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Century Aluminum retirees vote to accept benefits settlement

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Retirees at Century Aluminum accepted a settlement Thursday night that restored some of their health benefits -- a move that state politicians said was necessary if the company is to restart the Ravenswood plant and bring back hundreds of workers.A majority of about 450 retirees voted to approve the settlement, said Karen Gorrell, one of the group's leaders, whose husband Mike worked at the plant for 33 years. The settlement paves the way for a tax break that would offset the Jackson County plant's electricity costs.Gorrell said a determination of benefits has not been hashed out among the plant and the retirees. Surveys were distributed Thursday night to get a sense of what people want, she said."It's just one piece of the puzzle to put the rest of the puzzle together," she said. "The settlement is not 100 percent but we didn't preach it that way, we didn't represent it to be. All I can say is tomorrow there's hope, when yesterday there was none."Labor leaders seemed hopeful in the days leading up to Thursday's vote."We are very optimistic about the vote," Randy Moore, a United Steelworkers subdivision director, told the Gazette this week. "It was a very, very long process to get where we are at."When Century closed its aluminum plant in Ravenswood on Feb. 15, 2009, it laid off 651 workers. The company promised to continue providing health benefits to retired workers, as required under its contract with the United Steelworkers. Then, in January 2010, Century cut health-care benefits for hundreds of retired workers who were already eligible for Medicare.In January 2011, Century announced it also was dropping health-care coverage promised to "early retirees," between the ages of 55 and 65.Century agreed to pay COBRA premiums to let those retirees keep their health insurance for six months. That health coverage ended last July.A group of Century retirees, including Gorrell, has negotiated with company and political leaders over the past several months in an attempt to restore their health benefits.
After the tentative settlement over retiree benefits was reached, Karen Gorrell said the retirees "cannot wait to see the parking lot at Century filled with cars and semi trucks, which gives the signal that Century is back in business, the laid-off workers are back to work and producing metal made in the USA."Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. built and opened the Jackson County aluminum smelting and rolling complex back in 1958. Kaiser operated it until 1989, when they sold it to Ravenswood Aluminum.When Ravenswood Aluminum later sold the facility, it was split into two plants, one operated by Alcan Rolled Products and the other by Century Aluminum.Alcan continued operating its part of the Ravenswood facility after Century shut down.
In May 2011, Paris-based Constellium bought the Alcan plant. Constellium recently secured a $46 million "stretcher" to make aluminum airplane parts.Twenty years ago, another long-term labor dispute in Ravenswood lasted for 20 months. Ravenswood Aluminum locked out 1,700 workers during a labor contract dispute with the United Steelworkers Local 1666.The lockout dispute was settled shortly after R. Emmett Boyle, then-chairman and chief executive officer of Ravenswood Aluminum, was ousted in April 1992.The tentative settlement over Century Aluminum's retiree health care benefits came after Michael Bless became Century's new and chief executive officer earlier this year.Earlier this month, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he appreciated the fact that Century, "under the leadership of Mike Bless, has stepped up to make this deal happen."Century Aluminum also operates plants in Hawesville, Ky; Mount Holly, S.C.; and Grundartangi, Iceland.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164. 
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