Struggle stops steel co. abatement

Workers Correspondence



LORAIN, Ohio – After a two-month struggle, the steel company RTI/REP pulled its demand for a 60 percent tax abatement from the city here. REP had demanded the abatement from this financially-strapped steel community, issuing veiled threats about what would happen if their demands weren’t met. The abatement fight had been marked by a series of meetings, packed with steelworkers and their supporters.

The Dec. 16 Lorain City Council voted not “to suspend the rules” effectively denying REP’s demand for an abatement.

At the council meeting, company representatives took a verbal beating from steelworkers and community audience members, as well as the council representatives. They were angry at the company’s illegal termination of disabled union members and at their arrogant refusal to negotiate with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) over the issue.

The day after the council meeting, REP spokesman John Willoughby withdrew the company request for the abatement, citing a “divisive atmosphere.” He stated that he “wasn’t certain whether we caused it, or not,” and REP “may need to take some time to create a better climate,” before again seeking an abatement from the city.

In August 2002, REP, a “new” company, took over from the bankrupt RTI. Yet REP had all the same bosses and management structure. The Bush administration stepped in at this time, and in an unprecedented action, ordered the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to seize the RTI pension plan just before the “change” in companies took place. The PBGC stole the pensions of over 2,000 RTI steelworkers who had worked over 10, but less than 30 years. Thousands of steel retirees lost their health care benefits. REP accepted no responsibility for the disaster.

Next, REP targeted over 300 older steelworkers with some type of disability and terminated them. These long-term steelworkers, many now crippled due to in-plant injuries, were thrown out to the streets without pensions or health care.

The USWA launched an all-out fight against these attacks, starting with a federal lawsuit against the PBGC for theft of the steel pensions. Hundreds of grievances were filed. Mass meetings were organized with representatives of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and hundreds of charges filed. National Labor Relations Board charges were filed, as well. Mass protest meetings and rallies were organized, demanding the company hire the workers and take care of retiree’s health care.

Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) issued legislation calling for the federal government to pass the retiree health care. Republicans have blocked its passage. Resolutions were passed by Lorain County Commissioners, and by both Lorain and Elyria City Councils demanding that the PBGC pay the steelworkers’ pensions and that REP hire the “terminated” workers and pay for the worker’s health care. If they didn’t, REP couldn’t expect public aid, the resolutions stated.

REP went to the Lorain City Council in November, demanding a 60 percent tax abatement. At a loud, emotionally-charged meeting packed with steelworkers, their families and supporters, the Council voted to send the company request to committee for 30 days, during which time REP was instructed to “negotiate differences with the union over the terminations and numbers working.”

Instead of negotiating, however, REP sent another, “new” request to the council, this time demanding “only” a 50 percent abatement.

Before the next City Council meeting, Brown organized a labor/community hearing where he, along with Prof. Chris Howell from nearby Oberlin College and Rev. David Lane comprised a panel that heard testimony from workers about how the recent changes had impacted them and their families. Hundreds spoke. The majority of the City Council was there.

Gary Schmitz, a 26-year steelworker, told of being burned over 50 percent of his body, having to undergo over 30 operations, and then being thrown out without health care by REP. Rochelle Komlosi, a young mother, cried when she told how she’d been fired after the company learned of her pregnancy. A former boss, Jim Martin, testified that he was in meetings where top RTI/REP officials developed a plan to “get rid of the walking wounded.”

After hearing these testimonies, the City Council refused REP’s rebate request.

The author can be reached at gbruce@eshores.com