.
“I definitely thought that was the right way to go,” she said.
Gorrell said Delegate Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also seemed unaware of the fight over health benefits. But she noted his Feb. 21 speech in which he threw his support behind the retirees.
“Not often you hear from me on this side of the aisle advocating against, or taking a position against the industry,” Carmichael had told his fellow delegates. “But in this case, I believe that the industry did the wrong thing. They took away the health care benefits of these retirees.”
Carmichael returned to the House floor on Friday, lauding the coverage agreement while urging support of the tax credit measure.
“Today, with your vote, you will absolutely put people back to work,” he said Friday. “It’s rare that we get an opportunity to hit that green button and know the outcome will be people working.”
Carmichael’s father had long worked at the plant. Citing his research at the state archives, the lawmaker recounted the headline-grabbing excitement in the 1950s when Kaiser Aluminum first announced its plans to build the facility. The resulting jobs transformed that part of the mid-Ohio Valley and lured natives back to Jackson County, Carmichael said, including his father. Reopening the plant can yield similar dividends, he told fellow delegates.
“We have tried to succeed, and we have overcome obstacles in this state and in Jackson County and at this plant,” Carmichael said. “There is a value to putting these people back to work that is above the daily wage.”
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina