CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With union workers back in action at Constellium Rolled Products in Ravenswood, Jackson County business leaders hope the local economy is on the mend.
The 700 members of United Steelworkers Local 5668 had been on strike since Aug. 5. The impasse came to an end last Wednesday, when workers approved a new five-year contract with the company.
Union employees resumed their normal shift work at 7 a.m. Monday, but the nearly seven-week labor dispute took its toll on morale in Jackson County. Many small, locally owned businesses suffered deep losses during the strike.
"Ravenswood has faced pretty much a perfect storm from a financial perspective," said Robert Grimmett, who runs the Robert Mason office supply store in Ravenswood's shopping plaza.
Grimmett has been in business since 1996. He admits the community faces a lot of economic challenges, including an aging population that is more reliant on fixed sources of income.
The loss of 650 good-paying manufacturing jobs caused by the 2009 shutdown of the Century Aluminum plant dealt a heavy blow to the economy. When Constellium workers hit the picket lines, the effect on local businesses was just as severe.
"It's been very difficult for the small, independent businesses of Ravenswood to survive this hostile financial environment," Grimmett said.
Business owners said they could tell the strike was beginning to affect workers and their families, too.
"Those guys were out just long enough to start feeling the hurt," said Mark Lemley, owner of Jackson County Pawn. "After six weeks, I think they were starting to feel the pinch."
Ravenswood Insurance Centre President Teresa Thacker said many people were starting to get behind on their bills.
"We have seen an increase of late payments and several policies getting close to cancellation status during the strike," Thacker said.
The local union held fundraisers to help workers pay some bills.
Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle said that helped workers keep their utilities on, but he said families still cut back on spending. That hurt other local businesses, and caused more people to cut back.
"People had less money to spend in stores and restaurants; it did affect them," Ihle said.
Thacker said she continued writing insurance policies but could see consumers were buying less.
"We have seen a decrease in the purchase of new vehicles," she said.
Grimmett said local business owners could go hours at a time during the strike without seeing anyone in their stores.
"Business is extremely sporadic," he said. "It's really been very difficult figuring how to manage inventory and cash flow, while at the same time keeping all of your taxes and bills paid - it's been very, very difficult."
A sense of relief
The mayor said the situation hit bottom two weeks ago when union leaders decided not to vote on the company's final offer.
"People were nervous, anxious and frustrated that they couldn't vote," Ihle said.
International union leadership and state political leaders eventually stepped in to force a vote last Wednesday. The union's rank-and-file members approved the company's offer.
Community reaction was instantaneous.
"Almost immediately we noticed an increase in a positive attitude in the community, just as soon as the news broke," Grimmett said.
"The mood really is one of relief," Ihle said. "Everyone's glad it's over."
Now community leaders are focusing on getting the local economy going again.
While he said the economy still has a way to go, Grimmett said the positive news last week has already made a difference.
"It begins with that change of attitude to spur demand, and then hopefully we can build from that," he said.