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Century Aluminum retirees picket over lost benefits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Karen Gorrell, an activist working to win back health-care benefits for retired Century Aluminum workers and their wives, visited Charleston Monday to protest the Ravenswood company's decision to stop paying their health-care benefits.Gorrell was one of nine retirees and their wives who held signs in front of the federal courthouse in Charleston and the state Capitol. They later met with political leaders.They were protesting Century's decision to reverse lifelong health benefits that retirees were promised in a labor contract the company signed with the United Steelworkers of America.Raamie Barker, a senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said Tuesday, "The governor told them he is interested in doing everything he can. We believe the basic issue is a federal issue, one for the courts to decide."There needs to be some federal legislation to prevent what happened to them. The governor will be working with these people to try to help them get their benefits back," Barker said.Gorrell said the retirees and their wives had met with Barker and also met with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Monday."They are trying to help us work with Washington to try to get some legislation to put a permanent stop to this for everybody," she said. Century has recently been talking about reopening its smelting facility in Ravenswood.  "Raamie Barker told us Century Aluminum understands that they will get no deals from the state until this issue is resolved. We like that," Gorrell said. "Last year, Century tried to get legislation to put a cap on their electric power bills. We don't want to see any [electric] power deals made with Century Aluminum until they honor their commitment to us."Gorrell's husband, Michael, 64, worked at the Ravenswood smelting plant for 33 years.When Century closed the plant in Ravenswood on Feb. 15, 2009, company officials laid off 651 workers.
At the time, Century promised to continue health benefits to "early retirees," workers who retired between the ages of 55 and 65, and to workers already retired.This year, on Jan. 1, Century cut off all health coverage for early retirees, agreeing to pay their Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act premiums to keep their insurance for six months. That health coverage expired during the summer.Jim Weltner, a retired Ravenswood worker, stood near the Capitol with a sign reading, "Century Aluminum: Broken Promises, Killing Retirees.""It was devastating when they took our health benefits away. That takes our pensions away to pay medical bills. I am taking our pension to pay for health care for my wife, Pamela. She has had two heart attacks and four heart operations."
Weltner, who lives in Mineral Wells, worked at the Ravenswood plant for 38 years."Most retirees are not able to come down here. Most of them are in their 80s today. I will be 71 next month, so I am one of the younger ones," he said.Michael Dildine, Century's communications director, did not return a telephone call to his office in Monterey, Calif.Gorrell said her fellow retirees and wives plan to begin picketing in front of Century's Ravenswood plant two days a week."We will also picket their plant in Mount Holly, S.C., sometime at the end of the month."And we are also thinking about going to Century's plant in Hawesville, Ky., and picketing there for 30 days," Gorrell said. "We want to take our fight to other locations to spread our story."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.
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