PUEBLO, Colo. – The locked-out steelworkers from United Steel Workers of America Locals 2102 and 3267 gathered here at the state fairgrounds in October to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the strike at the CF&I steel mill in Pueblo. Over 700 union members and supporters turned out to renew their pledge to last one day longer than Oregon Steel in its continuing war on its workers.

Although 400 striking union members have been recalled by Oregon Steel in the unfair labor practice strike, the union will not rest until all locked-out workers are returned to their jobs. About 179 scabs remain at the plant today.

“Failure is not an option,” stated Ernie Hernan-dez, president of USWA Local 2102. “Our message to corporate America and to every working man and woman in America is that we are determined and more powerful than all the anti-union lawyers, judges, injunctions, scabs and ruthless CEOs.”

Tragedy, cruelness and relentless corporate arrogance have taken their toll on the workers who refuse to buckle under to the union- busting ways of Oregon Steel. Among the misfortunes and malfeasance the workers have endured:

Multiple unfair labor practices: The National Labor Relations Board has charged Oregon Steel with 110 unfair labor practices leading up to the strike on October 3, 1997. These violations include: company threats to “bust the union;” threatened partial closure if employees went on strike; company promises that workers “would never again work at CF&I or any other steel mill” if workers went out on strike. The charges remain buried at the NLRB (see sidebar).

A workplace from hell: In the largest case ever handled by the regional Occupational Safety and Health Admini-stration office in Colorado, OSHA charged the company in April of 1999 with 61 serious, willful and/or repeat violations of OSHA regulations at the plant. Violations included: elevators with inadequate safety brakes; missing railings and fall protections over dangerous equipment; improper training for workers using hazardous chemicals; and multiple fire extinguishers not properly inspected.

Flagrant company negligence: As a result of the company’s cavalier disregard for health and safety, at least two workers have been maimed or killed as a result of company negligence.

In February of 1999, the company pulled eight men from their regular jobs to perform hazardous work for which they were not properly trained. While cleaning insulators not properly grounded, 34,500 volts of electricity raced through the arms of replacement worker Tom Grace. After being airlifted to the hospital, Grace had both of his arms amputated below the forearms.

Gary Allison, a union worker returned to work on recall, lost his life because of continuing company negligence. In May of 1999, Allison was ordered to perform two potentially hazardous maintenance procedures in a highly questionable manner. While scrambling to avoid “down time,” Allison was killed by flying pieces of metal shrapnel that struck him in the head and neck. A critical coupling shattered when Allison was performing two maintenance functions that are not supposed to be performed simultaneously.

Union busting consultants: A former Phelps-Dodge president, notorious for union busting, helped put together the “game plan” intended to bust the two local unions. In a secret letter dated April 5, 1999, and later uncovered by this reporter, former Phelps-Dodge president Richard Moolick wrote to Oregon Steel president Joe Corvin, “In 1997 I supplied (plant manager) Mike Buckentin with the game plan he used so successfully in combating the Steel Workers at CF&I in Pueblo.”

Oregon Steel subsequently took a $5,000 tax deduction for a “charitable contribution” to Moolick’s federally chartered mining museum in Leadville, Colo.

After five years of bitter warfare, the company and the union are now looking for ways out of the protracted dispute that has ripped the Pueblo community apart. Both sides have compelling reasons to find a solution to the lingering dispute.

From the company standpoint, the continuing dispute is a significant financial drain that could bankrupt the company. Back pay liabilities and continuing financial losses at the plant are significant.

Although the company – in optimistic press releases – conceals continuing loses at the plant by folding Pueblo losses with profits from other plants, documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission reveal the devastating impact the labor dispute has had on the bottom line of the company. Since the strike, the Pueblo plant (the “New CF&I”) lost $62.1 million through June 30, 2002. This figure could be dwarfed by back pay liabilities that do not yet appear on Oregon Steel balance sheets. Financial losses in Pueblo and uncertain back pay liabilities have driven company stock down from $28 per share the day before the strike to under $5 per share today.

From the union’s standpoint, the back pay could evaporate in a potential unfavorable ruling at the Bush- controlled National Labor Relations Board. The union is also uncomfortable with the notion that Republican-appointed judges will dispense any justice to the workers in Pueblo.

Whichever side wins in a non-negotiated settlement, the case will certainly be tied up in federal court for years.

In an interview with the World, Hernandez reported that settlement “discussions” with Oregon Steel have been taking place for almost a year now. These discussions are focusing on complex “manning” (staffing) issues and economic proposals to resolve the standoff.

Although the union will not budge on the need to return all locked-out union workers back to work, there is a possibility that favorable economic proposals could convince the union to withdraw unfair labor practice charges from the NLRB.

Hernandez stated, “They cannot offer us peanuts, because the membership will not buy it. After five years of struggle and hardship, the members are not going to buy into any old sales pitch the company may offer.”

Given the lingering hostility of union members toward the company, a good number may choose to put their steelmaking days behind them.

Leonard Flores, a union member back to work on recall, is one such worker who has a hard time forgetting or forgiving Oregon Steel. The 54 year-old worker already has 27 years at the plant.

“I used to love coming to work,” Flores stated. “Now, I have to drag myself to work each day.”

Flores continued, “I didn’t think that corporate people could be so greedy and selfish. It is my firm belief that they were out to break the union from the start.”

Flores says that the union has served as a “shock absorber” for him throughout the ordeal. “We would have been run over by this company if the union was not there to protect us,” he stated.

For some workers, union shock absorbers have not been enough to repair the damage done to their families.

“Oregon Steel has torn up families like mine,” stated Joe Cordova.

After 33 years of marriage, Cordova and his wife recently divorced. The 57-year-old worker, who has been at the plant for 38 years, attributed the divorce to tensions over the strike. Cordova and his wife argued over whether to pull their mortgage from Wells Fargo, the bank that helped Oregon Steel bankroll the company throughout the strike. “There were a number of problems like that,” Cordova stated.

Many lives have been transformed by the five-year struggle of the steelworkers, and not all have been for the worse.

Nick Mikatich is one worker who has become empowered by the struggle. Mikatich worked 36 years at the plant before the strike. After the strike began, he became a “road warrior” for the union and traveled to Portland and other cities to forge solidarity and support for the locked out workers.

“We are like heroes to the other unions,” Mikatich stated. “When I tell them I am a Pueblo steelworker, they look at me in awe and tell me how courageous we have been to stand up to corporate greed for so long. They all realize the historic and necessary nature of our struggle.”

Mikatich was a foreman at the Pueblo plant for 17 years. He elected to go back to the union bargaining unit after he refused to “play ball” with Oregon Steel’s union-busting tactics.

Mikatich stated, “I’ve been on both sides now, and the union team is the best team. The company could be making money hand over fist if they put us back to work. Let’s get this resolved so we can all make money again.”

Few lives have been transformed or tested more than that of Local 2102 President Ernie Hernandez.

He told the World, “I have been in a mental jail for five years along with my family. It has been physically and mentally demanding.”

The complexity and multitude of tasks Hernandez has admirably perform-ed over the past five years are a tribute to his ingenuity and endurance. Hernandez has served as negotiator, labor lawyer, social worker and counselor to the walking wounded who show up at his office door each day. The strike may have aged him over the years and tested his health and stamina, but he never fails to answer the bell when Oregon Steel delivers a new round of punches to the workers.

Nobody really knows at this point how many rounds are left in the slugfest at the Pueblo plant. One thing that is abundantly clear is that the union workers are determined to go the distance, for however long it takes. Their union roots and allegiance are time-tested and immovable.

Terry Rogers, a 55-year-old millwright at the plant with 33 years of service, summed up the feelings of the workers. Although he is back to work on the recall, he still supports the union and the struggle to put all union workers back to work.

Rogers stated, “Oregon Steel provoked this strike. They broke the union in Portland, and they thought they could do it here. They didn’t do their homework, because they didn’t know how strong we are and how we stick together as a union.”

The author can be reached at dpdemaio@aol.com

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The black hole
of American labor law

The five-year unfair labor practice strike of the Pueblo steelworkers illustrates much of what is wrong with American labor law today. Knowing that justice delayed is justice denied, the locked-out steelworkers feel like they have entered a judicial time warp. Below is a brief history of the unfair labor practice charges still buried in the black hole of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Oct. 3, 1997: After contract negotiations break down and Oregon Steel (OS) engages in multiple unfair labor practices, 1,140 members of USWA Locals 2102 and 3267 go out on strike. The company hires scabs.

Oct.-Dec. 1997: The union files multiple unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against OS with the NLRB.

Dec. 30, 1997: In a strategic move designed to start back pay liabilities, the two locals make an unconditional offer to return to work. The company, insisting the dispute is an economic strike, refuses the offer. A financial liability time bomb begins to tick for OS.

Feb. 27, 1998: The NLRB in Denver issues a 25-page complaint charging OS with 110 ULPs.

July 8, 1998: In a pivotal ruling, the NLRB rules that there is enough evidence to warrant a hearing before a federal judge in Pueblo. A series of hearings follow.

Feb. 25, 1999: Conclusion of all hearings before the federal judge.

May 17, 2000: administrative law judge rules that OS engaged in multiple ULPs. The judge orders the reinstatement, with back pay and interest, of all locked out union members. The company immediately appeals to the NLRB’s General Counsel.

The case remains buried at the General Counsel’s office in Washington. OS clings to its policy, established in January of 1998, of only returning locked out union members to work when a position becomes available at the plant.

Go back to start: If the company loses the ULP case at the NLRB General Counsel level, OS can appeal the decision in federal court. An official at OS is on record stating that the company will appeal the decision “all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.” This could delay justice for five or more years from the day a suit is filed.

– Dennis DeMaio

PDF version of ‘Class warfare in Colorado: Steelworkers mark fifth anniversary of strike’

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