Ormet steelworkers fight for jobs, health care

WOODSFIELD, Ohio — For eight months now, 1,300 steelworkers and their families in this rural area along the Ohio River have been courageously holding the line. In November, a bankruptcy court gave the go-ahead to Ormet Corp. to dump retirees’ health care and implement a wage-cutting package. Since then, Steelworkers Locals 5724 and 5760 have had picket lines up in an unfair labor practices strike.

“We’re fighting for our jobs and our living standards against a vicious corporate raider, for dignity for our retirees,” said Ron Blatt, Local 5724 grievance chair.

Blatt said steelworker retirees are now being forced to pay an average of $750 a month for their health care. Their contract had guaranteed them health care at no cost. “I’ve seen retirees come in here crying, not having anything left after health care is taken from their checks,” he said. “But these folks are tough. The retirees are a real backbone of our struggle.”

Ormet has brought in “around 40 or 50 scabs,” said Blatt. “That’s really pathetic. The thing we’re most proud of is that no [union member] has crossed the picket line — we’re 100 percent solid!”

Blatt said women have played a key role in the strike. One of those women leaders is Judy McCourt, a 27-year steelworker who heads the local’s Strike and Defense Committee. “Support has been tremendous, both within the local and the community,” McCourt said. She cited a petition supporting the union which was signed by every county commissioner in the surrounding seven-county area. “Folks from the community come in all the time to help. One lady from West Virginia even brought in Easter baskets for the kids.”

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) has been especially supportive, attending union rallies and visiting the picket lines. He is fighting to get strikers unemployment compensation. Strickland is a candidate for Ohio governor in the 2006 election.

USW Road Warriors have put up informational pickets in Burnside, La., where Ormet has another plant. Over the past month, busloads of strikers, working with the New York City Labor Council, picketed MatlinPatterson, the global financial “advisor” specializing in “global distressed private equities” which is now running Ormet.

South African unions staged a huge rally supporting the Ormet strikers, and even picketed the school reunion of Ormet owner Mark Patterson, who is South African. “We really want to thank the South African unions,” Blatt said.

While the Ormet strikers’ morale is extremely high, “We still need help,” said McCourt. Donations can be sent to: USW, 5724 & 5780 Strike and Defense Fund, 105 Union Dr., Clairington OH 43915. Statements of support can be e-mailed to uswa5724@localnetplus.com.

Bruce Bostick (bruce@imaginenet.net), a 30-year steelworker, works on special projects for the USW.