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Constellium puts future in high tech

RAVENSWOOD - Corporate, labor and government leaders unveiled a massive $46 million investment at the Constellium Rolled Products plant in Ravenswood Wednesday.

Officials said the new piece of equipment - a 30-million-pound aluminum stretcher - will give the plant the upper hand in the global marketplace and expressed hopes that it would mark a new beginning for union-company relations.

Christophe Villemin, Constellium's Global Aerospace Division president, joined Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and United Steelworkers Union leaders Wednesday to cut the ribbon on the new stretcher.

It is now the largest, most powerful of its kind in the world, Villemin said. It can pull large aluminum plates like a rubber band to either flatten the plates or relieve stress in the metal.

This means the Ravenswood plant can now process thicker and wider metal plates than any other aluminum manufacturer.

"It's the largest stretcher in the world with the largest pull force in the world, which enables the production of key parts and large parts for commercial aircraft like Boeing and Airbus, as well as the military and defense aircraft like F-35 for example," Villemin said.

But Villemin said the investment is about more than the manufacturing process.

"We're celebrating today the $46 million investment for Constellium as well as celebrating the trust in the management, the workforce and the community," he said.

"Competition is very tough out there," Villemin said. "But we believe that the future of Ravenswood lies in high tech, training the employees and also being a good citizen."

Words like "trust" and "being a good citizen" have a significant meaning at the Ravenswood plant.

Relations between the union and the nearly half-dozen corporations that have owned the plant in the past few decades have been strained.

In the early 1990s, the United Steelworkers Union Local 5668 endured a nearly two-year standoff with then-owner Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. when the company locked out union laborers.

The Constellium plant is adjacent to the Century Aluminum smelting plant, which closed in 2009. Union officials have been angry over the continued closure of that plant and Century's decision to end health care coverage for retirees.

The contrast in the union's attitude toward Constellium versus Century was clearly evident Wednesday.

"We have gone through a number of periods after the closing of Century Aluminum - who by the way are a bunch of rotten bastards for trying to take away people's health care," USW president Leo Gerard said Wednesday.

But he said Villemin came to him three years ago to talk about improving the Ravenswood plant.

"Christophe says, 'I believe in manufacturing, I believe in Ravenswood, I believe I can get more business into that plant, I believe I want to work with the union to do that,'" Gerard said.

"I said to him if that's the things you believe, that's the things I believe, and I'm ready to work with you," he said. "And someday I want to come to the plant and cut a ribbon because I'm tired of going to that plant to talk about whether or not it will survive."

To start the improvement process, the company set up a work reorganization team made up of corporate and labor officials and plant workers. That team also got input from a well-known outside source: former Congressman Dick Gephardt.

The former House Majority Leader now runs the Gephardt Group, a consulting firm that advises companies on best industry practices, management decisions and labor relations.

Gephardt said he was involved in almost weekly meetings with the team, working with both sides to build trust, respect and a better working culture.

"It's always hard when you enter a company where there's been a bad history and a lack of working together, but I think we're turning that around day by day," Gephardt said.

"I really believe the workers here can out-compete and out-hustle anyone in the world - I know that to be true - and if we can continue to get management and labor to work together the way we are, I think we can out-compete anyone in the world," he said.

Villemin said the company has secured some new opportunities with tremendous potential. He said 2012 would be a "test year" for the plant to make sure it can meet new demand.  

"There will be more volumes, and more critical volumes," he said. "We have to pass the test, and if we pass the test, then 2013 and next year will be very good."

That was good news for Ravenswood Mayor Lucy Harbert, who had to watch people leave her community after the Century plant closed.

"If we have more orders, bigger orders, then maybe that will mean more people getting hired," Harbert said. "I think this is a step in the right direction and now we're going to go after Century."

She said she hoped the $46 million investment will help Century realize the opportunity with their Ravenswood plant.  

"If (Constellium) can do this and have confidence in this plant and the workers, then I think Century needs to step up," Harbert said.

Tomblin said talks have begun between Century and its retirees to restore health benefits, ahead of a potential restart at their plant.

He said he was committed to seeing both things happen.

"There's nothing we'd rather see than to have that plant in operation and to have all those people back to work again," Tomblin said. "We're just very hopeful that we can get this all worked out."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-5148.


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