PITTSBURGH – On Sept. 20, two-and-a-half years before contracts covering hundreds of thousands of active and retired steelworkers expire, local union officers who are members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Basic Steel Industry Conference (BSIC) met and produced a position paper in which they outlined an innovative approach to the 35 steel companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent years.

At stake is whether or not steel will continue to be produced in the United States, the wages paid steelworkers, the level of health care they enjoy, job safety, retiree living standards and, in the purest sense of the term, the survival of many communities.

The document, which sets the parameters for the next round of collective bargaining, was agreed to by an overwhelming margin.

Timing is crucial because the tariffs on steel products, which have affected an estimated 7 percent of imported products, expire at about the time USWA contracts expire in 2004. “Our union has played a crucial role in galvanizing the industry-wide support that was key to winning tariff relief,” USWA International President Leo Gerard said. “Now it’s essential that we take the lead in creating the kind of innovations in work rules, corporate governance and benefits that will insure that our members and retirees don’t become targets of a simplistic ‘lean and mean’ approach to solving the financial wreckage caused by unfair trade.”

The eight principles that will guide the union in the 2004 negotiations include: A recognition that steel companies, be they bankrupt or not, require restructuring, but that means fewer supervisory employees in a situation where the foreman-to-worker ratio is one to four. That the industry recognize the need to maintain present wages and benefits; increased union involvement in training, safety, civil rights, and other areas of operations; if a company reports a profit, steelworkers share that success; company commitment to re-invest in the mills and restrictions on owners and managers lining their pockets at union members’ expense; and, until the government bears the obligation of health care, that the companies pay the cost of health care for active and retired steelworkers.

“Our union has never been content to leave our fate in the hands of others,” Gerard said. “And now more than ever, we must step forward and provide the industry with the leadership it so desperately needs.”

Union officials pointed to the fact that the $14.5 million that Thomas Usher, president of US Steel, pocketed in one year is greater than the budget of many communities across the country.

Solidarity and leadership is the hammer the union wields to turn this framework into reality. At their August convention, 2,500 delegates approved changes in the by-laws to strengthen the strike and defense fund. Throughout the Midwest, steelworkers, their families and supporters are rallying at the gates and on the steps of federal court houses, demanding their existing contracts be honored.

The BSIC statement noted that the Bush administration has consistantly opposed legislation to have the federal government take over the health costs of 600,000 retirees. Already, 125,000 steelworker families have lost their health care due to 17 companies liquidating their assets in bankruptcy court.

The next round of negotiations is but one area where steelworkers are involved in struggles. The union is up to its neck in the 2002 elections with phone banking, voter registration, member-to-member mobilization. In Pennsylvania, steelworker leader Ed O’Brien is running hard for the House of Representatives.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com



Conn Hallinan
Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. A retired journalism professor, he previously was an editor of People's World when it was a West Coast publication.