PITTSBURGH – For steelworkers, 1949 was the year their union struck for pensions and health care. The strike shut down the entire metal-working industry, including aluminum and can. Over half a million members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) walked the picket lines carrying signs that read, “Too old to work. Too young to die. We want pensions.”

Kaiser and American Can settled first, followed by Bethlehem Steel. On October 31, 1949, 45 days into the strike, US Steel settled. But like anything else with corporations, it wasn’t over.

Now, pensions and health care are “legacy costs,” not defined benefits steelworkers earned and fought for. At least 34 companies are looking to trash them through bankruptcy court action or just shutting down and walking away.

In February, 35,000 steelworkers rallied in Washington to demand high tariffs on imported steel, with the money to be used to pay health care for 600,000 USWA retirees. George W. Bush implemented the first half, the tariffs.

In February, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and a bevy of members from the House and Senate, paraded across the stage in front of steelworkers promising support. By July, there was no movement on any of the legislation that would provide health care and protect steelworker pensions.

Lorain steelworkers, members of USWA Local 1104, once the largest local union in Ohio, are fighting to defend their pensions. In an unprecedented move, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Trust Corporation (PBGC) – a strange, quasi-government creature that administers pensions of bankrupt companies – took over the pensions of steelworkers and proceeded to slash benefits owed. The USWA is in court fighting the PBGC, defending steelworkers’ earned pensions.

The USWA and steelworkers have looked the wolf in the eye before. Steelworkers camped in tents at the Meany Center outside Washington, lobbying Congress for passage of legislation that would provide medical coverage for families and demanding Congress protect their pensions.

LTV steelworkers marched and rallied from Cleveland to Youngstown, pressuring the bankruptcy court to use funds in the VEBA, a rainy day fund negotiated by the union to pay health costs, for pay for families’ health, life and death needs. They forced the court to honor the union contract and pay health insurance until March 31.

Then there was the historic movement in Ohio and Indiana, where steelworkers petitioned their local governments to take over the corporation’s closed mills. Indiana Harbor and the Cleveland Works are open today, making steel because of their efforts. In Cleveland, an AFL-CIO-supported city government heard the steelworker’s demands and not only barred police from interference at the mills, but took steps to take the mills. ISG ended up buying the plants.

It is clear that steelworkers want to make steel, feed their families and leave a legacy of dignity for their children. It is clear that the companies want to make profits. The Bush administration offers political gamesmanship, a smile in the face and a knife in the back.

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.