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Kaiser Pickets Doubt Changes Go Far Enough Steelworkers Union Votes Today On Contract Modifications

Neither side in the weeklong strike against Kaiser Aluminum Corp. takes for granted the outcome of today’s vote on a new contract.

United Steelworkers of America pickets at the company’s Spokane plants said Monday they are not sure modifications made Saturday in talks between the two sides address their fears about potential job cuts.

But only a few more than 100 no voters need to change their minds for the new proposal to pass. The earlier, rejected version failed 1,448 to 1,211.

A letter of understanding that restricts Kaiser management’s freedom to redefine and combine jobs has been the most contentious issue during the strike by 3,000 Steelworkers, two-thirds of whom work in the company’s Mead smelter or Trentwood rolling mill.

The weekend talks produced no change in the language of the letter, but Steelworker officials say they were given assurances the union would be consulted before any job combinations are undertaken.

The presidents of all the Steelworker locals involved in the strike have endorsed the contract proposal. They split over the version negotiated in January.

For its part, Kaiser was mum Monday. Spokeswoman Susan Ashe said the company would have no comment on the Steelworker voting until the ballots are counted.

At Steelworker Local 329, which represents Mead workers, officials were distributing a copy of the letter of understanding that was part of the rejected contract.

On the bottom is an outline of the process that would be followed to combine jobs. If union and Kaiser officials cannot agree on the change, the union would have the right to file a grievance against combination, the explanation says.

“It’s just a clarification,” said Bob Rudd, financial secretary of Local 338, the Trentwood hall.

Workers, he said, were concerned the union would not be consulted until Kaiser had already decided which positions could be eliminated.

“It’s another trust issue,” said Gary Kent, who was picketing outside Mead.

Kent, who voted no on the first contract, said he was uncertain the additional information from the union was enough to change his mind.

The other changes made Saturday - improving spousal medical coverage and adding the option of two days leave as a signing bonus - “don’t impress me,” he said.

At Trentwood, picket captain Kevin Dupus said job reductions that have occurred there in the last year were undertaken with union participation.

“We did have a lot of say as to how it was going to be done,” he said.

Dupus said the spirit of the pickets remained good Monday, adding few believe the company’s claims that salaried workers are keeping Trentwood production at 30 percent of capacity.

The Mead plant also has been operated by salaried employees throughout the strike.

Three other Kaiser facilities, in Tacoma, Ohio and Louisiana, have also been on strike.

Workers at the five plants will vote from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time today, but Rudd said Steelworker officials in Ohio and Louisiana will delay their vote count until the Northwest plants have completed their balloting.

He said Louisiana workers are under particular pressure to approve the new contract because Kaiser has readily found replacements in an area where similar plants have shut down.

Because Louisiana is a right-towork state, the company can keep those workers when the strike ends.

The Steelworkers may not get their jobs back if the contract is not ratified, Rudd said.

Outside Mead, picket captain Duane Murphy said local workers are concerned that a lengthy strike costly to Kaiser might mean that renewed negotiations would produce a weaker, not stronger, contract.

“When that happens, that’s when it will start costing us,” he said.

Rudd said workers will be ready to return to the plants for the graveyard shift tonight if the contract is approved.

“We’ll conduct an orderly transfer of duties,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems.”