Century workers speak out Launch media campaign on impasse and jobs to be lost, plan protest; senator says Chinese exports the real issue

The Century Aluminum is off U.S. Highway 52 in Berkeley County.

Mount Holly employees are using social media, radio and television commercials and a telephone campaign to bring awareness to the aluminum smelter’s contract stalemate with power utility Santee Cooper.

But state officials say the company’s real problem isn’t electricity but a depressed market for its product.

“I think the real problem is the aluminum that China is dumping on the world market, and I don’t know how you handle that,” state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said this week. Cheap exports from China have depressed aluminum prices to their lowest since the Great Recession.

“It’s sad that those 600 jobs will be gone,” Leatherman said of Mount Holly’s workforce.

Dozens of those workers plan to picket at Santee Cooper’s Moncks Corner headquarters Thursday morning in an attempt “to get our story out there,” said Mount Holly spokeswoman Samantha Dubay.

“We will be cordial because, obviously, this is their place of work, but we want people at Santee Cooper to know that we are here and we’re going to be losing our jobs by the end of this year,” Dubay said.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the utility doesn’t plan to interfere in the protest.

Century Aluminum, which owns the plant, said it will shut down its Goose Creek smelter on Dec. 31 if a new power deal can’t be negotiated.

Both sides have repeatedly turned down the other’s proposal, with Santee Cooper’s board of directors voting 10-0 Monday to reject Century’s proposal to buy all of its power from an out-of-state provider. Santee Cooper would have to transmit that power to the Mount Holly site. Santee Cooper has offered to extend its current power deal, which Century says it cannot afford.

A Mount Holly closure would mean the loss of 600 jobs, a $50 million annual payroll and a nearly $1 billion annual economic impact for the Charleston region, according to a University of South Carolina study.

Michael Bless, Century’s CEO, disputes the argument that low aluminum prices are the reason Mount Holly might close. He said the company — the most modern, efficient and only nonunion smelter in the U.S. — could continue to operate if it is allowed to buy electricity on the free market.

“The price of aluminum ... goes up and down, up and down,” Bless said. “It’s a volatile market, and that’s our risk to bear. It’s the business that we’re in. We just need a power price that’s fair. Power makes or breaks the competitive position of a smelter.”

Mount Holly has purchased radio and television commercials with the theme “I’m One,” a reference to the unified stance workers are taking to urge Santee Cooper to reconsider its decision. Dubay said many Mount Holly employees do not understand why the state-owned utility won’t accept a deal that lets the smelter get cheaper power while paying Santee Cooper its costs to transmit that power.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and our employees deserve answers,” Dubay said.

Santee Cooper officials say Century’s proposal would unfairly increase costs for its other industrial customers.

In addition to the advertisements, including print ads starting next week, Mount Holly employees are taking to Facebook and the Internet in the hopes of warding off a plant closure that could begin as soon as Dec. 14 with the shutdown of one of the smelter’s two pot lines.

The company’s www.savemtholly.com website has links to current news about the power negotiations, a “frequently asked questions” page, and videos with worker testimonials.

“It would be an absolute shame if we lost this plant just due to power prices,” Marvin Dickerson, a human resources manager at Mount Holly, says in one of the videos. “Again, all we want is a reasonable power deal, a fair power deal. Something that would allow us to continue to operate in this community.”

Century purchased the website’s domain in January, just weeks after it bought out Alcoa’s majority stake in the smelter and an indication that the company knew a contract dispute was imminent. Dubay said the website previously has been used in house to update workers on the negotiations, but recently was overhauled to make it more useful for the public.

There are a pair of Facebook pages — “Save Mt. Holly” and “Save Century Aluminum — that workers, their families and friends are using to share news and plot strategy to pressure decision-makers. For example, one of the pages listed phone numbers for Gov. Nikki Haley’s office, Santee Cooper executives and elected officials, urging readers to “ring these phones off the hook,” according to a post by Jennifer Ort.

Gore said Santee Cooper has received seven calls from people expressing concern over the Mount Holly decision. Haley’s office has received 16 calls.

Leatherman, one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, said he is “somewhat disappointed that Santee Cooper didn’t negotiate more,” adding that he urged the utility for months to hammer out an agreement.

But Leatherman said a deal like the one New York gave Alcoa’s Massena West smelter — nearly $70 million in public money for power subsidies and plant improvements — probably won’t work in South Carolina.

“The state stepping in to shore up the private sector? You’ve got to be careful,” he said.

The S.C. Commerce Department has money to lure new businesses, but no funds to subsidize existing businesses.

Haley’s office has been responding to Mount Holly workers with a written statement in which the governor says state officials “spent several months in negotiations trying to broker a deal between Century Aluminum and Santee Cooper.”

Haley adds that any further concessions would give Century Aluminum an unfair advantage over other companies.

“We have always prided ourselves on fairness — and not picking winners and losers,” Haley said in the statement. “We all hope Century Aluminum agrees to stay. They are a great company that provides great jobs.”

The state’s Department of Employment and Workforce already is preparing for a closure.

The agency will hold workshops at Mount Holly beginning this week to help workers write resumes and register for the online job search assistance. The plant is setting up a conference room and learning lab for those meetings, and workers will be able to access the conference room both before and after any possible layoffs. The Department of Employment and Workforce also might provide on-site unemployment claims assistance.

Reach David Wren at (843) 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_