Ashland steel plant to go idle

AK Steel plans to once again idle its largest plant in Ashland, though a union representing workers at the site says it can't legally sideline them for what's expected to be the rest of the year.

The company said this week that its Ashland Works plant will be idled this summer, affecting 750 hourly and salaried employees. The company said it hopes that the economy recovers and that production is resumed quickly, but that the plant will probably be idle through the remainder of 2009.

The blast furnace plant, which produces carbon steel, has seen orders drop off from automakers including GM and Chrysler, and AK Steel said there's not enough demand to operate both it and a plant in Middletown, Ohio.

United Steelworkers Local 1865, which represents hourly workers at the Ashland plant, has filed a grievance against the company, saying that keeping Middletown open violates a part of the union's contract.

"Contractually, they are supposed to run us before they run anyone else," said the local's new president, Doug Campbell, who said the complaint is proceeding to an arbitrator who will decide.

A company spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Campbell said the company has told union officers that it's not violating the contract because Ashland doesn't have the capability like Middletown to produce the full range of slab widths required by customers.

In a news release, AK Steel CEO James Wainscott said the facility also lacks rolling facilities.

"Thus the Middletown Works is the only efficient choice for this very low level of orders," Wainscott said in a news release.

But Campbell counters that Ashland has been producing customer orders while the Middletown furnace has been down for repairs.

"What you have to understand is we're producing materials right now ... and they are using them," Campbell said.

The Ashland plant had been idled in November but workers were brought back by the second week in January when the Middletown furnace went down, he said.

The union had initially filed the grievance in November but put it on hold when the company agreed to a better supplementary pay deal for workers.

Under the contract, workers with two or more years of service were guaranteed insurance for six months. Also, those with three or more years of service were guaranteed a minimum of $250 a week of pay to supplement unemployment checks.

Campbell said the company agreed to offer those to all affected workers regardless of service, so the union held off on its grievance.

But the new announcement has restarted the grievance. The idling process will begin July 28 and be completed by Aug. 11, Campbell said.

The idling doesn't affect a nearby coke plant that employs 290. That plant will continue operation at a reduced level, the company said.

In the early 1970s, AK Steel was the largest employer in Ashland, with 6,000 workers. One of its two blast furnaces has since been entirely shut down, and it is now the fourth-largest employer.