AK Steelworkers rally for dignity

BUTLER, Pa. – In the shadow of the county’s civil war memorial, 2,000 steelworkers, their families and supporters, rallied Veterans Day demanding an end to AKSteel Corporation’s firing, harassment and unsafe working conditions.

The Butler Armco Independent Union (BAIU), representing 1,700 workers at the mill, organized the rally as the first step in a campaign to bring deteriorating conditions in the mill to the public’s attention. Founded in 1933, the BAIU is not affiliated with the United Steelworkers of America, nor any other national union, but has been working with the Butler County AFL-CIO.

Three years ago, Armco and Kawasaki steel corporations merged to form AKSteel. The first act of the new management was to lock out 650 steelworkers, members of USWA Local 169, in Mansfield, Ohio, bring in scabs, sue the USWA, conduct a mass media propaganda campaign, and try to break the union. Members of Local 169 are still on the picket lines, fighting back. They had had a contract with Armco for decades.

Since the 1999 merger, 60 workers at the Butler mill have been fired. In the 39 years Armco owned the mill, BAIU President Jim Gallagher told the rally, a total of 69 steelworkers were fired. In four decades, Armco suspended 124 steelworkers, but in just 36 months, AK suspended 224 workers.

Then, on Oct. 29, Keith Eckenrode, 42, a veteran steelworker, was killed when the machine he was cleaning moved crushed him. Workers stilled for a moment of silence.

Gallagher added that labor management cooperation dominated labor relations for two generations. 'We have never had a strike,' he told his co-workers and neighbors. 'We’ve never engaged in an act of violence, in sabotage or a work slowdown ... We want the highest possible wages, benefits and pensions, we understand the need to remain competitive.'

'Armco was an opponent but never the enemy,' Jack Murtagh, union lawyer who has negotiated contracts with Armco for 25 years said, 'With AKSteel we don’t have an opponent, we have an enemy ... and it has laid siege to the entire community.'

The 'siege' is not just on the mill floor. Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency fined AK for dumping toxic waste into the drinking water. Drinking water was so contaminated that residents of nearby Zelienople and other small farming communities could not turn on their spigots or water their livestock in ponds on their property.

Butler County Commissioner Glenn Anderson announced to the rally that he has offered to mediate with AK, 'Nobody should have to go to work worried about losing a job from one day to another. It makes a bad work environment and a it hurts the family environment.'