Top representatives of a machinists union on Wednesday accused Alcoa of not “putting up a fight” to save roughly 700 jobs at the company’s Ferndale aluminum smelter in Whatcom County.
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa announced last month it would curtail operations at the Intalco plant by late July, citing a global oversupply of aluminum, falling prices and a dismal economic outlook given the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, local lawmakers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have written Alcoa and the Trump administration asking they explore ideas to maintain a plant that has operated since 1966.
But Alcoa CEO Roy Harvey wrote the union Tuesday night that curtailment plans are moving forward, stating the smelter lost $24 million in the first quarter and the company’s improvement efforts “have not yielded changes that would improve the competitiveness of Intalco in the foreseeable future.’’
Hasan Solomon, the union’s Washington, D.C.-based legislative director, told The Seattle Times in a conference call Wednesday that Alcoa isn’t trying hard enough.
“Their main motivation to curtail operations is they believe the smelter is uncompetitive financially,’’ Solomon said. “Well, we want to work with Alcoa to make the company competitive.”
He added: “We just respectfully ask Alcoa to sit down with us to do that. And then, after we’ve exhausted every measure … we can move to those next steps as far as curtailment. But I wouldn’t jump to the next dance without at least sitting down with all the stakeholders and trying to find some solutions.’’
Possible solutions, he said, include framing the issue as a “national security threat” to the U.S. as domestic production wanes and companies here become overly dependent on cheaper Chinese aluminum.
To combat those trends, he proposes President Donald Trump increase aluminum tariffs on China.
Solomon also suggested that a “modernization campaign” for the smelter be revived. The campaign had sought $100 million in capital improvement funding over two years from government and other sources but was abandoned by Alcoa shortly before the company announced its curtailment plans.
Other ideas include invoking the National Defense Stockpile Act of 1939 to guarantee federal purchases of domestic aluminum over time. The union also wants “Buy America” language added to national defense and surface transportation bills to encourage more domestic aluminum purchases.
The union’s international president, Robert Martinez, wrote Gov. Jay Inslee this week asking he join lawmakers — including Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen — in pushing the Trump administration to pressure Alcoa to the table.
Glenn Farmer, the union’s local business representative, said on Wednesday’s call with The Times the push to save the plant enjoys “bipartisan support’’ from local Republican state Sen. Doug Ericksen. The union also met recently with the staff of Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and emerged hopeful her team can reach out to the White House.
But it’s for naught, he added, if Alcoa won’t budge.
“The piece of the puzzle that’s missing is a response from people that can make a difference,” Farmer said.
Alcoa issued a statement to The Times on Wednesday echoing Harvey’s letter about curtailment moving forward. It said Alcoa previously worked with numerous stakeholders but “Intalco faced ongoing cost challenges that have only been exacerbated by the current market conditions.”
For now, the union has presented its plant members details of a negotiated severance package that includes a $10,000 upfront payment plus $400 for each year of employment. Farmer said the company plans about 350 layoffs in a “first wave” on June 21 and the remainder the ensuing month.
Harvey’s letter to the union said the plant won’t close entirely. Instead, minimal crews will preserve infrastructure and equipment.
Farmer said there has been speculation about a possible sale, which could prove cheaper for Alcoa than dismantling the plant entirely. But he hopes Alcoa first at least tries for a solution under the”national security” lines proposed by the union.
“We think we have a path forward,” he said.