More than 1,000 turnout in a show of solidarity. Steelworkers agree to keep working as long as negotiations continue
By CARL GREEN
Granite City – More than a thousand union members rallied across the street from U.S. Steel’s local headquarters building here.
Steelmaking is the lifeblood of this old industrial town. But the company is taking advantage of a downturn in the steel industry to try and roll back the contract to 1950s and 1960s levels, which prompted the Aug. 21 rally.
Steelworkers responded enthusiastically to their negotiating team’s calls for unity and strength.
“We are here to tell U.S. Steel that they are not going to get away with taking advantage of a temporary turndown in the steel industry to excuse their unreasonable, permanent cuts to benefits and working conditions,” said Dave Dowling, subdistrict director for the United Steelworkers.
“They want to gut our contract language, and they want drastic changes to our health care benefits, not only for active employees but for retirees, both active and future. We’re here to tell U.S. Steel that ain’t going to happen!”
INDUSTRY UNDER PRESSURE
The current contract ended Sept. 1. (Editor’s Note: United Steelworkers unconditionally offered to continue working at all plants covered by the contract agreement, under the terms and conditions of the agreement, pending continuing efforts to negotiate a new contract.) Negotiators have been meeting with the company in Pittsburgh since July 6. U.S. Steel’s demands for roll-backs are deep and numerous, so the company and union are not close to an agreement.
The approximately 2,000 Granite City Steel workers have been represented by their three local presidents, Dan Simmons of Local 1899, Jason Chism of Local 50 and Dan Sykes of Local 68, plus Randy Virgin, who serves as contract coordinator for all three locals.
The negotiators said they have noticed that the cuts sought by U.S. Steel are the same ones being demanded by other steel makers, including ATI (Appalachian Technologies) which has already taken the drastic step of locking out its USW workforce of 2,000 and will continue running its plants with company workers, temporaries and “non-union employees,” according to company statements.
The industry has been under severe pressure from Chinese and other foreign steelmakers that in some cases have been selling below cost to win more of the American market. (See “China protects its workers” on Page 2.)
See related stories:
- Granite City Steelworkers in talks with company over shutdown
- Laid-off Steelworkers face an uncertain future
- Granite City Steel will not close
“The union understands the climate we are in,” Chism said. “These are real problems that need real solutions. The union told the company on day one that the union will be flexible, have an open mind, listen to the issues, and be willing to solve problems which will allow the company and our members to move forward into the future.”
But that isn’t what happened.
“The proposals the company has on the table do nothing to address the real problems for the current climate in this steel industry,” Chism said. “They are trying instead to take advantage of the climate and to weaken our contract. Our benefits and standard of living have nothing to do with the climate we’re in.
“It’s an attack on the union and its membership, and it strikes at the heart of what we stand for.”
The company is demanding more than a dozen rollbacks, including:
• Overtime pay only after 40 hours in a week.
• A revised work schedule eliminating protections for workers.
• The eight-hour daily work guarantee trimmed to four hours.
• The 40-hour weekly work guarantee trimmed to 32 hours.
• Company control of the union safety committee.
• Contracting-out of maintenance work to cut overtime for employees.
• Monthly health insurance premiums of up to $182 for a family plus up to $123 for dental and vision.
• A “consumer-driven” health care plan with large premiums and deductibles and smaller out-of-pocket maximums, estimated as worth about a $4 per hour cut in pay.
• Higher premiums and drug costs for retirees.
• A lump sum to purchase COBRA coverage for new retirees.
• 401(k) contributions to buy insurance for workers under five years.
“These proposals are regressive,” said Virgin, who serves on the benefits committee in the negotiations. “They are expensive, regressive and completely unworthy of our consideration.
“They represent a direct attack on our union and the benefits that we have built over decades of struggle. We must now all stand together – for our families, our retirees and for those steelworkers who come after us.
“We’ve earned these benefits, and our union has fought for these benefits.”
HARD FIGHT AHEAD
As Steelworkers cheered on their negotiating team, U.S. Steel managers peered out their windows at the huge crowd of union members.
“This is the kind of action out here that scares the hell out of companies,” Simmons said. “They have no problem meeting and talking with a few members of the bargaining committee. But when they see active, voting members fired up, it scares the hell out of them. You’re being watched right now.
“If you’re going to pick a fight with a union, this is the last union you want to pick a fight with,” he added. “Unfortunately, we know how to do this. We will do this right, we will do this smart, and we will fight this together. We will come through this fight stronger, and do this on behalf of a country that’s faced with inequality that is running away.”
Speakers repeatedly assured the crowd that the strength and unity they were showing would help the union as negotiations resume.
As Chism put it:
“U.S. Steel is going to test our will. We must prepare to fight. We must prepare for a strike or a lockout. The union wants neither – we want a fair contract,” he said. “But our message is clear – the concession stand is closed.”