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Century retirees talk with company officials

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ravenswood's Century Aluminum retirees who lost company-funded health benefits last year met with company officials in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.Karen Gorrell, a leader of the group, said that about a dozen retired workers and their dependents talked with Century about their loss of company-funded health benefits last year."At this point, we have no agreement," Gorell said. "But there will be further conversations in the near future."           Mike Dildine, a Century spokesman based in Monterey, Calif., did not return a telephone call or an email Friday afternoon.Gorrell and other retired Century workers and their spouses visited the state Capitol on Friday to thank Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators who have been supporting their efforts.When Century closed its smelting plant Feb. 15, 2009, it laid off 651 workers.At the time, Century promised to continue providing health benefits to "early retirees," who retired between the ages of 55 and 65, and to workers who were already retired, as required under its contract with the United Steelworkers of America. Then, on Jan. 1, 2011, Century cut off all health coverage for early retirees. Century paid COBRA premiums to let retirees keep health insurance for six months. But that health coverage ended in July. (COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.)Gorrell's husband, Michael, now 64, worked at the Ravenswood smelting plant for 33 years.She said Century had promised lifelong health benefits in contracts signed with the USWA.Since Dec. 19, Gorell, along with other retirees and their relatives have been holding what they call an "Occupy" encampment outside Century Aluminum's plant gates.
"We have 70- and 80-year-old men with us 24 hours a day," she said.John A. Beaver, president of USWA Local 9423 in Kentucky, also came to the West Virginia Capitol on Friday. Beaver represents 620 local union members working at a Century Aluminum plant in Hawesville, Ky."We send a monthly contribution from our members to assist these guys. In the past, we brought a bus of workers to Charleston to support their efforts."Beaver believes the Tuesday meeting between retirees and company executives in Pittsburgh "can be built on. They are far closer [to an agreement] than they have been in the past.
"We want the plant to reopen. But Century first needs to step back and end the indignity they put these people through," Beaver said."This is the hard reality of corporate America today. I know I might have to go through what these people are going through now."Beaver said workers at his plant in Kentucky went on strike for 22 months before they won union representation at their Century plant in April 2001.Beaver and Gorrell plan to come back to the Capitol again this week to show legislators their appreciation.State officials have indicated they will not give Century any special state financial help to reopen unless they resolve the ongoing conflict with the retired workers.If the Century plant reopens, Gorrell said, it would employ about 450 workers.           
The other plant, adjacent to Century's plant, is operated by Alcan Rolled Products.Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. originally opened the plant in 1958. Kaiser operated it until 1989, when they sold it to Ravenswood Aluminum, which later sold it to its current owners. Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.
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