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Century Aluminum Yanks Back Benefits from Retired Workers--But Retirees Fight Back

A group of retirees in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are using Occupy tactics to protest losing their retirement benefits to a greedy corporation.
 
 
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Photo Credit: United Steelworkers

 
 
 
 

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.

 
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