On Dec. 18, a dozen retirees, men and women in their 60s, 70s, even 80s, began occupying a median strip along Route 33 in front of the closed Century Aluminum smelter in Ravenswood, W.Va. In tents and under tarps, a small group stays overnight, despite hypertension, arthritis and other old age ailments. One has suffered a stroke.
These vulnerable people expose themselves to weather extremes although some have no health insurance at all. Century cancelled it. That’s why they’re occupying Century.
The retirees labored their entire lives for wages and pensions comparably lower than those of other aluminum workers. They did it believing they made those sacrifices in exchange for good, lifelong health coverage. Over the past two years, however, Century evicted them, about 540 retirees altogether, from the insurance plan.
The betrayal burns. Executives at Century, corporate 1 percenters, committed the same sort of treachery that is being condemned by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators representing the victimized 99 percent across the country. Thus the retirees adopted the grandchildren’s protest tactic of encampment.
Century shuttered the 50-year-old Ravenswood smelter in February of 2009, throwing 651 workers out of jobs. Century, headquartered in Monterey, Calif., didn’t go bankrupt though. It still operates aluminum plants in Kentucky, South Carolina and Iceland. And it didn’t immediately cancel promised insurance for retirees.
Nine months after the shutdown, it announced it would terminate as of June 1, 2010 health benefits for retirees eligible for Medicare. Then on Nov. 1, 2010, Century told its retirees who weren’t yet eligible for Medicare that it would stop paying for their coverage as of Jan. 1, 2011.
This revoking of earned benefits isn’t an isolated incident or a fluke. It is part of a pattern documented by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Ellen E. Schultz in her new book “Retirement Heist.” The subtitle is, “How companies plunder and profit from the nest eggs of American workers.
She describes in gory detail how corporations raided worker pension accounts, siphoning off surpluses that would be needed later to prop up plans damaged by the Wall Street collapse. She provides detailed accounts of executives gouging the funds to pay for their own exorbitant retirement packages. She tells of corporate executives ending retiree health insurance and freezing pensions but deceptively calling the changes improvements, so that CEOs could pump up company profits with money that had been pledged to workers.
While breaking promises to workers and violating contracts, these CEO 1 percenters falsely portrayed themselves as beleaguered champions of workers, valiantly attempting to preserve underfunded pensions. Like Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino saving himself while abandoning passengers on his sinking cruise ship, the captains of industry padded their own pockets with pension and health care funds intended for retirees, then deserted the workers. Schultz describes the CEO scams this way in the book:
“In reality, they’re the silent pirates who looted the ships and left them to sink, along with the retirees, as they sailed away safely in their lifeboats.”
Most of the Costa Concordia passengers survived, but more than a dozen drowned. In West Virginia, most of the retirees are still kicking. A leader among the Century occupiers, Karen Gorrell, explained:
“We may have one foot in the grave, but we are kicking like hell with the other.”
But some have succumbed. Gorrell, wife of a 33-year veteran aluminum worker, says Century has retiree blood on its hands.
She tells of two tragedies. There’s Bryce Earl Turner who Karen encountered after her first meeting with Century retirees in Ravenswood. He was scared and sick. Both alternatives he faced — buying private insurance or paying for his leukemia treatments out of pocket — were way beyond his means. Losing his insurance was a death sentence. The retirees worked desperately to get him more time.
With the help of West Virginia’s U.S. senators, Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, and a provision in Obama’s health care reform law, the retirees managed to get coverage extended to Sept. 1, 2011. Bryce Earl Turner, 59, who worked 37 years at the aluminum plant, died the next day.
The other tragedy is Sam McKinney. He attended a meeting of the retirees on Feb. 14, 2011. He said he feared losing the insurance because his wife was ill. Karen recounts:
“He was very emotional because he had taken his wife to Charleston to try to get some assistance with her health care costs and had been turned down.”
He said, she recalled, that it was hard to believe that in America after a person expended his usefulness to industry, a corporation could coldly cast him aside as if his life had no value.
After the meeting, Sam McKinney took his wife to Outback Steakhouse in Parkersburg for Valentine’s Day. As they left, he collapsed and died in the parking lot. Karen is sure the stress killed him. Wrongful stress. Stress he’d not have experienced if Century was good for its word.
Karen says of Turner and McKinney:
“It was murder without a gun.”
Though Century failed to fulfill its obligation to pay for retiree health care, it handed its last CEO, Logan W. Kruger, $4.9 million in 2010. That’s twelve times more than Americans pay their president, the leader of the free world. Century gave Kruger another $6.2 million to leave last November. Still, he’s suing for $20 million on top of that. Century also is defending against a lawsuit filed for the retirees by the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which represented most of the Century workers.
The USW hopes, however, to resolve the dispute outside the courtroom, with the help of the retirees and West Virginia lawmakers. The elderly agitators managed to win the support of the state’s U.S. senators, its governor and its legislature. So last year when Century went begging to the state for $20 million it claimed it needed to re-open the Ravenswood smelter, the lawmakers sent Century away empty handed with a directive to settle with the retirees before seeking reconsideration.
Not long afterward, Century booted Kruger, and the new management team is negotiating with the USW and the retirees.
The protesters don’t have what they want yet, and they’re not leaving their tents until they do.
Century gave the retiree occupiers port-o-potties and installed concrete barriers to prevent cars careening on an icy Route 33 from plowing through the encampment.
Very nice gesture. But resuming payment for promised health insurance would be a whole lot better.
Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger