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Today is the day for 'union business'

LAST week, the bargaining committee of United Steel Workers Local 5668 decided not to present to its members a contract offer by Constellium Aluminum that, if approved, would have ended a strike that began Aug. 5th at its plant in Ravenswood.

When asked by WTAP television why the 700 members were not going to get a chance to vote on the contract offer, Nathan Nelson, the unit president for the local, said that was "union business."

The hard-headed decision by local leadership came after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin brought both sides together to try to get an agreement to end the costly strike.

The "we-know-best" approach by the local union hierarchy frustrated many striking workers and angered community leaders. Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle called the union leadership's decision "a joke."

"I say, let the people, the workers, decide," wrote the 25-year-old mayor on Facebook. "If they turn down the contract, so be it, but they have given this plant and this community their sweat, blood and, tears. They have earned the right to vote on their future."

Local union leaders held an informal meeting last Friday with many, but not all, of the striking workers to discuss whether to let the contract proposal go to the membership.

Reportedly, at one point, union members who were in support of a vote were asked to demonstrate their position by standing up and walking out of the meeting.

That's bizarre. Fortunately, there was some adult supervision.

United Steel Workers International President Leo Gerard got directly involved and either convinced or forced the local leaders to allow a vote. The contract was to be explained at four meetings Tuesday and the workers were to vote today.

The proposal includes a 2.5 percent pay raise for each of the next five years and a contract signing bonus of $7,500. Constellium workers make, on average, just under $20 an hour and the new pay plan is said to be worth another $23,000 over the next five years.

The sticking point, however, has been the health care. Currently, Constellium absorbs all the health care costs for its workers, including 100 percent of the premiums. The new proposal calls for workers to begin paying 5 percent of the premium in the final year of the contract and absorb some co-pays.

The shift of a small portion of the health care costs to the workers is what had some members of the bargaining committee up in arms. If they had asked around, they would have found out pretty quickly that workers everywhere now share more of the financial responsibility for their health care costs.

Constellium has had up and down years because of the volatility of the aluminum market, but it's still betting on the future. The company invested $46 million for an aluminum stretcher for the plant.

Meanwhile, the company has locked down one major contract with an airplane manufacturer and has another in the works. The new business, along with some modest health care cost sharing with the workers, should keep Jackson County's largest employer in business for the foreseeable future.

That means good-paying jobs with health insurance that will provide a critical base to the local economy, while generating tax dollars to support schools and necessary services.

Most of the 700 Constellium workers who will vote on the contract offer likely realize that, even if a few members of the union bargaining committee don't get it.

Today, during a secret ballot election, we'll see a legitimate exercise of "union business."

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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