Union, WATCO to assist workers

Representatives, company officials will aid employees amid plant closing

Union representatives for the 72 employees at a Hollidaysburg railcar repair shop plan to work with WATCO officials between now and the Sept. 20 plant closure to assist members of United States Steelworkers Chapter 6521.

The railcare repair employees are “understandably up­set,” said Tom Master, union president in the shop.

“Some guys fear losing their houses and vehicles, “ he said. “We have a handful — seven or eight older guys like me and most are younger in their 20s and 30s.”

Master, 60, of Coalport, has 32 years of service at the shop, and another longtime employee has almost 40 years. “We’ve tried our best and have asked what it would take to keep it open, but they’re bleeding money.”

In the coming weeks, union members will meet with representatives of CareerLink, and the union will attempt to negotiate a severance package for workers, Dennis Walter, a local union rep­­resen­­tative, said Friday.

A primary concern is health coverage for union workers and their families until they are able to find new employment or receive training to pursue another field, Walter said.

The membership made “many concessions” in labor negotiations last year for a new contract.

Those concessions included a raise of less than 3% for three years, flexibility in the language outlining workers’ duties to allow for cross-training and in regard to overtime, Walter said.

During negotiations, management officials indicated the continual lack of profitability was a concern and closing might be a possibility, Master said, so the union did everything it could to “keep the doors open.”

In an email sent July 21 to union representatives, WATCO President Rick Webb provided some insight into the reasons behind the closure in an email, Walter said. WATCO is based in Pittsburg, Kansas.

“Myself and Jeff Kipe, who is the international union staff representative, received an email on (July 21) that said, ‘the closure was not a reflection on the workers or the union. It’s not the men’s fault.’ They admitted they weren’t making money. The company hasn’t been able to put management in place to make it profitable. It’s still operating in the red,” Walter said. “The union and the people have done everything they’ve been asked. … It’s closing because of the company’s inability to find and hire managers who could turn the shop around.”

The workforce is comprised of welders, machinists and a few electricians.

Earlier in the week, union representatives met with state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-80th District, which includes portions of Blair County. Gregory called the closing “unfortunate” and sees his role as ensuring that the men are aware of all the state benefits for which they are eligible. He praised local planning and economic development officials with being “well-versed” and “being actively engaged in finding the employees new opportunities that would keep them living and working in the area.”

Fortunately, Gregory said, opportunities are available in the welding and electrical skills, although those positions may not be exactly the same type of work they have been doing.

“Change is difficult, and they might not be excited about making a change at the end of a long-term career,” Gregory said.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.


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