Steelworkers struggle to survive

BURNS HARBOR, Ind. – Bankrupt Bethlehem Steel and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) are meeting with creditors in Pittsburgh to hammer out a proposal on a revised contract for submission to the bankruptcy judge. Union sources say that the contract cuts will be much deeper than those proposed earlier this year with LTV.

A few weeks ago the bankruptcy judge approved a $15 million repair of one of the two blast furnaces at Bethlehem’s Burns Harbor plant.

The furnace was three years overdue for a major reline and when it was taken down for 40 hours last month, it failed to restart properly. It was then shut down cold and had a 20-foot hole cut in the side in order to clean it out and repair it for a restart. The huge blast furnace can put out 7,000 tons of iron a day when it is running.

This furnace failure has resulted in severe cutbacks in production across the plant. Layoffs and short workweeks are being scheduled through the beginning of next year, when repairs are anticipated to be complete.

However, what the state of the steel industry and economy will be at that point is in question. Some union representatives are saying that if the government doesn’t give Bethlehem and the other steel companies relief from retiree health-care costs, the companies will cease operations soon.

With rank-and-file steelworkers having little faith in the Bush administrations expressed desire to help save a basic industry, it looks like mass action by steelworkers may be the only way to pressure Congress to do something.

HR-808, which would limit imports and have tariffs cover the cost of retirees’ healthcare, and HR-1564, which would provide for a massive rebuilding of our nation’s infrastructure, are two bills currently before Congress that would help in the long term. However, the steel industry needs to be saved now with immediate relief in the form of a government takeover.

Private industry has run the industry aground and – just like the government rescues ships, communities and people in disasters – we need the government to rescue the steel industry. We can’t wait until the industry is gone. We have to act now.