By Joe Mandak
Associated Press Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Alcoa Inc. and the United Steelworkers reached a tentative agreement on a four-year contract late Wednesday, avoiding a strike by 9,000 workers at 15 of the aluminum company's U.S. plants, an Alcoa spokesman said.
The deal was reached less than two hours before the contract expired at midnight CDT, in St. Louis, where the negotiations were conducted, Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said from the company's Pittsburgh headquarters.
Union officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The deal averts what would have been the union's first strike since 1986 of the world's largest aluminum company.
Negotiators for both sides said much progress was made on a new contract over the weekend. It was not immediately clear when or how workers would vote on the deal, Lowery said.
The union workers represent about 20 percent of the company's U.S. employees, but only about 7 percent of Alcoa's global work force of 129,000.
Alcoa officials had said its managers were prepared to run the 15 plants nationwide if the workers did strike, and industry experts had told The Associated Press they doubted a strike would disrupt production.
Lowery said the new contract would require the workers to begin paying some of their health insurance premiums, which reportedly was a major sticking point in the negotiations.
Retirees covered under the deal will continue to receive medical coverage. Lowery said the pact assures the ''competitiveness of these locations'' and protects the workers' standard of living.
The deal also includes a new pay-for-performance program, and includes a new skills assessment and worker training programs, Lowery said.
No other details of the deal were immediately available. Alcoa planned to issue a more detailed statement at a new conference Thursday morning, Lowery said.
The pact covers workers at plants in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.