Steelworkers fight for America's future

STEEL CITY SOLIDARITY CAMP – Steelworkers from LTV Steel Corporation took the fight to save their jobs, pensions and health-care benefits to Capitol Hill last week.

“This fight is for industrial America. It’s not just about us. It’s for our kids, our grandkids and our communities. This fight is about what’s right and what’s fair,” said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). “LTV is the poster child for everything that is wrong with America.”

The USWA built an emergency tent city – “Steel City Solidarity Camp” – in Silver Springs, Md. at the AFL-CIO’s George Meany Labor College. The camp, up from Dec. 12 through Dec. 21, housed the 300 steelworkers, retirees and their families who came from five states to flood the halls of Congress. They lobbied for Congressional support for an emergency government guaranteed loan of $250 million to save the jobs of 7,500 steelworkers and the pensions and health care of 60,000 retirees.

The laid-off steelworkers came amidst the backdrop of a Dec. 19 bankruptcy court deadline that will determine whether it is possible to keep the plants open or if the sale of the company’s assets will begin.

Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, both Ohio Democrats, rushed out of their offices to greet the busloads of steelworkers as they arrived for a briefing session to prepare for lobbying Dec. 13.

Tubbs Jones told the steelworkers their presence on Capitol Hill was critical to getting Congress to take action immediately.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), the son of a steelworker, told the hundreds gathered for a briefing, “Look them in the eyes and let them know how the closing will affect you.”

Tony Scott, a pipefitter at LTV’s Indiana Harbor blast furnace for 28 years, described the importance of people-powered politics.

“Showing our faces on Capitol Hill, on the TV, on the media makes a difference to [politicians] because it makes a difference to the public. If we get it out to the public, the politics won’t be played in favor of those who run this country.”

Two Cleveland banks – National City and Key Bank, N.A. – have agreed to offer a loan if it is guaranteed by the Emergency Steel Loan Guarantee Board, which was established by Congress in 1999 to back loans for the industry.

Their decision on the guarantee will determine whether or not the third-largest steel company will close, leaving families and communities stranded during one of the worst economic downturns of recent history.

The steelworkers visited hundreds of Congresspeople to ask them to sign onto a bipartisan letter initiated by Kucinich and Rep. Pete Visclosky (R-Ind.) asking the Emergency Steel Loan Guarantee Board to approve the loan. In one day, the steelworkers collected 90 signatures, with 220 more pending.

One of the chief lobbyists for the steel companies is Ed Gillespie, who was an advisor to the Bush campaign. The ultra-right, pro-corporate Bush administration keeps the steel companies’ class interests uppermost on their agenda. At its core, the LTV bankruptcy is part of a long-term struggle to save domestic steel production within the framework of the corporate-controlled global economy.

Whole communities face devastation if LTV closes. Rick Miller from LTV’s Cleveland Works told the World there were studies done the last time LTV went bankrupt. For every steel job lost, the studies showed, four to five other jobs were lost.

“The ripple effect is amazing and some communities never recover,” Miller said. “We went to Youngstown last week during the bankruptcy hearings and talking to people in the streets there – it’s a ghost town.”

Cleveland will face a major fiscal crisis. “LTV pays millions of dollars in property taxes, said Cleveland City Councilman Roosevelt Coats, “vital for paying for police, fire, education, public health and other vital functions of our local government.”

The loss of LTV’s property taxes, he said, would lead to layoffs, cutbacks and tax increases.

If LTV’s East Chicago plant is closed, Indiana will face the largest layoff in state history. Roberto Acosta, like his father and grandfather before him, works at Indiana Harbor in East Chicago.

“I’ve got 29-and-a-half years of service there and last week they laid me off. The management retired with millions of dollars in bonuses. We’re the ones who pay for it in the end,” he said. “I plan to do whatever it takes to win. I’ll sacrifice, come to DC, camp out to have us be heard.”

Not only will cities be affected, but rural communities as well, explained Jerry Fallos, president of USWA Local 4108 in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. “Right now there are 1,400 people out of work from LTV’s steel mining company on the Mesaba Range.” Layoffs, Fallos said, create an exodus of people leaving rural areas to look for jobs in cities.

Among the solutions offered by the steel industry are higher tariffs on imports, government takeover of retiree pensions and health plans, and consolidation of the steel industry through larger companies buying up others.

The USWA also supports many of those actions with a fight to maintain union contracts, jobs and retiree pensions and health benefits. But another idea is also being discussed. Some are talking about a form of public ownership – eminent domain – which means running the steel industry for the public welfare. (See story this edition: Steel industry should be publically owned.)

“We need to take the plants over and make steel,” said Danny Banyard, vice president of USWA Local 188 in Cleveland. “It could very well be the kind of industry that should be run by the government. If no one else wants to run this company, maybe the city of Cleveland could take it over.”

“I think it’s an interesting idea, eminent domain. I hadn’t heard it before,” said Miller. “If the trade laws were properly enforced, it could be very profitable for cities.”

It would be a way for them to insure that the jobs stay there and that the people continue to work and they receive their tax dollars, and possibly more, from the profits of the mill.”

“We’ve seen Pittsburgh and Youngstown die,” Miller said, “and when they do, there is a whole class of people who are left behind and forgotten.”

“Sisters and Brothers, we are going to fight like hell to keep these mills from being damaged any farther,” Gerard promised at the tent city’s opening night rally.

“If someone comes to take these mills from us and says, ‘We will take the mill if there is no union, no contract, no seniority, no retiree health benefits,’ I don’t give a damn if those gates are chained, you’ve got to get in those mills.”

The steelworkers’ struggle is not just their fight but also a rallying call for battles around jobs, public services for communities and the well-being of all working-class families. This struggle, and how to solve the crisis of the loss of industrial jobs, will have an impact on the 2002 and 2004 elections.

John Sweeney, president of the 14-million member AFL-CIO, spoke to the Dec. 14 rally outside the Commerce Department before the signed letter to the Emergency Steel Loan Guarantee Board was presented. Sweeney called the layoffs and bankruptcies a “national disgrace” and demanded that government leaders and institutions “stop looking the other way.”

After the rally, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka told the World, “We have to continuously expose what’s happening to the American public. I have an untapped reservoir of faith in the American people that when they know the truth and know what’s fair they won’t let a company like LTV get away with what they are trying to do.”