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Elected officials and Alcoa leaders break ground at the Massena East plant last July. Photo: Julie Grant
Elected officials and Alcoa leaders break ground at the Massena East plant last July. Photo: Julie Grant

Alcoa, Cuomo cite "good first steps" on cutbacks in Massena

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Governor Cuomo's top aides say they had "a positive conversation" in New York City yesterday with officials from Alcoa. But they repeated warnings that the aluminum giant has to honor its contract with the state.

The emergency meeting came the day after the aluminum giant announced it will close the two remaining pot lines at its East plant in Massena by the spring. Alcoa is trying to streamline in the wake of poor earnings reports and a weak aluminum market. More than 300 jobs are at stake.

David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Last summer, more than a dozen lawmakers and company leaders held shiny new shovels outside the Alcoa East plant in Massena. Senator Chuck Schumer spoke.

SCHUMER: All that's left now is to get some shovels in the ground, some champagne corks in the air, and an assurance to existing employees that your jobs are safe for decades to come. What great news.

GRAY: I went to the groundbreaking last year.

Massena town supervisor Joe Gray held one of those shovels. It was a celebration. Alcoa’s board had approved investing 600 million dollars to modernize its two plants in Massena and guarantee at least 900 jobs there for decades. In exchange, the New York Power Authority gave Alcoa very cheap electricity from its hydropower dam on the St. Lawrence River.

GRAY: The availability of that electricity at that rate is what keeps Alcoa here. And the reason they came here in 1903 was the availability of power.

Alcoa’s announcement that it will close the last two pot lines at the East plant, after closing one other last summer, has put the future of that contract in question.

Governor Cuomo’s spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said in a press release yesterday that Alcoa has “expressed willingness” to work with New York. But she also played some hardball. She said “involuntary layoffs” will be considered a breach of contract.

Alcoa said in an e-mail that it’s negotiating with the local union to “minimize the impact” of the pot lines shutdown.

Congressman Bill Owens says it’s the result of those talks that matters.

REP. OWENS: The endgame here is that if they keep all the people working and comply with their NYPA proposal, that’s the most important thing, to keep the jobs in that community.

Massena supervisor Joe Gray says he believes some kind of layoffs or transfers are inevitable.

But there’s a longer-term concern here, too. While last summer’s groundbreaking made Alcoa’s commitment seem like a done deal, it was actually just a big first step, says Gray.

Alcoa is proceeding with its modernization plan, which includes a brand new high-tech pot line to replace the three going out of service at the East plant. But the Alcoa Board doesn’t have to give the final go-ahead for all that until next year.

GRAY: And I think it has always been quite clear to us and I think to the employees of Alcoa that modernization still hinges on a Board vote in 2015.

Gray is bullish that vote will be ‘yes’, because smelting alumina takes a ton of electricity. And in Massena, Alcoa has some of the cheapest electricity anywhere in the world.

GRAY: It may be naïve on my part. It may be too optimistic. Nevertheless, that’s the premise I have to operate under. That Alcoa will be here going forward because of the presence of the river and the low cost hydropower.

With about 1,000 people working at Alcoa today, and other manufacturers long gone, Massena doesn’t have much of a choice to believe anything else.

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