Striking members of United Steelworkers Local 8319 say they are calling AMAX Magnesium Corp.'s bluff after the company sent letters of termination effective Friday if workers fail to return to work.

"We're willing to stay out here until we get what we want or the place shuts down," Brad Clark, a union negotiator from Tooele, said while picketing the front gate of the plant on the western shore of the Great Salt Lake.The number of picketers has been restricted to six under a court order stemming from reports of rock-throwing and vandalism incidents. Clark said the reports are unsubstantiated.

A federal mediator was attempting to bring the union and AMAX negotiators back to the bargaining table Thursday.

"I'm not optimistic," said Don Collard, Steelworkers staff representative. "But I know one thing. The only place to settle the strike is at the bargaining table."

AMAX managers sent a termination letter Tuesday to more than 225 strikers who, objecting to pay cuts and benefit reductions, walked off the job April 2. A three-year contract between workers and the company, the world's third-largest magnesium producer, expired March 19.

"We'd rather have our employees back to work than hire replacements, but if necessary, we will hire replacements," said Lee Brown, AMAX vice president of human resources. AMAX is conducting job interviews and Brown vowed the striking workers' last chance is Friday.

"The company gave us an ultimatum before we even went on strike, at least once a week," Clark scoffed, unconcerned that Friday's deadline would break the strike.

Negotiations for a new contract broke down last March when union members refused to accept an agreement outlining a 5 percent cut in pay that would be replaced by a quarterly incentive bonus earned at 7.5 percent of quarterly wages the first year, 8.76 percent the second year and 10 percent the third.

"But the company isn't telling the whole story," Clark said. AMEX can cancel the incentive program at will, leaving union workers with a 5 percent loss in pay, he said.

AMAX said the company retains the right to cancel the program but stands behind the plan because the plant will give the union 25 percent of savings achieved under the incentive program, retaining 75 percent for itself.

"We simply wouldn't cancel an incentive plan beneficial to the employee and the employer . . . that would be ludicrous," Brown said.

Union members also object to a 30 percent reduction in a mental health insurance plan that Brown called minor. He said it "obviously is a benefit limited to very few."

Additionally, the six strikers pacing at the plant gate complained of difficult circumstances working inside the chemical plant that they say justify adequate wage compensation.

"We're not just on strike because of the economic package, we're on strike because of the working conditions," Clark said. Employers must work in a gaseous atmosphere requiring them to constantly wear breathing masks.

Mike Lamb, another union member from Tooele, complained of the dangers of working with acids used at the plant. He displayed numerous scars he said were inflicted while working at the plant.

Brown said working conditions are no different at Utah steel mills and copper smelters and added most AMAX workers make $13.49 per hour. He said the striking workers "have the best United Steel Workers contract in the state of Utah."

Clark and the strikers picketing Wednesday denied there have been violent incidents during the strike and questioned television news coverage that showed a worker apparently slashing a truck tire. Clark called such allegations AMAX tactics for discrediting the picketers.

However, West Valley City police and Tooele County sheriff's officials received reports of acts of vandalism and threats issued in connection with the strike.

"The acts of violence against innocent employees (have) made the company more firm in trying to run the facility," Brown said, adding AMAX will not rehire those found responsible for the alleged acts.