BURNS HARBOR, Ind. — A week after US Steel reached a tentative agreement, negotiations ended between the United Steelworkers and the largest steel company in the world – ArcelorMittal which has about 260,000 workers in 60 countries spread around the world. 14,000 in the USA were locked in a bitter contract dispute for the past five months. The company started the talks aggressively in the negotiations outlandishly claiming workers were costing them $75 an hour in wages and benefits and that they wanted $28/hr back. Among their outrageous demands they proposed that the union no longer negotiate for retired workers.
In a statement released to the public USW International President Leo W. Gerard said, “Our members’ unwavering solidarity throughout the bargaining process in the face of management’s high-risk scare tactics and demands for major cutbacks has been rewarded.”
The head of the union side of the negotiations District 1 Director David McCall said, “After surviving the worst economic crisis in generations, our committee came to Pittsburgh seeking to improve the long-term viability and sustainability of the company and our jobs…Instead of building on the strength of our partnership, ArcelorMittal management nearly destroyed it with proposal after proposal of sweeping, unnecessary contract changes and demands for major economic concessions.”
Both contracts, which still have to be approved by the membership, have a 2% wage increase in the first and 2.5% in the third year with a $500 bonus in the 2nd year. There is also a $2,000 signing bonus. There are increases in insurance co pays and retiree premiums, but no premium payments by active workers. Also absent from the agreement was the two tier wage system the company was insisting on. Considering that the company from the start was demanding a contract similar to the auto industry this was a major victory. The company had even hired as a consultant the former Car Czar, Ron Bloom of the investment group Lazard, who had worked for the USW for over a decade before he was appointed by President Obama to restructure the auto industry.
ArcelorMittal created a web site and put together a 32-page downloadable “fact” book justifying their need for concessions. They provided email and text messaging about the negotiations. At one point near the scheduled end of the contract on September 1st the company had banked its nine blast furnaces and shut down all steelmaking operations in the country. This has not been done in the steel industry in almost 30 years, the last time being 1986 when US Steel locked out the steelworkers and banked its furnaces. Even at the height of the current depression in 2008-9 there was at least half the steel production. According to Union sources ArcelorMittal’s proposal wanted to slash wages, charge huge fees for health insurance, have unilateral control over the workforce, implement a two tier wage system, eliminate the Union pension program for new hires, abandon the current pension system for present workers and the cast off any obligations to present or future retirees. Most of which they clung to for a week even after US Steel gave up similar concessionary demands and reached a vastly different settlement with the Union.
All these demands from ArcelorMittal for concessions rang hollow to a workforce that just saw the head of the company, Lakshmi Mittal, one of the top ten richest men in the known universe earn over $2.25 billion last year much of which was from his US operations. At least one worker every 7 days is killed in an ArcelorMittal facility world wide, a testimony of the dangers in making steel. Yet the company offered nothing new in the line of safety, instead they tried to slash the number of Union safety representatives on the shop floor.
In organizing for a possible strike or lockout the Union built “Contract Action Teams” (CAT) around the country that organized information to the members, sticker campaigns and practice pickets and protests outside the plant gates at which thousands of workers attended. The solidarity in the plants was at an all time high and workers were prepared to strike if necessary. This solidarity was felt all the way in Pittsburgh by the Union negotiators and no doubt gave them the resolve to hold the line on concessions.
In the Union statement Jim Robinson, District 7 Director of Indiana and Illinois steelworkers said, “Our members’ solidarity enabled us to fend off these serious attacks by the company…This contract puts us in good strategic position to succeed in the future.”
Most importantly the United Steelworkers have broken the backward trend in organized manufacturing at a time of attacks on workers across the country. They have shown that Unions can be aggressive in defending what they have and win.