Steelworkers fight to save benefits

WARREN, Ohio – United Steelworkers of America (USWA) officials have been busy holding informational meetings for workers and retirees in those communities affected by LTV’s latest declaration of bankruptcy.

One of these was a retirees meeting here at Local 1375. Traffic jams led to the union hall and the meeting was standing-room-only.

The subjects discussed were pensions and health benefits. In his introduction, Local 1375 President Mike Rubicz declared, “We are mounting a fight to preserve benefits.”

Dave McCall, District 1 director, briefly explained that the steel crisis was caused by government negligence in allowing foreign steel to be dumped on the U.S. market.

For this reason, he said,“our government ought to be funding legacy costs.”

According to Karen Foreman of the USWA benefits department, Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), a federal agency, will take over LTV’s pension obligations “sometime in the near future.”

Some pensions will be reduced when this happens but the big problem is healthcare. No federal agency covers this, the largest part of LTV’s legacy liability.

Healthcare, prescription drugs and death benefits are only covered by a Voluntary Employee Benefit Agreement (VEBA) that was established in 1994 between the company and the union. Unlike a federal agency, funds in the VEBA trust are limited and, in this case, due to run out in three to eight months.

Several retirees and widows testified that their monthly insurance payments now exceed the amount of their pension checks. If prescription drug benefits are lost, the cost of medication will cut into people’s food budgets. The union has allotted space in its hall for retirees to organize to preserve their benefits.

Retirees and survivors are being advised to write testimonial letters documenting their particular circumstances, along with the hardships they will face if benefits are lost. This testimony will be used to pressure the Ohio Legislature to pass a prescription drug fair pricing law.

Two pieces of legislation currently before the U.S. Senate are part of this project as well.

One bill (HR-808) calls for a surcharge on the sale of all steel products in the U.S., both imported and domestic. These funds would be used to establish a federal agency, the Steelworker Retiree Health Care Fund, similar to the PBGC.

Another bill (HR-1564) would create markets for domestic steel by providing interest-free capital loans to state and local governments for infrastructure rebuilding.