Corporate giant Century Aluminum holds West Virginia retirees hostage in exchange for cheap power.

This story has come full circle. In February 2012, I covered the heartbreaking struggle of Century Aluminum retirees in Ravenswood, West Virginia as they fought for the return of healthcare benefits – paid for through decades of wage deductions while with the company. A month later that year, they struck a deal with Century and celebrated victory. Fast-forward to the present. It’s now March 2013, the company still has not returned their benefits. The group is once again taking up their fight in the exact same place they left off – the entrance to the Century Aluminum smelter.

Nearly one year ago, Occupy Century Aluminum retirees were standing on this very spot, the median on Route 2 just outside of town, breaking down their 75-day winter encampment at the entrance to Century’s aluminum smelter in Ravenswood, West Virginia. Back then, as they packed tents, rolled up sleeping bags and boxed up their mobile kitchen, they were celebrating a great victory in the fight for the return of their retiree health care benefits, cancelled by Century after the facility closed in 2009.

Today, Century has yet to fulfill their end of the bargain and return those benefits. Refusing to wait any longer, the retirees are back out here, again taking up the fight against the company. On March 7, 2013, they set up canopies, fire barrels, signs and a cemetery filled with crosses, each one representing a retiree who has passed away since Century took away their health care. This 24-hour protest was just the start of new efforts to pressure the aluminum giant to honor the agreement reached with them on March 1, 2012.

To understand why these retirees, most of them grandparents – their average age is 70 – have returned to protest on this cold March day, one needs to know how it all began. In 2009, Century Aluminum shuttered its smelter in Ravenswood, axing 651 workers, but promising to live up to contracts that provided lifetime health care benefits for its employees after the shutdown. Less than a year later Century sent letters informing retirees their health coverage would be dropped, even though for decades they made wage concessions and other sacrifices in order to insure it.

Many of those affected, some having been retired for as long as 15 years by then, were now without health insurance, as were their families – and getting it would prove to be difficult. Costly premiums were financially out of reach for most; others were uninsurable because of their age or pre-existing conditions. Karen Gorrell, wife of Century retiree Mike Gorrell, decided to take up the fight against the company after a meeting one night back in 2010 at the local 5668 United Steelworkers union hall in Ravenswood to discuss the termination of their benefits. Outside she met Bryce Turner, also a retiree, and his wife. Turner had just been diagnosed with leukemia and was uncertain how he was going to manage without health care. “They knew they worked in extremely hazardous conditions, so they knew that when they got older, they were desperately going to need their health care,” says Gorrell. She cried all the way home that night. It was then, she says, that she realized something had to be done, although taking on Century seemed impossible.

Gorrell says she told her daughter in a debate at home: “Jodi, this is corporate America. You can’t fight corporate America!” But her daughter encouraged her: “Mom, you can. You have more fire in your britches than anybody I’ve ever met in my life and you can do this.” Her family helped her realize that it was time to stand up. “So from that day on, it was me against the world.”

Although Gorrell began writing her legislators at first, she was not so sure those letters would ever be read. Calling them to set up meetings seemed more direct. “Shockingly, they agreed,” she said. The first meeting with legislative representatives was in January 2011. After that, Gorrell and other retirees traveled the state and to other Century plants around the country, campaigning for the return of their benefits, going as far as California to the company headquarters, where she spoke at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in 2011.

It was later that year that Occupy Wall Street began its protests in Manhattan’s financial district. Gorrell explains: “Last year [2011] around Christmas, the Occupy movement was big and I got so tired of seeing on TV young people pepper-sprayed and being [dragged] off the street and the sad part to me was, as strong as the movement was, nobody was having a voice as to what we need.

“And I thought, if you are going to fight, you have to have a clear message as to what you need. And we knew what we needed; we needed the health care that we paid for. We felt as older, maybe tiny-bit wiser people, that we could put a new face to Occupy.”

Gorrell said she proposed her plan during a meeting of Century retirees just before Christmas 2011. “I got this crazy idea: it’s going to be a huge sacrifice, but I think we ought to go down to the entrance to the plant, pitch a few tents, and just pile in there until Century gives us our health care back. I said that it’s going to be a big sacrifice and Christmas is coming, so I understand if you say no, but I can’t do this by myself – how many volunteers I got?” To her surprise, “The hands just started going one after the other, and I mean, it brought me to tears.” That’s when Occupy Century Aluminum was born, and Karen Gorrell, affectionately known as “Mama K,” became their leader.

Soon after, on December 18, 2011, the retirees launched their occupation at the entrance to the plant, camping out for 75 days straight. “We came in and started with a little canopy and one tent, a summer tent at that, in the middle of West Virginia in the winter, and we continued to add to it, and before long we had microwaves and Christmas trees and burning lights and coffee pots,” she recalls.

It was not only their presence for those many days in front of the plant that eventually brought Century to the negotiating table: “We got our state engaged, we got our governor – we chased him down – ya know, we went to Charleston time and time again, telling him, we have supported this state all of our life; we’ve paid tax dollars all of our life; we’ve asked for nothing. We’ve worked hard; we’ve never drawn a welfare check; we are desperate; we need your help.” After delivering this message to their state legislators, she says, “Our state wrapped their arms around us and embraced us and they’ve never let go.”

Meanwhile, Century was working toward reopening the facility. Hoping to secure a more advantageous rate for power to get the plant up and running, they planned to approach the West Virginia legislature for help. The retirees met with state representatives about the issue. “We told them, help Century get the plant started, but don’t you dare help them and give them our tax dollars until you take care of – make them – take care of the retirees,” Gorrell recounted. “And thank God, they thought that was fair enough.” When legislators and Century representatives eventually met, lawmakers refused to help until the company reached an agreement with the retirees for the return of their health care benefits.

With continued pressure from fellow residents, local government, state legislators and the governor himself, the retirees finally reached a tentative settlement with Century on March 1, 2012. The company would pay a minimum of $44 million over the next ten years toward its coverage, provided it was able to restart the Ravenswood plant.

The next day, in accordance with the agreement, Occupy Century Aluminum took down their camp and celebrated what they believed to be a resounding victory over a corporate giant. Later, after the final deal was signed, Gorrell remembers Century’s Vice President of North American Operations, John Hoerner, telling her he expected the plant to be up and running by July 2012.

After reaching the agreement, Century, with the help of the retirees, managed to negotiate new favorable tax legislation with West Virginia lawmakers, in addition to a deal with the Public Service Commission of West Virginia (PSC) that would potentially save the company over half a billion dollars in energy costs at the plant over the next decade. Even after receiving these discount rates from the PSC, Century walked away from the deal in October 2012 because it was unwilling to make up any shortfalls in the rate that may have occurred over the next ten years. The company is also threatening to close a smelter in Kentucky if it cannot get reduced electric rates. 

“Century Aluminum remains committed to both restarting the Ravenswood smelter and the agreement it reached with the retirees regarding healthcare benefits. Towards this end, we continue to be actively engaged in discussions with the energy providers to secure energy for the facility at rates that would enable an economic restart and allow the plant to remain viable,” Century Aluminum spokesperson Mike Dildine said in an email statement.

At the end of March, the retirees received word that the agreement reached with Century last year is on the verge of being nullified. Gorrell said the agreement has become a ‘dead letter’ because there is little chance it will be finalized in court before the deadline.

“The settlement agreement was never finalized and presented to the court, she wrote in an email announcement. “If the settlement agreement were presented to the court today, the conditions like court approval which were part of the settlement could not now be completed by the July 1, 2013 expiration date of the settlement.”

She added, “This being yet another blow to the already bleeding retirees that have been forced to endure so much after Century’s corporate decision to eliminate all health care benefits from the dedicated retirees that contributed for decades to insure the longevity of the industry.” “We are livid.”

Even with this setback, the retirees are hopeful for a settlement but the reality of the plant’s reopening slips further away while Century continues to hold out on returning the health care it promised to give back. Now one year on, Occupy Century Retirees are tired of waiting.

“The retiree committee stands ready to commence negotiations necessary to put a new settlement into place which would restore retiree benefits, settle the litigation and get the plant up and running again,” said Gorrell. “It is now in Century’s hands.”

Bryce Turner, the man who inspired Mama K and the others to stand up against Century when this struggle began, died before he ever had his benefits returned. And now, with the clock ticking for all of them, Gorrell and the others continue their struggle once again to fight for their lives, in his honor.

This story was also published in Truthout on March 14, 2013