Alcoa's aluminum smelter in Wenatchee, Wash., idled since early 2016, was built in 1952. It's adjacent to the Rock Island Dam, built in the 1930s to produce hydroelectric power.
Alcoa's aluminum smelter in Wenatchee, Wash., idled since early 2016, was built in 1952. It's adjacent to the Rock Island Dam, built in the 1930s to produce hydroelectric power. - 
Listen To The Story
Marketplace

The aluminum industry was an important contributor to American power and prosperity in the 20th century. It equipped ships and planes for the Allied war effort in World War II, and then ramped up to produce the modern household appliances, food packaging and transportation equipment of the post-war boom years.

Aluminum production has slowed down in the last few decades.
Aluminum production has slowed down in the last few decades. - 

Primary aluminum smelters, which require a large and steady supply of cheap electricity, were sited along major rivers near hydroelectric dams all over the U.S., including on the Columbia and St. Lawrence. And they were significant providers of well-paid industrial jobs in small towns and rural areas.

But in the past few decades, foreign competition and slowing global growth have taken a toll on U.S. production. Since the early 2000s, the pressures have mounted as China flooded the market with cut-rate aluminum and global prices plummeted. The U.S. government formally charged China with unfair trade practices in early 2017 after investigating complaints.

Alcoa, the leading domestic producer, has dramatically downsized in response to global market forces. In November 2015, the company announced it was curtailing operations at several of its remaining U.S. smelters, including in Massena, NY, Ferndale and Wenatchee, Washington, and laying off more than 1,000 of its remaining smelter workers.

Alcoa was offered millions of dollars to keep its plants open in some states, like New York, where Alcoa still keeps aluminum workers on the payroll in Massena. Washington state provided financial incentives to help keep the smelter open in Ferndale, but not in Wenatchee. So Alcoa curtailed production at the Wenatchee smelter, with 420 local workers laid off at the beginning of 2016.

“We worked our tails off,” said Josh Musgrove, 38, a 16-year veteran at the smelter. “I didn’t think there was any chance of them shutting that old place down.”

Musgrove is enrolled in an auto mechanics class at Wenatchee Valley College with other laid-off Alcoa workers as part of the government-supported vocational retraining typically available to workers after a plant closure.

Musgrove got a job at Alcoa soon after high school, just like previous generations of men in his family.

“My father-in-law was there for near 40 years,” Musgrove said. “That was life, that was his whole family.”

Josh Busjahn, 26, has small kids and is also in the class.

“I cut my budget in half,” he said. “If you’re stuck in a rental, and it’s more than you can afford now, there’s nothing for that.”

Kelley Woodard, 57, president of the Aluminum Trades Council, the union local representing Alcoa smelter workers, said the work is hard, uncomfortable and exhausting.

“Rotating shifts, it’s hot, nasty, one weekend off a month. But it definitely paid well,” he said.

Kelley Woodard is president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council.
Kelley Woodard is president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council. - 

Average wages for aluminum smelter workers are approximately $25 per hour, according to the Steelworkers Union, and they come with good health and retirement benefits. The industry is heavily unionized (at 26.5 percent) compared to most other private-sector workforces in the U.S. Plus, when smelters are operating, Woodard said, there is often a lot of mandatory overtime.

“We’re not talking about retail or something where you’re making ten bucks an hour,” said Woodard. “You’re talking jobs that people were making six figures, a lot of them.”

In 1970, there were 24,000 aluminum smelter workers nationwide, according to the Steelworkers union. Today, there are just 2,200. Smelters, like the one in Massena, New York, that employed several thousand workers in the 1970s now run fewer lines and employ hundreds instead.

Laid-off Alcoa workers Busjahn and Musgrove said they lost more than just their jobs when the smelter closed.

“I won’t be able to do anything as big and unique, and I guess dangerous, as working at Alcoa,” Busjahn said.

And, said Musgrove, “One of the things I’ll miss the most is the guys I worked with. You can kind of build a relationship with everybody, everybody looks out for each other.”

Bob Greiner, who runs the auto mechanic program at the college, said there is plenty of work for mechanics, though some of the trainees may have to leave the Wenatchee area to find jobs that will replace the income they lost at Alcoa.

“They’ve been phenomenal students,” Greiner said, “punctual, on top of the assignments. Definitely tell that they came from industry, and they’re looking to start anew.”

Bob Greiner teaches automotive technology to laid-off Alcoa workers in a retraining program at Wenatchee Valley College.
Bob Greiner teaches automotive technology to laid-off Alcoa workers in a retraining program at Wenatchee Valley College. - 

Unemployment in Chelan County is 6.3 percent, higher than Washington state’s average of 5.3 percent. Even so, Wenatchee’s economy appears to be fairly resilient in the wake of the layoffs. Because the population continues to grow, there’s work in construction. High-tech data farms are locating in the area to access cheap hydroelectric power. The apple industry is doing well. And with the Cascade Mountains close by, there are jobs in recreation and tourism.

At McGlinn’s Public House in downtown Wenatchee, manager Sarah Barkley said business has held steady since the Alcoa layoffs, though most people in town know someone who has lost an Alcoa job.

“It’s a small town,” Barkley said. “People grow up here and they stay here. So what happens when you can’t make a living here anymore?”

Alcoa did not make a spokesperson available for an interview to discuss future plans for its smelters in Massena or Wenatchee. In an email statement to Marketplace, the company wrote: “We continually review our curtailed assets globally based on market conditions and a variety of other economic factors.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Chelan County data.

Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy