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Constellium plant workers still on strike after talks fail

Seven hundred aluminum plant workers remained on strike Monday in Jackson County as union and company officials failed to reignite talks.

Questions remained unanswered about the strike by United Steelworkers Local 5668 at Constellium's rolled aluminum plant in Ravenswood.

The company and the union, for instance, gave different accounts Monday of what happened before the strike vote. The union claimed it made a counter offer before it went on strike. The company maintains the union never made such an offer.

The company and union were at odds over a new collective bargaining agreement that would have cut workers' health insurance benefits, though they would remain generous by today's standards.

There were also questions about how many union members are behind the strike.

What's clear is that negotiations, which started in May, reached a dramatic impasse when the union voted to go on strike starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Union officials, including the head of the steelworkers' negotiating team, declined to say how many union members voted to strike.

"That's none of your business because that's business of the local union, we've told you people that," Steelworkers negotiator Randy Moore said in a telephone interview.

In some strikes, unions will release strike vote numbers if an overwhelming number of employees voted for the strike. In 2003, for instance, union workers at The Greenbrier made public their strike vote, which was nearly 7-1 in favor.

But unions could be less inclined to do so if the strike vote was close. It's unclear what tactics or strategy Local 5668 is using in this strike.

The union's negotiating committee also did not present the company's final offer to the union members before the strike, both Constellium and a member of the union said.

Asked why the final offer wasn't presented to all union members, Moore said, "The best thing I can tell you is you need to come to the press conference tomorrow. Thank you." Then he hung up.

There were some indications at least a few union members were unhappy with the strike, though there were also other union members forming a picket line at the plant.

Raamie Barker, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's senior advisor, said he'd heard from two union families Monday that were unhappy with the way the handled negotiations.

One union member called him to voice concern about the union. The wife of a union member came to the Governor's Office to talk about the strike.

"They are upset with the fact they feel that an offer was made and they didn't get a chance to vote on it," Barker said.

Jason Miller, the union president, said union members expect the negotiating committee to speak for them.

"That's where they give the union committee consent to vote," Miller said in a telephone interview.

The union and the company differ on what happened just before the strike.

Constellium said that since negotiations began in May, the union has never made a counter offer.

The union's account differs.

Miller said the union made a counter offer before the strike Saturday.

"The company came back to the table on Saturday and we countered it and the company rejected it and we're on strike," Miller said.

A press release from the union does not describe any of the terms of that counter offer.

The company currently pays 100 percent of workers' insurance premiums, though employees do pay some co-pays.

The company offered wage bonuses to employees in exchange for being able to reduce long-term health care costs to the company by making workers pay 10 percent of insurance premiums in the final year of the 5-year contract.

Billy Thompson, a United Steelworkers director for a four-state region including West Virginia, said the strike was a "last resort."

"We hope that the company will sit down with us and work out a fair deal for everyone involved - one that helps them stay competitive without pushing more hard-working people into a race to the bottom," Thompson said in a statement.

The strike could be another blow to Jackson County, which lost 650 jobs in 2009 when Century Aluminum idled its plant in Ravenswood. The county has struggled to get back on its feet ever since.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.rivard@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.


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