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AWU urges Portland Alcoa to come up with plan as production drops

March 22, 2023

Alcoa must engage with its Portland aluminium smelter workers and the AWU and come up with a meaningful plan after a lack of maintenance forced it to slash production.

A lack of anodes at the plant has led the company to cut output to only 75% of capacity and workers fear their jobs are now on the line.

The smelter, which has 408 pots in total, had been running at about 95% capacity before a recent equipment failure, which workers blame on a lack of maintenance.

AWU Organiser Rob Saunders says Alcoa has been underfunding maintenance and the chickens are now coming home to roost.

“This is a problem that has been building for a long, long time,” Mr Saunders says.

“After years of cost cuts, it’s got to the point where maintenance is not keeping up.

“Now they have had a major equipment failure and we can’t make enough anodes.”

Rodded anodes – carbon blocks weighing about a tonne each attached to a copper rod – are key to the smelting process and made on site.

Mr Saunders says on a recent Saturday shift an important piece of equipment in the rodding area failed, and since then workers have only been able to drip-feed anodes into the pots room.

“Pots have been dropping one by one and they had to decide to cut the section Line 1 East. They had to cut 68 pots.”

Rob says the problem is a long-term one that began back in 2009, during the Global Financial Crisis, when Alcoa first cut 68 pots due to a bad power deal.

“Several months ago they restarted 40 of those 68 pots after putting a lot of money into rebuilding them but not the ancillary machinery.

“But the guys warned that they couldn’t keep up with the extra anodes needed for those.

“We were only one equipment failure away from it all falling over, and sure enough that’s what happened.”

“Now the company has no plan for dealing with the situation.”

The AWU has challenged Alcoa in the Fair Work Commission, as the Portland EA says management must consult with staff and the union before making decisions that may have a significant effect on workers.

Mr Saunders says the matter was mentioned in the FWC but so far the company seems paralysed, and the big fear now is for jobs.

The AWU will do everything it can to protect workers jobs, but it’s time for Alcoa to get its act together and engage with its workers.

“This site has great potential still, but if management don’t listen to the experienced workers that have carried the burden of their cutbacks for years they are doomed to repeat the mistakes that led to this,” he says.

“Workers now have to contend with the double fear of working with inadequately maintained equipment and potential job losses.”

“They say they don’t have plans for job cuts – they say they hope there won’t be any, but they don’t know.

“They just don’t have a plan at the moment, so workers are being left in the dark.”

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