GARY – After a two-week halt to negotiations on a new contract for nearly 30,000 steelworkers, precipitated by the abrupt walkout of ArcelorMittal company representatives, negotiators are heading back after United Steelworkers officials met with the local membership around the country.
At the USW 6787 union hall in the shadow of the sprawling Burns Harbor, Ind., ArcelorMittal plant, head union negotiator of the ArcelorMittal contract, District 1 Director Dave McCall, explained to the members: management had called him while they were in Pittsburg, and demanded once and for all that the union agree to start having the membership pay for their health insurance and tripling the retirees’ payments or else the company would go home. McCall vehemently refused and the company left.
The negotiations had been going on all summer and there had been almost no progress. McCall said that the company had not been negotiating in good faith. The company had proposed sweeping changes to the agreement, including a three-year wage freeze, drastic reductions in compensation for vacation, overtime pay, and incentives for some workers; restrictions on transfers and training, increases in retiree insurance contributions, the severing of support for retirees who lost benefits when Bethlehem and other companies went bankrupt, and much more.
The company claimed that they were losing over $200 million a year and that something had to be done. The union has pushed back, saying that the company was trying to take advantage of a “temporary downturn in the market” to roll back gains steelworkers had made for 30 years, including the elimination of dental and eye care benefits. They have said that trade relief was on the horizon and that the union had made a proposal to save the company almost $300 million a year and that the company negotiators didn’t’t even consider their proposal.
“Steelworkers work in the dirtiest and hottest jobs around and have worked for lower wages in order to have a better benefit package. These jobs provide decent living wages and help support a lot of other jobs in the community and allow workers to send their children to good schools. The company wants to take that away,” McCall told a cheering crowd of thousands at the local’s union hall.
McCall explained that the union conceded a three-year freeze on regular wage increases in lieu of payments tied to the cost of hot band steel. He explained that the owner, steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, made the statement that automotive steel’s price would not go up again for five years. So the union is banking on it increasing from its present import-driven low. These payments would be rolled into the wage rate if the price stayed up for 9 months.
Many workers see this wage concession as risky at best. It is similar to the mistake that the coal miners union admitted they made early on when they also tied their wages to the price of coal. The United Mine Workers were the midwife of the Steelworkers Union, providing the money and staff to organize the steel mills.
McCall also said that because the union was going to save the company so much more money, they could not only afford to keep the present medical benefits but also get increases in some other health care benefits, along with changes in the profit-sharing language that has allowed the company to avoid paying through phony calculations.
Talks were reignited when the boss, Mr. Mittal himself, met with Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, Director McCall and Vice President Tom Conway, who is heading up the US Steel negotiations. They explained the union’s proposal, which was given short shrift by the regular negotiators, and then Mittal ordered them back to the table.
The 65-year-old steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal is the 82nd-richest person on the planet according to Forbes magazine, down from 6th place in 2011. Mittal flaunts his wealth, owning three of the most expensive mansions on “Billionaires Row” in London. He threw one of the most expensive weddings in history for his daughter in 2004 at the Palace of Versailles and he owns one of the most expensive “Super Yachts” in the world. His company, ArcelorMittal, is the largest private steel company in the world, with plants in 70 countries and all continents and accounting for nearly 10 percent of world steel production.
Tom Conway also told the membership meeting that the negotiations with US Steel are also proceeding slowly, with the union facing almost identical proposals as ArcelorMittal. “It’s as if they had met and drawn up their proposals together,” he said. Vice President Conway is also leading the union’s negotiations with ATI, a steel company that has locked out the steelworkers and is attempting to make steel in Ohio with scabs. Newspaper ads appeared across the country from Pittsburg, Chicago to Denver advertising for scabs. On August 14th ATI locked out 2200 workers at 12 plants in six states.
“Rather than pay their workers a decent wage and benefits, ATI is ruining their mills trying to run them with untrained scabs,” he said. “We will win at ATI,” he said to thunderous applause.
Workers on lockout in all six states can draw unemployment, and the company cannot legally hire permanent replacement workers (scabs), because it is a lockout.
Photo: District 1 Director Dave McCall, speaking to the union members. Paul S. Kaczocha/PW.