No welder left behind? 

Malting plant leaves sour taste

If there’s one thing that Montanans crave more than beer, it’s a job—and pay to reflect the toil.

That’s why the barley-rich Great Falls area seemed the perfect place for an international malting company to construct a $60-million facility, and boost Montana’s economy in the process.

But 21 welders from the region have temperatures hotter than red metal because they feel passed over for help hired from out of the country.

At the root of the issue is the granting of work visas to Bulgarian welders, who will start work next week for the International Malting Company, with the justification that no qualified metal joiners exist in the state or country. The work involves welding specialized molds for stainless steel kilns and processing vessels.

Local unions say there are plenty of local welders to do that work. But, International Malting says the malting tanks are available only five places in the world, and none of them are in the United States. The malting plant has engaged a German company to design the vessels, and with the contract comes a Bulgarian team.

“They want to do everything as cheap as possible…It’s specialized welding, but that’s what we do,” said Bob Hall, business manager for Boilermakers Union Local 11. “We train people to do that.”

Hall says that over 20 welders in the area were neither contacted nor given a fair shake.

He knows of similar specialized tanks across the state built by Montana labor. Some of those tanks hold flammable materials.

“These tanks [at the malting plant] are just going to hold water, and they think we can’t build them,” Hall said incredulously.

Hall has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against International Malting and Express Personnel Services, a temporary work agency out of Great Falls. The complaint says that 21 applicants were not considered for hire because of union activity.

“We interviewed 21 applicants in the area,” counters Chris Kaltenbach, general counsel for Milwaukee-based Lesaffre International Corporation, the parent company of International Malting. “Only three of those were marginally qualified. All three declined or did not respond.”

Kaltenbach says the Buglarians will be paid the same rate American workers would have received.

The dust-up has even prompted Sen. Max Baucus to write a regional administrator of the Department of Labor.

“Please find enclosed copies of 18 resumes and applications that were filed through the Job Service for employment with the IMC. In reviewing the applications, you can clearly see that the applicants are extremely well qualified and are willing to accept a minimum of $19 per hour,” Baucus wrote on March 18. Later in the letter he wrote, “Inherent in my support for this plan has been the assurance that American workers will benefit from employment directly related to construction and operation of this plant.”

International Malting Company has also applied for a $33.7-million loan from the state Coal Trust. One of the stipulations of receiving that loan is that “all contractors give preference to the employment of bona fide Montana residents” as required by state law, “if their qualifications are substantially equal to those of non-residents.”

International Malting has yet to need state loans for the construction. But if they want it, they must comply with state law.

“We’re still getting information, like payroll records, to see who is working for them,” Executive Director of the Montana Board of Investments Carroll South said.

Upon receiving that information, the board will make the determination if they can give International Malting the money or not.

“We must be able to verify compliance before we can distribute any funds under the various loan agreements,” South wrote in a March 2 letter to International Malting.

“We are very committed to complying with our obligations,” Kaltenbach said. “We very much want that financing.” He says the company is complying with the contracts and that 82 percent of the 294 workers are Montanans. The 15 Bulgarian welders will make up 3 percent of the work force.

“We were all clapping on the floor [of the state house] when they announced that they were going to build a malting plant,” State Rep. Jim Keane (D-Butte) said. “Later it became apparent that they weren’t going to treat Montana fairly…We all want to see economic development in Montana, but we want to benefit from it. How can we ever get ahead if we bring in foreign workers when we have skilled labor in state? It makes no economic sense.”

In addition, a North Dakota company was given the asphalt contract, and an Idaho company was assigned the task of framing the structure, Keane said.

It’s important to Montana officials, from a long-term economic standpoint, that the controversy is settled amicably. A facilitation roundtable involving all interested parties is in the works, according to Montana Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Wendy Keating.

“There are a lot of legitimate issues regarding the construction of the plant that need to be worked out,” Keating said. “But nobody is talking about the long term benefit to the counties and the grain growers, which is going to be an excellent effect.”

Kaltenbach concurs. “When the facility is done it will employ 35 full-time Montana residents and there will be all kinds of opportunity for grain growers to sell huge quantities of their grain. We’ll bring millions and millions of dollars into the Great Falls area,” he said. “This isn’t the best public relations. But from a legal, contractual and technical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with using 15 Bulgarian welders.”

jmahan@missoulanews.com

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