LORAIN, Ohio – A crowd of 200 steelworkers and retirees cheered May 28 as Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) announced that he has introduced legislation to force the government to pick up the health care benefits of steel retirees losing benefits due to corporate bankruptcy. The spirited rally at the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 1104 Union Hall also urged a no vote on Bush’s proposal for fast track on trade agreements.

A roar of support came from the crowd when Local 1104 President Larry Ientile announced union support for the legislation and called for an all-out fight to pass it.

In Lorain alone, 2,500 working steelworkers and thousands of retirees are facing possible loss of benefits and pensions due to Republic Technologies Inc. filing for bankruptcy. Thirty-three U.S. steel companies have filed for bankruptcy in the recent period of industry crisis and 17 of those companies have shut down operations.

Health care is at the center of this crisis, since workers in all other steelmaking nations have won national health care legislation and government control of pensions. Here, all these benefits, known as legacy costs, are the responsibility of the steel companies through union contracts. This is the central reason for the recent wave of steel company bankruptcies, which has stripped 150,000 steel retirees of health care benefits and slashed their pensions, causing a major national crisis in this area.

“Our biggest obstacle is George W. Bush,” John Jacops, president of the local Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) chapter told the gathering. “Bush has supported the rich and opposed everything that could help working folks and retirees.”

Rep. Brown also spoke of his opposition to the proposed fast track trade legislation. “This is legislation to strip our nation of decent, good-paying union jobs and ship them to low-wage nations where workers are kept in poverty and denied unionization by dictatorial regimes,” he said.

“Steelworkers deserve support,” said Brown. “I know steelworkers that have worked for over 40 years and now have lost health care. That is criminal! It is incumbent on all of us to pay them back.”

Brown said there would be “more than a few fireworks on Capitol Hill” if Bush and the Republican majority force a vote on fast track while denying steelworkers justice.

The rally issued a unanimous call for a united drive with labor’s allies to pass Brown’s Steel Legacy Relief Act as a step toward necessary national health care legislation.

“We’re not asking for a handout,” said 1104 member Dave McVey. “We had a contract that the company has broken. We paid for those benefits out of our pay. We’re only asking for justice!”

The author can be reached at bruceb@erienet.net