ATI claims operations, production meet expectations; workers refute statement
As the ATI Flat-Rolled Products lockout continues into its 51st day Monday, its effects on production are debatable.
The lockout began Aug. 15 when the company ended a day-to-day extension of its contract, with the United Steelworkers International Union, which had expired July 1. About 2,200 union steelworkers at 13 plants in six states have been kept off their jobs which are now being filled by replacement workers.
How effective they and salaried ATI employees now doing production work, are in meeting customer needs is uncertain.
An update put out by ATI last week stated: “Presently, ATI Flat-Rolled Products (FRP) operations, production levels and safety engagements are meeting and in many cases exceeding expectations. ATI FRP facilities are operating — most at pre-work stoppage production levels.”
The update goes on to claim that:
• The specialty melt shop in the Brackenridge (Harrison) is producing “at a rate of more than 80 percent of normal output.”
• Most coil finishing operations are running 24 hours.
• The Washington specialty plate facility has produced its entire range of specialty alloy grades.
“I can tell you that we are servicing customers and in many cases we are being commended by our customers for keeping honest and open communications in regard to orders,” said ATI spokesman Dan Greenfield. “We are issuing updates and expediting material as needed for the customers.
“Other than the Midland meltshop every other operation is running,” he said.
Greenfield said he could not provide a number in tons for what is being produced because that varies depending on what steel or steel alloy is being made. He said stainless steel would be made in greater quantities than a value-added metal such as a titanium alloy that is sold at a higher price.
The Brackenridge facility, which is in Harrison Township, is the centerpiece for the ATI Flat-Rolled Products operations. “It can make almost anything that we make,” Greenfield said.
Fran Arabia, president of USW Local 1196 which represents about 600 to 700 workers at the Brackenridge operation, has his doubts about the company's claims.
“All I can tell you is my members on the picket line do not see it coming out of the plant,” Arabia said. “I have members there around the clock.”
Metals produced at the plant are routinely moved by rail or truck to ATI's plants in Gilpin and Vandergrift for finishing work.
“We're seeing the same thing we've been seeing since they locked us out on Aug. 15,” Arabia said. “When we are working there are trucks out the door, rail (shipment) out the door and we're not seeing it.”
From what he has seen, he said there are about 300 replacement workers in the plant running machinery on which they were not trained and are not familiar.
“You are taking people and trying to teach them jobs that take months and months, even years in some cases, to learn and expecting them to learn it almost overnight,” Arabia said.
Given that, he questions how production during the lockout can meet customer demands and specifications and support ATI's claims. He said that the replacement workers might be able to melt metal and roll it but getting it to what the customers want is something else.
“There are different grades of metals and the harder grades of metals are where you truly need the union experience,” Arabia said, adding those are the expensive, high-end alloys.
Industry analysts have said ATI has turned much of its profit from those metals in a time when the commodity stainless market is depressed.
Arabia said there is the possibility that the coils being moved out of the plant may be the same ones the union steelworkers spent the first part of the year producing. He said that is almost impossible for the union members on the picket lines to determine.
“We had a customer protection plan,” Greenfield said. “We built inventory in the second quarter as part of the customer protection plan which is very common when there is a contract negotiation. It's very common to build that buffer.”
Greenfield could not say how much of the metals being shipped are from stockpiles.
At the Washington, Pa., plant referred to in the company update, Skip Longdon also doubts how healthy production is. Longdon is president of USW Local 7139-5 which represents 240 union members at that plant, which does a lot of the finishing on high-end specialty metals made at ATI's Brackenridge and Latrobe plants. He said his plant breaks down the slabs and forms the metal into plates.
“The first part of the process is pretty simple, it's just breaking it down inside so you have an easier time rolling it,” Longdon said. “The second part where they roll it into finished plate is where they are having problems.”
He said that is what he has heard, admittedly sometimes second- or third-hand, from sources inside the plant. He said that there are about 40 replacement workers working there, divided between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts.
“The length and the gauge gets a little more critical as you get near to the point where you are shipping to customers and that's where I understand they are having problems,” Longdon said.
“What they are doing in a day, our guys probably do in a couple of hours when we're in there,” he said.
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or email@example.com.