The announced closure of Alcoa’s smelter in Ferndale brings global market forces home to compound northwest Washington’s financial crisis.
The city of 14,500 will lose 700 jobs if the international aluminum manufacturer shutters this summer its last remaining smelter in the West, a community fixture since 1966. Although political leaders should continue to pursue staving off the shutdown, the Ferndale residents who trained to spend their working lives there now must plan their next moves.
Many sectors of the economy are hurting badly because of the COVID-19 economic crisis, but the specific problem of the smelter shutdown deserves focused attention. Unlike industries that can rebound if the pandemic subsides, the downturn in American aluminum production is the result of years of economic pressure. China sells aluminum cheaper and flooded the U.S. market, a competitive strategy weaponized in the trade war President Donald Trump has led.
The bipartisan group of state and federal officials pressing to save the plant includes Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, and U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, all Democrats, and Republican State Sen. Doug Ericksen. Worthy ideas for federal intervention, including Defense Department aluminum purchases from domestic suppliers and subsidies for plant improvements, must be urgently assessed.
So must helping the workforce prepare for closure. This outcome provides an opportunity to channel their energy into new careers. The federal government should engage a program to aid the quest.
The U.S. Department of Labor should grant the Ferndale Alcoa workers’ petition for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) benefits. Their plight is the epitome of why the program was created in 1974 — to help U.S. workers hurt by foreign trade. It would guide the workers toward pathways into productive new careers: skills assessments and training for available jobs, benefits checks to extend unemployment payments, and job-search assistance, among other help.
The grim economic reality is that the shut down smelter may never operate again. Alcoa idled its Wenatchee operation in 2015, and hopes of its revival never came to fruition.
For the Alcoa workers facing the end of their careers, the TAA program can offer meaningful help finding a way forward.