If there are any dinosaurs as the U.S. economy limps into the 21st century, it is its structure, the manufacturing foundation of the U.S. economy.

The collapse of the domestic steel industry – 29 companies in bankruptcy, 12 of which bailed out in golden parachutes and padlocked the gates forever – can be the most devastating economic crisis in 20 years.

Data processors in Arizona, as well as steel processors in Ohio are already sensing the impact, immediate and delayed, of lay-offs and declining health-care coverage.

In December, thousands of LTV steelworkers, their families and elected officials, led by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), took to the streets of Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, demanding “Let’s make steel!”

This bought crucial time for their jobs, retiree health care and their cities and communities. They pounded tent stakes into the ground near Washington and pounded the halls of Congress for federal intervention.

They are not alone. A recent survey by Jan van Lohuizen, one of President Bush’s most trusted pollsters, found overwhelming public support for a domestic steel industry and retiree health care.

Of the surveyed voters from across the country – not necessarily steelworkers, union members or Rust Bowl residents – 93 percent told van Lohuizen that steel production is either “very important” (53 percent) or “somewhat important” (40 percent) to the national economy.

Voters, by a 68 percent margin, believe that we need legislation that would make it easier to fight illegal steel dumping by foreign corporations.

Finally, the survey found that 74 percent of voters, nationally, favor “the federal government help protect the financial health of steel worker retirement and health care programs.” The survey was conducted in June 2001.

In a Jan. 15 letter to Congress, USWA President Leo Gerard pointed out that the American people are concerned about steel production and retiree health care.

“There is no reason, therefore, why the workers and retirees victimized by these predatory (trading) practices should not be granted federal relief,” wrote Gerard, who represents 750,000 active manufacturing (steel, rubber, aluminum, glass, brick and others) workers and 600,000 retirees.

“The public clearly understands and agrees with such a reasonable and humane approach.”

The U.S. only produces 80 percent of its domestic steel consumption from cars to computers to military hardware. The other 20 percent has to be imported because U.S. steel corporations bulldozed the mills and transferred steel production, beginning with the latest technology, to other countries.

Consolidation of the domestic steel industry is on the national agenda, with the USWA at the table. The U.S. Steel Corporation, a major backer of the Bush candidacy and administration, proposes to spearhead an even smaller domestic industry, shedding more jobs and facilities.

The USWA is aggressively protecting contracts. While saying that it supports consolidation of domestic steel production, the Bush administration is stalling trade relief until March.

The USWA has told its members and elected officials, that federal action over the next six months will determine what consolidation will look like.

Based on events of December 2001, united action with steelworkers as the catalyst on trade, health care, jobs and continued operation of the mills is decisive.

If steelworkers had stayed home in December, tens of thousands of families would have been added to the millions without health care. Period.

LTV steelworkers bought precious time and saved the contract, at least until Feb. 28, but this is not a solution. Steelworkers are decisive players in shaping the future of steel production.

The USWA recognizes that health care is a key element to the future of steel making.

In a press release Jan. 16, Gerard stated, “Government support for the payment of health care benefits for all steel industry retirees – especially those older retirees and widows living on meager fixed pensions – must be a part of any legislation designed to pave the way for consolidation of the American steel industry.”

Positions have changed since the consolidation debate began.

On Jan. 15, Nucor, the second largest steel company in the U.S. and non-union, joined with U.S. Steel, the largest corporation with workers in the USWA, to issue a joint statement supporting maximum tariffs on imported steel and federal action to protect retiree health care.

Nucor had opposed proposals for the federal protections of retiree health care.

Denise Winebrenner Edwards is a borough councilmember in Wilkinsburg, Pa. and a former steelworker.


Conn Hallinan
Conn Hallinan

The late Conn Hallinan was 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.