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Alcoa's Massena East smelter plant
Alcoa's Massena East smelter plant

Massena takes Alcoa cutback in stride

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There wasn't much surprise yesterday over news that Alcoa will shut down one of its aging pot lines at its Massena East plant for good. The line employs about 100 people.

Alcoa says it does not anticipate layoffs, and local officials are optimistic the aluminum giant will make good on that expectation.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Alcoa warned back in May that it was going to cut back on smelting capacity worldwide in response to falling prices. And Massena's East plant has three aging, low efficiency potlines.

"As one of the highest cost smelters in the system and knowing everyone was under review, I mean, you can't predict what's going to happen…" but they seemed an obvious victim, says Alcoa's local spokeswoman, Laurie Marr.

Alcoa will shut down one of the three potlines, which accounts for 40,000 metric tons of aluminum a year and, Marr says, affects about 100 employees.

"However, we don't anticipate layoffs at this time, and we'll be working with the United Steel Workers as soon as possible and through the coming weeks to discuss the options and the details of how that's going to work."

United Steel Workers Local 450 president Dave La Clair told the Watertown Daily Times that he saw this decision coming, given the antiquated technology of the smelters. He told the paper the union will "put any option possible on the table" to avoid layoffs.

The decision puts in stark relief the terms of last year's deal with New York State to give Alcoa cheap hydropower for the next 30 years. Alcoa agreed to invest $600 million to modernize the East plant, replacing those three old potlines with one long high-tech one.

Alcoa's Laurie Marr says that project is still a go: "So once the modernized…new potline is built, then you would be shutting down the three current potlines over there anyway."

It'll be still a few years before that new potline becomes operational. But it's that commitment that matters most to local officials.

"I didn't like to get the phone call. I didn't enjoy getting the phone call saying 'we're shutting down a potline', but the key to me was the modernization will stay active."

Joe Gray is supervisor of the town of Massena. He says the modernization paves the way to manufacturing jobs long-term. Another part of the cheap power deal was that Alcoa promised to keep at least 900 jobs in Massena.

Gray says he's hopeful about the company's indication that this cutback won't scale back any jobs.

"Those people can live here, enjoy life here, and spend their money here. Those dollars obviously turn over in our community numerous times, and the bigger the payroll that Alcoa has, the better for Massena and the rest of the North Country."

Yesterday, politicians expressed confidence in the company's future in northern New York.

Congressman Bill Owens said in a statement he was "disappointed" by the cutback. But he said he's "happy" Alcoa is moving ahead with the modernization project.

Senator Chuck Schumer went so far as to say he's optimistic Alcoa will increase capacity in Massena once again when aluminum prices rebound.

Still, the idling of the potline marks the beginning of the end of an era. Union president emeritus and North Country labor leader Ernie LaBaff started work on that very potline in 1959.

"I was a pot tender on A shift … so I'm sad to know the place I started out at is no longer going to be. I'm happy that they are not going to have layoffs. I'm happy that it looks like we're still going to get modernization. But when you start at a plant like I did 54 years ago, there's some nostalgia there."

Alcoa remains the biggest private sector employer north of Syracuse, with a little more than 1,000 employees today.

 

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