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LACK OF BUSINESS
OUTOKUMPU AMERICAN BRASS IS LAYING OFF MORE WORKERS

Outokumpu American Brass, stung by continued weakness in demand for its products, is laying off additional employees.

The North Buffalo manufacturer this month has laid off 67 workers, including some layoffs that will take effect this week.

Another 10 employees had been laid off since March 2001, bringing the total to 77.

"It's strictly because of the lack of business and the economy," said Jim Williams, chairman of the bargaining committee for United Steelworkers of America Local 593. "They don't see anything changing until at least the second quarter."

It is unusual territory for a work force that was accustomed to stable employment. Even when layoffs have occurred, they typically haven't lasted long, Williams said.

Jack Alonge, director of human resources for Outokumpu American Brass, said it's hard to tell when economic conditions might regain enough strength to recall the workers. The company supplies brass and copper to a range of industries.

"Things are not where we would like them to be," he said.

After the latest layoffs take effect this week, the Buffalo plant will be down to a work force of about 500 hourly employees. The operation also has about 200 salaried employees, making it one of the region's top manufacturing employers. The latest layoffs are affecting some employees who have been working at the plant for more than six years, Williams said.

"We're getting back to some people who have never been laid off (before)," said Williams, who has worked at the plant for 38 years without ever being laid off.

Five years ago, Outokumpu American Brass won a national award from the AFL-CIO for its labor-management cooperation. The manufacturer has routinely distributed generous year-end bonuses to its employees based on the plant's production volume. For 2001, the bonus checks averaged more than $1,700 per worker.

Williams said he believes that the relationship between management and the workers has deteriorated over the past two years. "Our relationship is very volatile, very strained at this time," Williams said. "I don't know what it's going to take to get it back."

The owner of the Buffalo plant, Finland-based Outokumpu, has invested tens of millions of dollars in the plant since buying it 12 years ago.

The plant has also received strong financial support through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and the state. Last summer, the New York Power Authority agreed to supply the plant with discounted power as part of a multiyear expansion plan that was expected to create 55 jobs.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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