Solidarity key as lockout reaches 1,000 days

MANSFIELD, Ohio – May 4 saw the fifth steelworkers’ rally held here since AKSteel locked out the union workers in 1999. On May 24, the Mansfield lockout turned 1,000 days old.

Flanked by expressway on one side and railroad tracks on the other, steelworkers and their families and allies gathered in a field of fresh grass and young trees in this small Ohio city May 4.

Children played. People sang. Wild birds and red balloons were released. A picnic was spread, including a lovely table of homemade cakes for when the people got hungry. It was a fun event for those who don’t have much fun anymore.

The struggle started back in August 1999, when United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 169 was in the process of negotiating a new contract with Armco Steel. Armco wanted to eliminate 120 union jobs at the plant. They insisted on doing this by scheduling mandatory overtime. The workers did not buy this, as they tried to preserve what little family time they had.

Union members voted to continue working during the negotiating process; they did not vote to strike.

At this point, the company was sold and became part of AKSteel, a global conglomerate. When union steelworkers arrived to work the first shift Sept. 1, they found the plant padlocked, with scab labor working behind the locked gates.

Local 169 immediately set up pickets at the plant gate to protest being locked out of their jobs. As the lockout dragged on, local members spread word of the lockout throughout the midwest. AK’s answer was to file racketeering charges against the USWA. After pending for a year, the case was thrown out of court on the grounds it was frivolous, with no merit whatsoever.

The company has kept up a media blitz of television and newspaper ads vilifying the union. At least five of these ads are run an hour during prime time on any given night in the Mansfield area.

AK has squandered all this money to bust the union, while its shareholders have lost more than $1.3 billion in value since the lockout began. Three class action suits have been filed by shareholders alleging that AK management released misleading information to investors prior to the company’s fourth quarter 1999 financial report.

Both the City of Mansfield and Richland County have recently cut back their tax abatements to AK. “They show no loyalty, they take their tax breaks and run,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to the May 4 rally. The union seeks to have the abatements cancelled altogether.

Many labor-friendly candidates and officeholders spoke at this pre-election rally including seven state representatives, a state senator, and two Congressmen, Brown and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio).

Speakers repeatedly stressed the importance of voting. The state of Ohio has a Republican governor, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the State House 59 to 40 and in the State Senate 21 to 12. Democratic candidates running in this year’s November elections are demanding that the state government intervene and put an end to what “outlaw companies like AK Steel are getting away with in Ohio.”

Brown characterized AK’s conduct as an “economic pathogen ... a virus spreading from corporation to corporation.”

Roughly $20,000 in donations were tallied from union locals and individual workers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees/ Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 419 from Jefferson, in the rural northeast part of the state, donated a van and truckload of food in appreciation of the support shown them by the Mansfield local during their strike last winter.

Culture was provided by Susan Hagan and Joe Jencks. Jencks, a gifted guitarist and vocalist, wrote a song especially for Local 169, titled “Christmas in Mansfield.” The song describes a little child whose family is suffering through hardship and stress, who walks through that big union hall up to Santa. The child receives much more than a set of tinkertoys. The child is surrounded by the glow of a strong and loving community. This is what AK seeks to destroy.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org