Progress reported in Mountain State Carbon talks

FOLLANSBEE – Officials with Mountain State Carbon insist there’s been substantial progress made at the bargaining table, though union negotiators aren’t backing down from complaints aired last week suggesting the company’s hourly workers are being short-changed.

In a statement released Monday, Mountain State officials said they were “disappointed” with reports that the United Steelworkers union negotiators were unhappy that after 10 months at the table they still had no agreement.

“(Mountain State Carbon) and the USW have been bargaining for (about) 11 months in pursuit of an agreement for hourly employees,” the company said in its statement. “To date, (Mountain State Carbon) and the USW have mutually agreed to the bulk of the terms of the new agreement.”

But late Monday, USW negotiators said they’d “tried hard to find middle ground” even though the company is offering “breadcrumbs” to the mill’s veteran work force.

“We have workers who’ve worked at that plant their entire adult life,” USW negotiator Ernie Gambellin said. “That’s not how they expect to be treated.”

In their statement, Mountain State officials said the USW had overlooked “important background information,” including:

– When Mountain State Carbon became the employer of the current work force on Sept. 1, 2012, “it voluntarily made offers of full-time employment to former RG Steel employees at competitive wage rates, incentive pay opportunities and health and welfare benefit packages.” The company did not reduce the base pay of any full-time employees, they said.

– The company voluntarily recognized the USW as bargaining agent for the hourly work force and immediately began negotiations.

– Since Sept. 1, “in each instance in which an hourly employment opportunity has become available, (Mountain State Carbon) has voluntarily chosen to hire hourly workers previously employed by RG Steel,” they said.

– The company has not laid off any full-time employees since it became the employer on Sept. 1.

– The two sides had met in person “at least 10 times in pursuit of an agreement, and the chief negotiators for (Mountain State Carbon) and the USW have spoken often on the phone in an attempt to reach a deal.”

– The two sides “have mutually agreed to the bulk of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and only two substantive items remain open,” the company said.

Standing in the way of an agreement, they said, were vacation entitlements and a guaranteed minimum work week.

“Even though (the company) has already raised its initial vacation offer from one to two weeks – and members are already enjoying the benefits of this second week of vacation – the USW has insisted on a third week of vacation,” the company said in its statement.

The USW also is insisting on a 24-hour-per-week guarantee, “even though full-time employees have not been scheduled for less than 40 hours in a week during the entire time” Mountain State Carbon has employed them, the company said.

Gambellin said those are quality-of-life issues for the workers, “but so far Mountain State has been all about profit at the expense of families.”

“These employees had five weeks of vacation (before), now they’re offering (us) two,” Gambellin said. “In the past two contracts we had a guaranteed workweek of 40 hours; we asked them for 24 hours and they would not budge. That tells me they want to reserve the right to have part-time employees. These are key issues for the members and our families. We’re concerned about long-term job security and providing reasonable time off from the dirty and difficult work in the coke plant.”

Gambellin conceded that as the need to hire arose, Mountain State has rehired workers who’d been laid off. Those workers, however, are being paid at 80 percent of what they made pre-RG Steel bankruptcy, he said, and workers who had been out on sick leave or who’d been injured on the job weren’t among those brought back.

Mountain State, meanwhile, insists it was the union that broke off the latest round of negotiations, saying, “(We were) prepared to work – around the clock if necessary – during the week of June 17 to reach an agreement. Nevertheless, in the midst of negotiations on June 18, the USW bargaining committee ended the talks, stating that they would let (us) know when the parties would resume bargaining.”

So far, they said the USW “has not reached out” to schedule further talks.

“In sum, (Mountain State Carbon) believes that these negotiations have been productive by any standard, and … remains open and receptive to further negotiations,” they said.

Gambellin, though, said it makes little sense to take a proposal to the workers that stands little, if any, chance of being ratified.

“We want to get the deal done, too,” he said. “But the ball is in their court to get a fair agreement that recognizes the concerns of the workers and their families. We want to concentrate on getting this plant on task for a long-term future together. We deserve it, our community deserves to know that Mountain State Carbon is here to stay and provide decent jobs for the future.

“We’re reasonable,” Gambellin added. “We understand everything has changed, this is no longer an integrated mill. Everything has changed – there’s no more retiree health care, no severance packages, no sub pay … those are all issues we took off the table to try and reach agreement.”