Steelworkers face unprecedented crisis

PITTSBURGH – Members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) began pouring the World Trade Center steel in 1966. Union construction workers finished the job in 1970.

Today, as trucks haul away scrap, not one North American steelworker – U.S. or Canadian, union or non-union – will make any of the steel to rebuild the complex. All of it will be imported.

U.S. steel corporations have dynamited the blast furnaces, padlocked the gates, invested in foreign companies, wheeled and dealed on the stock market, imported raw steel from other countries and put 350,000 steelworkers out on the street.

United Steelworkers Director of Communications Marco Trobovich said that so far in 2001 steel companies have destroyed an additional 13 million tons of capacity.

Although U.S. steelworkers continue to be the most productive and efficient in the world, the country only produces enough steel to meet 80 percent of the current domestic demand.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the often unseen U.S. steel infrastructure – water and sewer systems, bridges, rail and other capital projects – faces a $1.3 trillion crisis over the next five years.

Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Stephen LaTourette (R-Ohio) have introduced HR-1564, Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure Act, to begin to address the country’s infrastructure needs.

Recently, the Stand Up for Steel Coalition, an alliance of the USWA and steel companies focused on import relief, commissioned a poll of registered voters. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of those polled said that the United States must produce steel.

NAFTA and “free trade” government policy – coupled with stony silence from Congress for passage of HR-808, a $2 billion bail-out package for the steel industry introduced nearly a year ago – have resulted in the steel crisis created by the companies accelerating and intensifying.

There are 25 steel companies in bankruptcy court. Only U.S. Steel, Nucor and AKSteel have not filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But U.S. Steel told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette it also will demand whatever union contract emerges from the bankruptcy proceedings.

The most vulnerable, but well-organized victims of the steel companies’ self-destruction are the hundreds of thousands of former steelworkers and their spouses.

LTV, leading the pack in selfdestruction, goes into court on Dec. 4 to liquidate. Retiree health care, a life-and-death issue for 85,000 former steelworkers and their spouses, is on the chopping block.

Jim Centner, director of the union’s retiree organization, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), said, “It tears at your heart. My phone rings every day with calls from a surviving spouse of a member. If LTV is successful (in court), the surviving spouse is left out in the cold.”

Government reforms are full of deadly holes. COBRA only stipulates that insurance companies and HMOs cannot reject applicants like LTV retirees. There is no qualifying physical within the first 60 days, but it provides no money to make the premium payment.

ERISA, which Congress enacted to protect pension payments, only covers vested pensions. For many LTV retirees, who took early retirement with the $400 bridge payments until Social Security kicked in, only 60 percent of their pension is vested and subject to federal protection.

The steel crisis is not just news in steel-producing regions of the country. Even The Miami Herald ran a story Nov. 25 alerting its readers to pending catastrophe in retiree health care and corporate funerals for U.S. steelmaking.

Speaking to the Western Pennsylvania SOAR conference in October, USWA President Leo Gerard said, “I want members of Congress to look me in the eye and tell me that we do not need a steel industry in the U.S.!”

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com