Union leader says retirement incentives would help get contract approved.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
WEATHERSFIELD -- The wooden shanty RMI Titanium workers erected across the street from the mill last fall is looking worn and weather-beaten.
Workers who've been manning picket lines there for nearly a year are also looking worn and worried.
On Oct. 26 they'll mark the one-year anniversary of RMI's decision to lock out its hourly employees, members of United Steelworkers of America Locals 2155 and 2155-7.
The lockout followed workers' rejection of a contract offer with concessions the company said it needed to operate profitably. A revised contract offer in late August was also rejected.
Today, the two sides seem to be as far apart as ever.
Tim Rupert, president and chief executive of RTI International Metals, RMI's parent company, says the company has offered all it can afford to offer if it wants to keep the Weathersfield mill viable for the long-term.
He said RMI workers' jobs are among the best in the Mahoning Valley, based on pay, profit-sharing, pension and health care benefits.
RTI's management has no other ideas for settling the lockout, he said. The company is waiting for union leaders to make the next move.
"At some point they've got to lead that group back in here or lead them to unemployment forever," Rupert said.
Todd Weddell, president of Locals 2155 and 2155-7, argued that the company's two contract offers have been "impossible to pass."
The last proposal, rejected by more than 60 percent of the members Aug. 30, called for a three-year wage freeze, followed by pay raises of 30 cents and 35 cents per hour in the fourth and fifth years, respectively. RMI workers averaged $16 an hour before the lockout.
Weddell said the union is willing to take some financial concessions, but members were bothered by the company's plan to call back only 120 workers if the contract is accepted, with plans to bring the work force up to about 200 eventually. The union has 340 hourly employees.
The provision leaves little hope of employment for the union's younger workers, Weddell explained, so many voted against the pact.
The company provided an early-retirement window for 24 employees in its last offer, but the union is pushing for more retirement incentives.
Weddell believes that would make the contract acceptable to more workers by reducing work force numbers from the senior end, leaving more job openings for younger workers.
"I've said it again and again: Allow the older folks to retire and let the younger folks have the hope that they're going to work," Weddell said. "It's impossible to pass a contract when you've got 340 voting and only 120 are going to return to work."
Rupert called the job numbers a "false issue." He said the union members understood that it takes time to bring a work force back after a strike or lockout and that RMI would bring back just over 200, about the same number as were working when the lockout began.
While the union-management stalemate continues, Rupert said, about 150 RMI salaried workers and employees brought in from other RTI plants are operating the mill. Those from outside the area are housed and fed inside the plant grounds.
Process engineers and production supervisors are working with secretaries, accountants and others, he said. "They've increased volume, and quality, if anything, has improved."
Many of the replacement workers are on the job six days a week, he said. The company has seen some increase in orders over the past few months, but the mill is operating only at about 30 percent capacity.
That's not a problem, Rupert explained, because RMI's business model calls for producing fewer pounds of high value, high-priced product rather than more pounds of basic, lower-cost product.
Since the replacement workers started there, he said, managers have been able to combine some jobs and make other changes to make manufacturing more efficient.
He said the mill had been losing about $1 million a month. "Our goal is the keep the Niles facility viable, not to give [the workers] what they want," Rupert said. "We've got a number of things we have to do to fix this place, and we're about fixing them."
Hard times for workers
The lockout has been a financial strain for the locked out workers, Weddell said. They qualified for state unemployment benefits, but those payments ended months ago.
Dave Detchon, a 25-year RMI veteran from Niles, said he's found odd jobs doing lawn work but nothing permanent to replace his full-time Steelworker wages. He said he's suffered "severe financial repercussions" because of the lockout.
"When people hear you've got 25 years in at RMI, they don't want to hire you," he complained. "They know you're going to want to go back when you can. I'm clinging to that hope, but I feel like Tim Rupert just doesn't care."
Other union members picketing at the plant gates last week refused to give their names. One man, a 24-year veteran of RMI, said he's landed a temporary job, his second short-term position this year, and he was afraid publicity might jeopardize the job.
"I've been lucky to find two, decent-paying jobs," he said. "There's not much out there. Most of the guys aren't working."
A prolific yard sign campaign has helped to keep the lockout in the public eye. The locals have distributed thousands of signs, posted in the front yards of workers, their friends and families all over the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.
Political candidates, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, have also brought the locked out workers visibility with campaign visits to the picket line.
Weddell takes some pride in the peaceful nature of the stalemate, especially because the union's 61/2 month strike in 1999 was violent at times.
He admitted that some members have complained that the pickets might be too quiet, that they're not attracting enough attention, but he's proud that the membership has kept the peace. "We don't condone violence," he said.