Steelworkers, top firms at odds as contract deadline approaches

PITTSBURGH –  Steelworkers and the nation’s top steel companies – U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal – are at odds in negotiations as the Sept. 1 deadline for a new contract approaches.

U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal have seized upon the current slump in steel product sales, especially steel pipe, to demand huge givebacks from the 30,000 employees whom the Steelworkers represent at those firms. The workers are holding fast against those demands.

The Steelworkers respond they are willing to be flexible in bargaining with the two firms, but that they will not agree to the huge health care givebacks, especially for retirees.

Health-care cost-shifting, from employers to workers, is the biggest hangup, but not the only one, with U.S. Steel, the union said.

“The company wants to turn back the clock on decades of contractual improvements and benefits for our members and their families,” the U.S. Steel bargaining committee, headed by union Vice President Tom Conway, reported on July 24. “U.S. Steel is attempting to use the current industry downturn to gut our contract and weaken our union.

U.S. Steel, the committee said, wants to charge monthly premiums for health care, impose annual deductibles of a minimum of $2,600 with out-of-pocket maximums for family health care of $13,100. It also wants to toss retirees off the medical plan “and force Medicare-eligible retirees to shop for their own supplemental coverage through a private exchange.”

Other U.S. Steel demands include lower vacation pay, an end to vacation bonuses, a cut in vacation eligibility and an increase in severance pay eligibility requirements. The firm also wants to strip union workers of bidding rights, normal schedules and of overtime pay after eight hours of daily work. A “full-time” day could be as little as four hours and a “full-time” workweek as little as 32.

U.S. Steel also wants to lengthen probation periods and get the right to choose union safety and health representatives. The union’s safety and health department is nationally known for the quality and comprehensiveness of its investigations and for its insistence that firms follow safety and health laws and union contracts.

“These proposals do nothing to address the current climate in the steel industry,” the bargainers said. “They are designed instead to take advantage of that climate to weaken our contract. We are going to need the strength and solidarity of ALL of our members to keep up our fight for a contract that is fair to the company and our active and retired members.”

Indian-owned ArcelorMittal’s comprehensive proposal had fewer details. But the Steelworkers reported Arcelor’s opening demands were “to slash our compensation and benefits.” The union countered initially with “a series of non-economic proposals aimed at improving our existing contract language on several issues.”

“The company brought in two more vendors to explain how their brokerages use the Medicare Exchange to provide benefits to retirees. After three presentations from three separate vendors, our committee is convinced only that the company’s drive to provide less medical coverage at a higher cost is a proposal that will not meet the needs of current or future USW retirees,” the ArcelorMittal bargaining committee, headed by Steelworkers District 1 Director David McCall, said.

“Thanks to decades of hard work and solidarity” by Steelworkers, “these are good jobs, the kind that support families and form the backbone of our communities,” union President Leo Gerard told USW@Work. “We are determined to make sure that does not change.”

Photo: USW Facebook page


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.