Merged union adopts grassroots action plan

LAS VEGAS — Perhaps more than any other union, the United Steelworkers of America has confronted head-on corporate liquidation, government betrayal, and outright attacks affecting hundreds of thousands of steelworkers. As the union’s 2,100 U.S. and Canadian delegates met here April 11-14 at its 32nd Constitutional Convention, it was obvious that having met this crisis, the union is changed. It’s larger and looking to expand and to sharpen rank and file mobilization.

Across the street from the steelworkers, delegates representing 260,000 members of PACE, the paper workers, oil, atomic, chemical and energy workers union, held a simultaneous convention. Delegates from both unions voted to merge. With 850,000 active members, the new union — the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, or the United Steelworkers (USW) for short — will be the largest industrial union in North America.

The union grew by 100,000 members since 2002, union President Leo Gerard reported to steelworker delegates, by signing up 42,000 new workers into the union and merging with the Flint Glass Workers, Canadian Industrial Wood and Allied Workers and a part of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way at CN Rail (in Canada).

Size matters when facing the rapacious assault by multinational corporations and the bellicose Bush administration. Equally important, Gerard said, is grassroots activism. During the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, over 4,600 steelworkers knocked on doors in battleground states. Building on the spirit of expanding rank and file activism in political struggle, delegates enacted a far-reaching “Building Power Action Plan” that has more workers lobbying, writing letters on issues, and running for elected office. Based on extensive experience on the picket lines and political campaigns, the Action Plan seeks to improve workers’ effectiveness to convince their neighbors and co-workers on issues like trade, civil rights and labor rights.

The Action Plan foresees larger and larger community coalitions building worker-neighbor support to restore power at the bargaining table against multinational corporations.

Gerard called for the delegates’ “commitment, energy and passion to make a different future possible.” He added, “The power to improve the lives of working people is in your hands. It’s in the hands of thousands who aren’t here but want to make a difference if we give them the tools.”

Tenacity and imagination are unique steelworker strengths. It took seven years on the picket line, but steelworkers at Colorado Fuel and Iron won their jobs back from scabs and the largest back pay settlement in history — $100 million.

Twelve years ago, 26 miners died in an explosion at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia. Vern Therriault, a steelworker organizer at the time, helped rescue miners. He received the Canadian government’s Medal of Bravery. Steelworkers didn’t stop there. In response to 12 years of lobbying and protesting, Canada’s Parliament finally passed a law that will mean jail time and big fines for owners of companies that ignore lethal working conditions. An unsafe workplace in Canada is now a criminal offense.

Steelworkers breathed life into solidarity when they managed to blunt the effects of the collapse and liquidation of LTV, Bethlehem and scores of other companies. The Steelworkers, said Gerard, is the first union ever to not only assist in the consolidation of a major industry, but restore a limited health care plan to retirees. Steelworkers also forced the new corporation, International Steel Group (ISG), to re-invest in new steel mill technology. Key to this historic achievement, Gerard continued, was the unity between active and retired steelworkers. “What should make us proudest of all is that not a single one of our active members ever voiced a word of protest” over the emphasis on saving retiree benefits in the wake of bankruptcy, he said.

The Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) held its 7th International Conference here April 9-10. In its largest gathering to date, 154 delegates, veteran steelworkers representing 70,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, set the policy for their organization. Delegates approved resolutions protesting the Iraq war, calling for national health care and re-invigorating the fight to save Social Security.