Sherwin Alumina lockout gambles with safety and financial future

United Steelworkers is asking the public to support 450 locked out workers at the Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas by signing a petition urging the company to end its lockout.

“For the past five months, members of USW Local 235A have been locked out of their jobs at Sherwin Alumina (for) resisting the company’s unnecessary demands for deep cuts in pay and benefits for members and retirees,” reads a statement by the union announcing the petition drive.

The union said that the lockout is putting safety and the company’s bottom line at risk.

The Sherwin Alumina plant, owned by Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss mining, manufacturing, and trading conglomerate, refines bauxite into alumina, the main ingredient in aluminum.

In September, 98 percent of Local 235A members voted to reject the company’s last, best, and final offer for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The company’s offer would have eliminated pensions for new hires, frozen pensions of current employees, increased health care costs for workers and retirees, and cut worker pay by changing overtime rules.

After rejecting the offer, the union proposed that negotiations continue.

But on October 11 as a shift change was about to begin, workers were told that they were being locked out and escorted out of the plant by security personnel.

Despite the rigors of a long lockout, Local 235A members remain determined to win a fair contract that recognizes the important role that they play in creating wealth out of raw ore and dangerous chemicals.

We’re standing strong,” said Jesse Green, a member of the union bargaining team to KIII TV News. “We’re willing to stay here as long as it takes to get a fair and equitable contract.”

USW in January filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the lockout is illegal.

“The company has repeatedly and unlawfully intimidated, threatened and discriminated against its own workers all in an effort to divide the union,” said Ruben Garza, USW District 13 vice president.

Garza also said that the company has refused to bargain in good faith.

During the lockout, Sherwin Alumina has tried to maintain production by hiring replacement workers through a temporary hiring agency.

Hiring temporary workers in a plant where dangerous chemicals are combined under pressure at high temperatures with bauxite ore is a dangerous gamble.

“Bauxite is made into alumina in a series of digesters and other large vessels that operate at high temperatures and pressures. The process uses large amounts of hot sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic and corrosive chemical,” reads a USW report on safety at Sherwin Alumina.

The report says that Kaiser Aluminum made a similar wager in 1999 when it hired temps to replace locked out workers at its alumina refinery in Gramercy, Louisiana.

The result was a catastrophe. An explosion caused by human error ripped through the refinery injuring 29 workers.

According to a report on the explosion by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, inexperienced temporary workers didn’t know what to do when a power failure caused a dangerous pressure buildup in the digesters.

USW reports that safety conditions at the Sherwin Alumina refinery have deteriorated since Glencore bought the refinery in 2007.

In 2006, the year before Glencore purchased the refinery from Reynolds Aluminum, there were four inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) because of health and safety complaints. The inspections resulted in 9 citations.

In 2014, there were 132 inspections resulting in 76 citations.

While the lockout has been hard on workers, it has also caused problems for the company’s bottom line.

USW in a statement about the lockout said that Sherwin Alumina’s revenue declined by $37 million during the second half of 2014, 14 percent below the first half and 25 percent below revenue for the second half of 2013.

During the lockout, production has fallen by 22 percent.

The company criticized USW for releasing financial information on the impact of the lockout, but so far has not provided any information about its financial performance during the lockout.

“Had Sherwin Alumina not lost 120,000 metric tons of production due to its illegal lockout, it would have reported $40 million more in revenue and $7 million more in operating profits,” said Garza.

Ben Lilienfeld, USW District 13 sub-district director added that the company’s strong performance before the lockout began shows that it can more than afford the cost structure of the current collective bargaining agreement.

“Sherwin’s profitability for the year also stands in stark contrast to the company’s claims that it needs to eliminate retiree health care benefits, eliminate scheduled overtime pay, and limit pension coverage to position the company for the future,” said Lilienfeld.

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