Steelworkers forced to authorize strike against ArcelorMittal
USW president Leo Gerard says the workers have long sacrificed to put the company on a sound footing for huge profits and that it is time now for AcellorMittal to reciprocate rather than try to squeeze more out of workers. | Randi Weingarten/Twitter

PITTSBURGH—Company takeback demands and labor law-breaking forced Steelworkers locals representing about 15,000 ArcelorMittal workers to authorize a strike against the big steelmaker, in a unanimous vote on September 18.

That makes the forced strike authorizations two-for-two, since locals representing 16,000 workers at U.S. Steel voted a strike authorization, also unanimously, the week before.

The authorizations do not necessarily mean the workers will definitely walk, but they put pressure on both firms to meaningfully negotiate, at a time of record steel company revenues and profits.

ArcelorMittal management isn’t, said union President Leo Gerard and District 1 Director David McCall, USW’s lead bargainer with ArcelorMittal.

“The flexibility of our contracts and world-class efficiency and productivity of this particular group of Steelworkers enabled ArcelorMittal to survive floods of unfairly traded and illegally dumped foreign imports that brought about the harshest market conditions our industry has faced in decades,” Gerard explained.

“Now that the company is generating enormous – even historic – amounts of cash, it is an insult that bargaining progress has been hindered by management’s unrealistic concessionary demands and unfair labor practices,” he added.

McCall said the union’s workers at the giant steelmaker, whose plants include former Bethlehem and LTV facilities, among others, “are uniformly fed up with management’s attempts to reduce, eliminate, undermine and weaken contractual protections and benefits hard-won through generations of collective bargaining.”

“ArcelorMittal can easily afford to negotiate fair labor agreements with us, but the company instead insisted on concessions that would more than wipe out any pay increases in its proposal,” McCall said. The two sides are negotiating over a 3-year contract.

United Steelworkers

“Management even failed to address some of our non-economic proposals and ignored most of the local issues we have brought to the table, demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the men and women upon whose shoulders rests the company’s past, present and future success.”

In their last pre-strike authorization memo to members, USW bargainers discussed the company takebacks, which would come on top of a 3-year wage freeze during the last contract. That pact expired weeks ago, but its terms stay in effect while the two sides bargain. ArcelorMittal’s takeback proposals in health care include:

  • Force workers to start paying for health care coverage on January 1, starting at $198 per month for a family and rising to $440 monthly, thus wiping out pay raises. The steelmaker also wants workers to pay higher deductibles, co-pays and specialty drug costs. USW calculates those provisions, combined, would cost an average veteran worker $9,300 yearly.
  • Force new hires into a “high deductible health care” plan, “covering only 80 percent of most services, and a family would be responsible for $3,000 in deductible costs before the plan would cover anything. A single prescription would cost up to $200.” Arcelor is also offering the high-deductible plan to current workers.
  • If – or when – the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac tax” on high-value health care plans kicks in, “health care benefits will be reduced to avoid the company paying a penalty.”

Unions, including USW, lobbied long and hard – and still do – to kill the “Cadillac tax.” Lawmakers have repeatedly pushed its implementation back, but have not killed it.

  • Current and future Medicare retirees and spouses would pay $220 in monthly premiums by the end of the pact, double what they pay now.

“Many of these current retirees are on fixed incomes, and this kind of increase would devastate monthly budgets and finances. They want to offer the same high deductible plan to pre-Medicare retirees who can’t afford the increased premiums – meaning higher out-of-pocket costs for the retiree,” USW noted.

“ArcelorMittal management simply wants to discard people once they’re out of the plants and mines and break the promises made to them over decades of hard and dangerous work.”

Management’s proposed non-health care cuts include: Higher worker contributions to Steelworker Pension Trust, without corresponding increases in pension payouts from that defined benefit plan., killing bonuses for hot-rolled steelworkers and some others, and a cap on vacation pay which would cut the amount for – initially – 2,000-plus workers.

Arcelor Mittal also demands that if a worker “calls off or does not work as scheduled” during a workweek, “they would be disqualified from overtime payments for the rest of the week.

“The company’s proposal is not fair, and its demands for huge concessions are not necessary,” the union concluded.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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