Alcoa (NYSE:AA) rarely pops up as a hot stock at cocktail parties, but that doesn't mean that the firm isn't important. As the world's largest aluminum company, it's connected to many parts of the economy, so how it manages its business should be of at least general interest to investors.

In this case, what seems worthy of some attention is Alcoa's recent dealings with its labor force in Wenatchee, Washington. As what some might call an "old economy" company, Alcoa employs a huge number of people, about 120,000 at the end of 2003. Workers, then, are a large asset.

In late July, Alcoa announced that it would permanently close its Wenatchee smelter because it could not arrive at an agreement with the plant's 400 employees over a plan for health care benefits. The firm indicated that it would have to record a $20 million charge to third-quarter earnings to account for the shutdown, according to the Chicago Tribune.

This week, though, Alcoa managed to reach a deal with workers at the site. As a result, Alcoa should be able to bring the plant back on line soon. In addition, it won't have to take the charge, which should help offset some of the disruption to the company's operations from Hurricane Ivan.

The lesson is that investors should pay close attention to labor issues and companies that effectively negotiate with employees, since this can have a marked effect on the bottom line. It should also be said that labor disputes are anything but uncommon. For example, while it has not made huge headlines, a union representing almost half of Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Walt Disney World theme park employees recently rejected a labor contract.

For its part, Alcoa is not exactly batting 1,000 with employees. More than 800 workers are striking at its Becancour, Quebec, smelter, according to CBS MarketWatch. Still, the company has said it remains open to resuming talks with workers there at any time.

In today's global economy, Alcoa and its peers have more flexibility than ever before to relocate production in order to tap into cheaper labor and lower energy prices. Nevertheless, the art of negotiation and effective labor management remain attributes to which investors should pay close attention.

Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer in Chicago. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.