"The members are strong and determined, they are hanging in," stated Wayne Boyd, president of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 6163. The unionists had been working without a contract for almost a year when the company locked them out in response to a strike notice.
The workers are maintaining picket lines around the clock and receive nearly constant honks of support from passersby.
"Health care is the big issue," Boyd told the Militant. "The company wants retirees to pay 50 percent of all future increases in health-care costs, in addition to raising the premiums to $122 per month." About 400 members of the local will become eligible to retire under the next contract.
"The tier system is a problem for us," continued Boyd. "It takes a new worker three years to get the full wage for the job they are doing. They can be working alongside others doing the same job and yet get paid several dollars per hour less."
"We lost a lot in the last negotiations: The tier system, three holidays, and some vacation pay. We want to get a little of it back. The company had promised to return some of what we gave up but now is breaking that promise," said Boyd. "We are fighting for there to be good union jobs here for future generations."
Wah Chang, which means Great Development, was founded by a Chinese immigrant, Stephen Yih. He sold the company to Teledyne corporation, which in turn sold it to Allegheny Technologies. This is the first contract negotiations with Allegheny. The plant produces specialty metals such as zirconium, titanium, and others. Many of the machined parts they make are used in aircraft engines. General Electric and Pratt and Whitney are among its biggest customers.
The walls at the union hall are covered with news articles about their strike. Included among these is an article about the recent strike by Machinists at Pratt and Whitney in Connecticut.
Workers at Wah Chang face many hazards on the job, including inhalation of the dust, low flash points of some metals, and explosions in the smelting and forging operations. One union member recently died of cancer, and another had an operation for the disease. Boyd said the local has been trying to help them and others by paying extra insurance premiums under COBRA, the federal law on continued medical insurance after people lose their jobs.
Other USWA locals working for Allegheny have much better contracts, including Oremet which is located nearby.
Hundreds of scabs have been brought in to work alongside the supervisors. The Wah Chang bosses claim that November was their best four-week month of the year for shipments. Boyd doubted that things were going that well. "I'm sure they're doing a little bit," he said. "But they can't do what, in our opinion, they need to do to be profitable."
The union supplies the local with a strike defense fund of $100 per person a week, and the local has been handing out stipends based on need. Members have also qualified for food stamps and energy assistance. The locked-out workers have been denied unemployment compensation by the state of Oregon. They have appealed and are now awaiting a decision on that appeal.
"We must do things to keep our morale up and to show solidarity," said Linda Johnson, the local's vice president, as they celebrated Local 6163's 40th anniversary December 4. In the 40 years, this was to be the union's second strike. The first--in 1977--lasted only two weeks. Attending this event were members of the Painters and Allied Trades International Union, Cascade Steelworkers from McMinnville, and union members from Oremet.
Boyd thanked the members of other unions who have supported Local 6163 during its negotiations. "You've answered our call," he said. "If you're ever in the same position, we'll answer your calls for help."
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