Jan. 31 --Union officials representing workers laid off at Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. say they've maintained their silence long enough about the future of the smelter and its owner, Glencore , a giant international commodities trading company based in Switzerland . Recent stories in the Hungry Horse News about the plant possibly becoming a boneyard for other Glencore smelters may have helped trigger their decision, but former Aluminum Workers Trades Council president Dave Toavs and Steelworkers Local 320 president Brian Doyle have been encouraged by others for some time to speak out about the plant. "Dave and I have been working behind the scenes for a long time, talking to Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester in an effort to get the plant restarted," Doyle said. "A lot of this is not publicly known. We want to disclose everything now." Toavs, who resigned as AWTC president when he went to work for BNSF Railway and is now the union's vice president, said about 230 individuals are on the union's list of workers laid off between 2006 and 2009. AWTC is a council representing CFAC workers who belong to the Steelworkers and Teamsters and various craft unions for electricians, millwrights, pipefitters, mechanics and ironworkers. The council's contract with Glencore was extended in 2011 and will expire in October 2014 , Toavs said. Tough times The smelter has faced hard times since the West Coast energy crisis shut down the plant entirely in 2001, including on and off again curtailments until the plant shut down completely for the last time in October 2009 . "The workers did whatever they could to keep the plant running up to then," Toavs said. "They worked their butts off -- on a shoestring maintenance budget but with the best managers we've seen in three years." "It wasn't just the union workers," Doyle added. "Management was right alongside us." Glencore cited unfavorable market prices for electrical power, raw materials and finished metal for the shut down. So AWTC officials were surprised to learn Glencore turned down a good 5-year power contract offer from the Bonneville Power Administration in December 2010 . "They don't like to talk publicly about this offer," Toavs explained, noting it was different from a later BPA offer. "It was a Cadillac of contracts, with no penalties for curtailments or other problems," Doyle said. "A former BPA guy I spoke with said he'd never heard of such a 'sweet deal.'" "And the metals market was good at the time," Toavs added. "The ingot price for aluminum went to $2,800 a tonne in 2011. That would have made Glencore enough to run the plant for years." Severance talk Toavs credited the hard work of Baucus and Tester in getting the BPA offer. After Glencore turned it down, Toavs sent Glencore an "effects bargaining" letter asking the company to sit down and talk about a severance for CFAC's laid-off workers. AWTC's officers spent hours researching a severance package, and Baucus and Tester support it, Toavs said. "They said Glencore needs to step up to the plate and talk to the unions," Toavs said. Toavs and Doyle say they continued to work behind the scenes to help get the plant started, but each time they sent Glencore another "effects bargaining" letter, Matt Lucke , the company's top aluminum manager for the U.S., told them the plant would be restarting. " Glencore kept stringing us along," Toavs said. Talks with Lucke had their odd moments. Toavs recalled a conference call in 2010 where he told Lucke about the importance of having experienced and skilled workers at CFAC. "'What do you think we are, a bunch of hillbillies, and we'll all go to our cabins and wait for a start-up call?'" Toavs said he told him. "And he replied, 'Unemployment is so high in the Flathead that Glencore would have no trouble finding workers.'" Doyle recalled talking to Glencore about a severance in 2010 and warning about the good relations AWTC had with Baucus and Tester. "And Lucke replied, 'I don't think those clowns have the clout you think they have,'" Doyle said. Doyle noted that, ironically, Glencore had asked the union on several occasions to talk to Baucus and Tester about helping the plant restart. "By then, Glencore had already burned its bridges with Baucus and Tester," Doyle said. Some of AWTC's talks with Lucke had less to do with a restart and more to do with a potentially expensive clean-up. "Once in 2010, Lucke offered the union a 15 percent profit-sharing deal," Toavs said. "But when I asked him if they were thinking of restarting the plant, he said no, if the union had a stake in the plant, the government might go easier on them for a clean-up." Toavs said Lucke later asked if the Blackfeet Indian Tribe might be interested in a stake in CFAC for the same reason. In what must be the strangest incident, Sens. Baucus and Tester had persuaded officials at the White House in 2013 to speak directly with Glencore about CFAC. " Glencore's response was, one, they didn't know where Columbia Falls was, and two, they didn't own an aluminum smelter in Columbia Falls ," Toavs said. "The conversation ended after that." Unlikely restart In April 2013 , Lucke and two other Glencore officials, Patrick Wilson and Zach Meyer , came to the Flathead and invited AWTC officials to meet at the plant. "We thought there would be good news," Doyle said. "But they told us the reason they came here was to meet with the county commissioners and Columbia Falls City Council and repair their tarnished reputation," Toavs said. "They asked us to go with them and say how well Glencore had treated us." Toavs said he asked Wilson to name one thing Glencore had done for the workers. "He said they paid for our health insurance," Toavs said. "I said, no, we paid for COBRA and Glencore only paid what was required by law. Wilson shut up after that." Health insurance was a sore point with Toavs. He recalled one union worker, facing a choice between house payments or keeping his health insurance for his wife, coming to him shortly after the plant closed in 2009 asking for help. "I called Lucke and asked if Glencore could keep paying for health insurance for the laid off workers for three more months," Toavs said. "He said, 'We're bleeding too badly, and don't call me back again.' I didn't. He later called me." In August 2013 , Glencore paid for an audit on CFAC's salvage value. Not long after that, a group from China came to look over the plant. "Back in 2009, we had talked about converting the gutted West Plant into a modern prebake smelter, and we thought we could get federal stimulus money for the conversion," Toavs said. "But the Chinese said no, tear down the entire plant and rebuild it. It was another dog and pony show." Finally, in December 2013 , personnel from Century Aluminum , a Glencore holding company, came to CFAC to see if anything there was worth bringing back to their Midwest smelters. "They're not going to restart CFAC," Toavs said. "It's done." "One thing -- if they do restart it, I don't want to be out there," Doyle said. "It's become too dangerous." AWTC will hold a meeting at the Union Hall across the street from City Hall in Columbia Falls on Tuesday, Feb. 4 , at 7 p.m. "There'll be a lot of information to discuss," Toavs said. Utilities have been shut off at the Union Hall, which is owned by the Steelworkers Local 320 , so Toavs advises everyone who comes to "dress appropriately." ___ (c)2014 the Hungry Horse News (Columbia Falls, Mont.) Visit the Hungry Horse News (Columbia Falls, Mont.) at www.flatheadnewsgroup.com/hungryhorsenews/ Distributed by MCT Information Services
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