Steelworkers to Congress: protect health care

PITTSBURGH – Over 85,000 retired LTV steelworkers and their families are facing the unthinkable: living without their earned and union-negotiated health care coverage. Despite the fact the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) has lobbied since 1997 for industry trade relief, mobilized 30,000 of their members and retirees to march on the White House and poured tons of handwritten letters into congressional and presidential mail sacks, prescription drug coverage or the total health package will end for 85,000 LTV retirees on March 31.

Though steelworkers at LTV are the first in the barrel, they are not the only ones facing such a situation. The same fate is awaiting workers at Bethlehem and National. In fact, hundreds of thousands of working families and their communities, devastated by the bankruptcy of 32 steel companies, which represent 30 percent of U.S. steelmaking capacity, are in line for the loss of such coverage.

Of the 32 companies, 21 are completely closed, with a loss of 19 percent of capacity. Currently, only the U.S. and Canada do not make enough steel to provide for their home markets.

LTV ran into court and ran out on generations of workers, who built the company. Only the USWA organized meetings, bringing in private insurance companies to attempt to plug the life-and-death gap.

Thousands of LTV retirees flowed out into the streets of Pittsburgh and Beaver County (Aliquippa) to get information and cobble together stop-gap health coverage. The single biggest burden is prescription drug coverage, which is not included in Medicare. Already LTV retirees have seen their pension checks slashed, through the years of crisis in the domestic industry.

On March 14, before a Senate Committee hearing on the steel industry crisis, Jerry Fallos, president of Local 4108 of the USWA, representing 3,500 former LTV Steel Mining Company employees, pleaded with federal officials: “Although there are 3,500 former employees, if you take into account spouses and dependents it brings this total to over 10,000 people just on the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. If you add in all the people affected by LTV across the country, that number would swell to well over 200,000 people who are all of a sudden out of health insurance.”

Fallos told the committee about a couple that visted his office a few days before. “He had retired 22 years ago and just couldn’t understand how LTV could just stop paying for his insurance supplement when he had worked for them for 37 years and that was part of the agreement,” Fallos said. “His pension, along with social security, is $860.00 a month. A supplement for prescriptions, and other things Medicare won’t cover, will cost him over $600.00 a month. $250.00 a month isn’t much to live on ... It affects everyone, the young, the middle aged, and the old.”

“Michael is 47 years old; his wife, Renee, is now on oxygen while waiting for a lung transplant. COBRA will cost him over $900.00 a month, exactly what his pension will be, after getting slashed by the PBGC,” Fallos said. “Wayne has four teenage daughters; he is a full-time student and earns about $400.00 a week on unemployment. Just enough to disqualify him for any assistance for health insurance. He prays every night they stay healthy until he can finish school and find a job.”

At the Aliquippa health coverage meeting, organized by the USWA and the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), the steelworkers filled all 800 chairs and the standing room capacity of 200, and another estimated 2,000 stood outside the hall. From the floor, steelworkers demanded national health care. In Pittsburgh, the LTV health care meeting filled a 1,000-capacity VFW Hall and halted traffic on a main street.

As we go to press, no federal legislation has been introduced, although there are promises.

USWA/SOAR is busy at the state and federal level. They are active in the Western Pennsylvania Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Health Care. On April 14, USWA president Leo Gerard will join Dr. Quentin Young, former president of the American Public Health Association, for a public forum on universal health care at the USWA headquarters in Pittsburgh.