Cleveland Steelworkers continue the fight

In the four months since the International Steel Group (ISG) finished taking over the closed and bankrupt LTV Steel facilities in Cleveland and Indiana Harbor, close to 1,000 workers have been recalled in each plant under an interim contract with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), and production has rapidly resumed.

The interim agreement has been implemented in stages, with hourly rates set last April and health care coverage in force since July 1. Union officials expressed hope a final agreement would be reached not long after they return from the union’s International Convention in Las Vegas.

“Negotiations are going very well,” said USWA contract coordinator Sherman Crowder. Beginning in August, he said, workers at ISG will pay union dues.

Still unresolved for 82,000 LTV retirees, as for some 500,000 retirees of other bankrupt steel companies, is the issue of pensions and health care benefits. In most cases the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. has taken over the funds of the bankrupt companies and is paying a minimal pension, but the health funds are long gone and the situation is desperate.

“We are in a severe health care crisis,” said Pat Gallagher, Ohio Sub-district Director of the USWA. “Really the whole country is in a health care crisis. It affects all our contracts. The companies can’t compete globally when every other country has national health care.”

Gallagher said the union is continuing to prepare legislation to guarantee health care benefits to retirees even though efforts so far have been shot down by the Bush administration and its supporters in Congress.

The remarkable revival of the former LTV mills is widely recognized to be the result of a militant struggle of a labor-community coalition, the Northeast Ohio Steel Summit, led by the steelworkers and public officials, notably Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

After declaring bankruptcy in December 2000, LTV was forced, because of the Summit, to continue operations and go through the motions of seeking a $250 million federal loan guarantee.

“You couldn’t trust them,” Crowder said. “I would have a better chance of getting repaid if I lent $1,000 to someone I just met on the street than if I lent $50 to LTV.”

In November 2001, LTV suddenly asked the bankruptcy court to let it permanently shut down and sell off its assets. The steelworkers threatened to occupy the plants and then-mayor of Cleveland Michael White said he would not lift a finger if they did and would hold LTV criminally liable for any problems that resulted.

The union and the Summit organized marches and rallies, forcing the top company officials to resign and the bankruptcy court to allow time for new owners to purchase the plants, which were closed but maintained on “hot idle,” ready to reopen without damage.

The Summit demanded that any new owner would have to purchase and resume operating all the LTV mills, recognize the USWA as collective bargaining agent for the workers and respect environmental standards. This was done primarily to block companies like US Steel, which openly admitted interest in purchasing LTV for the purpose of closing the mills and eliminating competition.

Kucinich told the court that such an outcome would result in anti-trust action. Newly elected Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell added that the city would enforce its strict laws governing environmental clean-up of closed plants. The Summit asked the court, if it did award the assets to such a purchaser, that the hot idle continue to give government bodies time to acquire the facilities by eminent domain.

In the face of these threats, US Steel, despite having the support of the Bush administration, backed off and the assets were awarded Feb. 28 to ISG, which agreed to comply with the Summit’s program.

“This company is more competent and has a better philosophy. Unlike LTV, they really want to make steel.”

With the Cleveland plant’s second blast furnace coming on line July 16, production has grown to around 100,000 tons a week, or 60 percent of what was produced under LTV, Crowder said.

“The customer base came back a lot faster than we thought. Depending on the economy, we could have 1,200 working in Cleveland by the end of the year,” Crowder said. “Rodney Mott [CEO of ISG] has said he wants ISG to be the premier steelmaker in the world and I think it is possible. They have a lot going for them.”

This includes, Crowder said, support from state and local governments, no retiree pension or health care costs, a modernized plant and a highly skilled and experienced work force.

The author can be reached at rickdnagin@aol.com