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1,300 battling Kennecott

Workers rally over plan they fear will cut their benefits

Hundreds of Kennecott employees rallied Monday against their employer over a contract impasse that they say will eventually strip medical and pension benefits from future retirees.

Members representing more than 1,300 Kennecott Utah Copper workers packed the Capitol steps, vowing to fight what they called Kennecott's "corporate injustice" and "greed."

"We've got to win this battle for our retirees and for our workers," said Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City and president of the Utah AFL-CIO. "We've always been in it for the long haul. And we know that this battle that we're fighting today, fought yesterday and will continue to fight is going to take awhile."

In October, talks between the two sides ended after they failed to reach an agreement over a new contract.

Since then, union members have continued to work without a contract, fearing future benefits will be taken away.

In December, the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act, dismissed cases the two groups filed against each other. The unions and Kennecott have since appealed NLRB's rulings.

"The company has put in language in the new benefit plans that allows them to terminate those benefits at any time," said Wayne Holland, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America District 12. "The biggest obstacle is the company's attempt early in negotiations to eliminate all the health and welfare benefits, change the pension plans. It was just a complete overhaul of things that we have worked for decades to achieve."

Monday's rally brought the support of a number of politicians, including Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson and Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price.

"It's time we sent a message to corporate America that workers are the most important part of this society," Dmitrich said.

Brent Dea, 63, a Magna resident who retired from Kennecott in 1994 after 36 years of work, said he fears losing his benefits.

"I think they're after everything they can get," Dea said. "My wife just went through a heart attack and she had bypass surgery. That would have made us go under. We would have had to take out bankruptcy."

In a prepared statement, Kennecott said it is still waiting for the unions to submit the company's final settlement offer to the union membership for a ratification vote.

"The company bargained in good faith with the unions for 41 days but was unable to reach an agreement," spokesman Louie Cononelos said. "Through the services of a federal mediator, the company continued to negotiate unresolved issues with the unions in an attempt to reach an agreement."

Cononelos added that there has been no discussion by the company about terminating retiree benefits, however, he acknowledged that the company must find new ways to cover increasing healthcare costs in order to continue medical benefits for future retirees.

"Most companies don't offer medical benefits for retirees," he said.

Workers who retired prior to Oct. 1 experienced a $10 increase in their annual medical premiums.

Terry Bonds, district director of the United Steelworkers of America District 12, met with Gov. Mike Leavitt on Monday, asking the governor to use whatever influence he might have to end the dispute.

"He didn't tell us a lot that he could do," Bonds said. "He said he thought that it would be in the best interest in the state of Utah for this to be settled."

London-based Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest metals and mining enterprises, owns Kennecott Utah Copper.


E-MAIL: danderton@desnews.com