Steel jobs hang in balance

CLEVELAND – The day before the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) descended on the White House to fight for jobs and retiree benefits industry-wide, a deal was announced that will save the jobs of many workers at LTV. On Feb. 27, union leaders said that WL Ross & Co. agreed to acquire all the facilities of LTV’s steel division “and is committed to engaging in collective bargaining with the union.”

After the union’s announcement, WL Ross & Co. said that they would be keeping 2,000 jobs in Cleveland and 3,000 elsewhere. The USWA has been fighting to save the jobs of 7,500 steelworkers and benefits for 60,000 retirees in five states that were put in jeopody when LTV, the third largest steel company, declared bankruptcy.

In December, the bankruptcy court in Youngstown, Ohio, ordered that the mills be put on “hot idle” until Feb. 28. Bankruptcy Judge William T. Bodoh is scheduled to rule on which of four prospective bidders, including WL Ross, will be awarded ownership of LTV’s properties.

The agreement “saves jobs,” USWA spokesman Marco Trbovich told the World. “It brings in a company that acknowledges the need to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement and a positive step in the right direction ... In and of itself, it does not deal with the issues of the impending tragedy of retirees and actives who are losing their healthcare benefits after March 31.”

Chris Warren, director of economic development for the City of Cleveland, said the announcement is greeted with “guarded optimism” because there is some concern of an entity bidding and gaining ownership of LTV as “part of a rationalization plan to consolidate domestic steel capacity.” For many industries, “consolidation” has meant plant shutdowns and job loss.

On Feb. 26 Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) warned that “immediate antitrust action” would be taken if a company in the steel business won the bid and tried to close the mills. He called on the federal bankruptcy court to extend “hot idle” status of LTV’s mills until March 31 to give government entities “the opportunity to find the means to acquire the facilities, under eminent domain if necessary, in order to continue steelmaking operations in Cleveland” in the event the court awards the assets to a bidder whose intention is to shut down.

The appeal was unanimously endorsed at a meeting of the Northeast Ohio Steel Summit at the Congressman’s office and was contained in a letter to Judge Bodoh. Those in attendance, including about 50 public officials, labor and community leaders signed the letter.

“This sends exactly the right message,” Warren said, representing Mayor Jane Campbell at the meeting. “It addresses the serious danger of anti-competitive behavior if another steel company obtains the facilities in order to shut them down.”

The cloud hanging over this community is the desire of the Bush administration and global bankers to consolidate steel production under the monopoly control of U.S. Steel, one of the bidders in the LTV bankruptcy. William Usher, CEO of U.S. Steel, has said that under this plan steel production would be cut by 25 percent and the Cleveland works would be closed and its equipment shipped elsewhere.

“The permanent shutdown of the steelmaking facilities at the LTV site in Cleveland would be disastrous for our community and our economy,” the letter stated. “The decisions you make could mean the difference between thousands of good jobs in the Steel Valley which support our region’s economy, or a festering toxic contamination site offering nothing productive for our community.”

With the threat of losing their livelihoods, rank-and-file members of USWA in Ohio presented elected officials, union and community leaders at the Steel Summit with petitions signed by 1,500 LTV steelworkers. The petition asked the city, county and the Greater Cleveland Port Authority to investigate the feasibility of using eminent domain to secure public ownership. The issue of public ownership was as Kucinich said “part of the mix” and could be “utilized if all else fails.”

“We, laid off LTV workers and some SOAR [Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees] members, ... decided to circulate a petition similar to the one used by LTV rank-and-file workers in Cleveland,” said Jim Lange, a USWA member in Chicago who was forced into retirement by the LTV bankruptcy. In addition to those collected in Ohio, 400 signatures were gathered in Indiana and Illinois.

Lange got involved with circulating the petition because there was a need to find alternatives to the LTV coke plant shutdown. He realized that alternative solutions were needed for the whole industry and the communities that they live in. “We talked to people attending the rallies for the Feb. 28 D.C. demonstration [See stories page 3, 7] about the need to create a public authority to own and run steel mills for public good, if private companies won’t.”

Ken Applehans, a SOAR member in Gary, Ind., said, “We want the government to take care of the health-care needs of 600,00 steelworker retirees ...Why not just have the government take over the industry itself.”

Another USWA member, Paul Kaczocha, said, “The private owners have had the steel mills long enough and have shown that they are not responsible enough to keep them running anymore.” If allowed to continue along the course of shutdowns and sell-offs, he said, the greed of these private owners will destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people in the steel mills and the surrounding communities.

“The mills need to be put in the public’s hands, which includes the workers who are working at the steel mills,” he said. “They’ve had their turn. It’s our turn now.”