Former ATC workers in limbo

Published 8:22 am Friday, February 5, 2010

FRANKLIN—William Ward worked at the ATC Panels particleboard plant as a maintenance department shift repairman for 35 years. His last day of work there was Oct. 10, 2008, the day he and about 20 of his co-workers, were laid off.

On Wednesday, Ward returned to the gatehouse of the plant to sign his name to a piece of paper stating that, if the plant were to reopen, he would return to work there the next day.

It is a routine that Ward has been following every three months since he was laid off, and one that he plans to continue doing.

“I don’t know if they’re going to open back up or not,” Ward said Thursday. “But I would go back if it did.”

While Ward and his former co-workers wait in limbo, the union that represents workers at the plant has been involved in a dispute with Aconcagua Holdings BVI, the Chilean group of investors that has owned ATC Panels since 2004.

At issue is the current status of the plant and whether Aconcagua is obligated under the terms of a labor agreement to pay thousands of dollars in severance pay. The union insists that the plant is closed, while Aconcagua maintains it is temporarily idled and is searching for additional investors.

Company says it wants to reopen plant

ATC Panels spokesman Rodolfo Salman confirmed Thursday that the Franklin plant is closed, but said the company is looking for investors so that it can reopen the facility and compete globally.

“We are hopeful we could (reopen),” Salman said. “We’re trying to find an investor group to do it, and to get the state to help. We’re trying to find a possibility to bring other manufacturing companies that would establish their operations in Franklin so we could restart the plant and have them consume there and compete with China.”

Elaborating on the company’s plans, Salman said, “the model of producing particle board by itself is not profitable anymore. The market is so down that consumption has been reduced by 75 percent in this country. So the only way to be able to compete is to also have the manufacture of the furniture that is done with particle board in the same location — (either) close or in the same town — so you avoid all of the freight cost that is a lot of waste.”

Salman said about six employees are still employed at the Franklin plant, performing maintenance and security duties. But he added that could all change, and Ward and his co-workers could someday return.

“It all depends on how this works,” Salman said. “If the current owners are successful in bringing in new people, they have to review what people are available, what people are still without a job, so we can recall employees and start the whole process again. I don’t see a problem with that.”

Asked if he would characterize Aconcagua’s discussions with the union as a dispute, Salman said, “No, we are basically in an issue where the plant was closed and the union has some interpretation of the laws (and) management has a different interpretation.”

But he cautioned that the issues surrounding the future of the plant all revolved around a Chilean bank, the Banco de Credito e Inversiones, or BCI.

“Because the bank has control of the assets, it is very difficult to do anything,” Salman said. “There is only one secure lender, and the bank has control over all of the assets of the plant. So it’s not worth getting into any dispute because you don’t get anywhere. The union has been very helpful in understanding that. They are in a waiting mode, and we are in the same position. (But) the best solution is to bring the jobs back.”

Union wants severances paid out

Carroll Story, president of Local 1488 of the United Steelworkers of America, declined last month to go into detail over the dispute with Aconcagua, but did confirm that it primarily involved severance packages for former employees of the plant. He characterized the negotiations as sensitive and involved USW International officials.

Another issue was that on several occasions, former plant workers would come to the gatehouse to sign the necessary paperwork, only to find it unmanned. Story said that issue had since been resolved.

Story could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

Ward said he once served as president for a chapter of the United Paperworkers union at the ATC Panels plant and helped craft the labor agreement between his union, which was affiliated with Local 1488, and Aconcagua.

“There was a two-year clause that if you had been laid off for two years you would have seniority for two years,” Ward said. “Seniority and severance were in two different articles of the labor agreement.”

Ward added that the plant was not a union shop, meaning that membership in the union was not a requirement for employment at the plant. He himself is no longer a union member.

“Any hourly employee that worked there is entitled to a severance, regardless of the union,” Ward said. “It was not a condition of work.”

A proud history

At its zenith, the Franklin plant was owned by Union Camp Corp., employed around 135 people, and had contracts with furniture manufacturers, including Basset and Ethan Allen. It was sold to International Paper Co. in 1999, and then changed hands several times before Aconcagua took over in May 2004.

The plant started to lose business when furniture manufacturers started buying cheaper materials overseas. Aconcagua laid off 90 workers in October 2007, blaming the poor condition of the U.S. housing market and the rising cost of raw materials. One year later, another 34 workers were let go.

Aconcagua sold another ATC Panels particleboard plant in Moncure, N.C., to Uniboard Canada Inc. in August 2008.

Moving on, but still out there

In the meantime, Ward has found a full-time job working as a warehouse assistant for R.A.W. Electrical Corp., which is based in west Norfolk. His workday starts at 5:30 a.m. every day. And although the pay is less than what he was making at ATC Panels, Ward said he is grateful.

“I’m very thankful,” Ward said. “I take in orders and get orders together for the electricians. I’m out of my trade, (but) I’m getting 40 hours and plus.”

Despite his new employment, Ward said he will continue to go to the gatehouse at the ATC Panels plant every three months to sign his name. He figures that he is one of only a few left doing so.

“People really just got fatigued,” he said. “It’s dwindled off real great.”