Weirton Steel Corp. announced this week that it would cut off health care benefits for its 10,000 retirees effective April 1. The Steubenville, Ohio-based company had petitioned the bankruptcy court to void its union contract with the Independent Steelworkers Union and do away with its contractual obligation to pay the benefits owed to its retirees. The ISU fought the company petition and was able to postpone the cutoff, but the bankruptcy court ultimately granted Weirton’s request.

The ISU is an independent union representing only Weirton’s workers. It is not part of the United Steelworkers of America, but it cooperates with the USWA in contracts, strikes and other campaigns.

“Deep concern and fear is sweeping through retirees in this area,” according to Dave Cossett, communications director for the ISU. The union is working with the likely new owner of the company, Cleveland-based International Steel Group, in an attempt to set up a VEBA (Voluntary Employee Benefits Agreement) that could provide some limited continuation of health care benefits to the embattled retirees. ISG, the nation’s second-largest integrated steel maker, is expected to acquire Weirton in the next few months, but it refuses to assume liability for retiree benefits.

Ohio has suffered the loss of over 280,000 manufacturing jobs since George W. Bush occupied the White House. The Weirton/ISG retiree benefit cutoff is the latest in a series of body blows hammering retired steelworkers. About 208,000 retirees have lost benefits in the wave of steel bankruptcies that have swept the nation in the last three years. Forty-four U.S. steel companies have gone into bankruptcy, resulting in over 250,000 steel retirees having their pension plans taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC).

“Congress and the president should be paying attention to thousands of retirees losing health care instead of worrying about who’s marrying who,” said Cossett.

The PBGC was set up by Congress 27 years ago, in response to union pressure, to protect workers’ pensions when companies go bankrupt. That mission changed a year and a half ago, though, when President Bush appointed right-wing ideologue Steven Kandarian to head that agency.

Kandarian’s first act was to refuse to pay the pensions of RTI steelworkers in Lorain, Massillon and Canton, Ohio, Gary, Ind., and Lackawanna, N.Y. Since that time, retirees have lost benefits at many other steel companies, including Acme, Bethlehem, LTV, National, LaClede, NW and CSC.

“The PBGC is launching preemptive strikes on us, just like Bush did on Iraq,” said a prominent official at USWA headquarters in Pittsburgh. The PBGC, which used to be flush, has run up an $11.8 billion deficit during Bush’s rule.

The USWA has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the PBGC’s refusal to make pension payments to RTI retirees, and to retirees in other areas. Federal Judge Peter Economis ruled in the union’s favor in September, ordering the agency to pay. The PBGC, however, refused to comply and appealed the decision, vowing to “seize back the pensions if successful.”

Angry demonstrations, rallies, resolutions from public bodies and public meetings have swept the Ohio Valley, demanding that the corporate obligations to retired steelworkers be paid.

Ohio is considered a crucial state to both sides in the upcoming election, but Bush is in trouble here due to the continuing economic misery. In his most recent trip to the state two weeks ago, he was confronted by hundreds of angry union demonstrators and their allies in Cleveland.

The author can be reached at bruce@admiral.cc.

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