Locked out Sherwin Alumina workers focus attention on Glencore

About 150 locked out workers and their supporters demonstrated November 19 at the Houston office of Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss mining, manufacturing, and trading corporation.

The workers, members of United Steelworkers (USW) 235A, were locked out of their jobs at a Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas after they overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer that would have cut benefits and take-home pay.

Glencore is the owner of the Sherwin Alumina refinery, which produces aluminum oxide, the key ingredient in the production of aluminum.

At the same time that workers were demonstrating at Glencore’s Houston office, some of the locked out workers were in Brazil meeting with international supporters to plan a series of events aimed at exposing Glencore’s role in the lockout.

Glencore continues to operate the Sherwin Alumina plant with inexperienced replacement workers.

USW reports that the use of inexperienced workers may have resulted in a power outage that put the safety of workers in the plant and residents of the surrounding community at risk.

Before the lockout began on October 11, Sherwin and Local 235A had been negotiating a new contract. The old one expired in September, but the two sides continued to negotiate. The two sides could not reach an agreement because the company was demanding a number of concessions despite being profitable.

Foremost among the company’s concession demands were proposals to reduce overtime pay and increase worker health care costs.

The company in October ended negotiations and made a final offer with many of its concessions demands intact.

According to KRIS, a Corpus Christi television station, 98 percent of the workers rejected the final offer.

When asked by KRIS why he rejected the offer, Leo Elizondo, a Local 235A member attending the Houston demonstration, said that the proposed concessions could have cost him and his family as much as $65,000 over the four-year life of the contract.

The lockout is not a matter of just local concern.

Glencore operates mines and manufacturing plants all over the globe, and workers at these Glencore-owned facilities have taken an interest in the lockout because its outcome could affect them.

That’s why members of Local 235A traveled to Brazil to meet with international supporters.

At the meeting, which took place on the same day as the union’s demonstration in Houston, plans were made for a series of actions that will begin on December 10 in London, where Glencore will be holding its annual Investors Day.

“(The Houston demonstration and the meeting in Brazil) were a huge success in strengthening the solidarity within our local membership and with other unions,” said USW District 13 Sub-Director Ben Lilienfeld. “This also sends a signal to Glencore that our fight isn’t just about Sherwin Alumina – it’s about (Glencore’s) abysmal record with workers all over the world.”

USW also called on Glencore to be more forthcoming about a power outage that took place at the Sherwin Alumina refinery on the same day as the demonstration in Houston and the meeting in Brazil.

According to USW, an electrical power outage created “a potentially hazardous situation for the surrounding community.”

A similar power outage was a contributing factor in an explosion 15 years ago at a Kaiser Aluminum plant in Gramercy, Louisiana that injured 29 people and left some workers with permanent disabilities.

“An electrical outage at a refinery like this makes for a potentially dangerous situation, given the caustic chemicals, heat and pressure involved in the refining process. An outage renders the plant’s electric-powered pumps inactive, which can lead to excessive heat and pressure buildup,” said USW Health, Safety and Environment Director Mike Wright. “While they may have dodged a bullet this time, they may not always be so lucky. It’s imperative that the public knows exactly what happened here, and exactly what steps Sherwin has taken to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”

While the locked out workers were protesting, Glencore was making news in another way.

The US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report identifying Glencore as one of the participants in a scheme to unfairly influence the commodity future’s market for aluminum.

According to the report, Glencore, Red Kite, a London-based hedge fund company, and Deutsche Bank, were paid fees by a warehouse company owned by Goldman Sachs to store aluminum earmarked for the aluminum futures market in Goldman Sachs owned warehouses.

The aluminium was then shifted among the warehouses in what one warehouse worker described as a series “merry-go-round” transfers that seemed purposeless.

The transfers, however, delayed deliveries of aluminum designated for futures contracts.

Prior to the merry-go-round of the aluminum, delivery of this kind of aluminum took 40 days. After the merry-go-round began, deliveries took as much as 600 days.

According to the Senate report, the delays gave Goldman Sachs and the other participants, including Glencore, an unfair advantage that strengthened their trading positions in the aluminum futures market.

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