USWA threatens strike for benefits

PITTSBURGH – Steelworkers at National Steel voted April 11 to strike to save their union, pensions, and health care if a bankruptcy court voids their collective bargaining agreement and pension benefits. The threat came as AK (Armco Kawasaki Steel Corporation) made its bid to take over the bankrupt steel corporation, contingent on the court voiding the tentative agreement reached April 9 by the steelworkers union (USWA) and National and US Steel Corporations. The ruling sought by AK would rob 100,000 retired steelworkers of their pensions and health care.

The 6,800 USWA members employed by National in Michigan and Indiana, unanimously approved a strike resolution, stating, “In the event that the bankruptcy court rejects our labor agreements … we will immediately exercise our right to withhold our labor.“

In an unprecedented crisis, in which 34 companies have filed for bankruptcy since 1997 and where corporation executives and bankruptcy lawyers are getting richer by the minute, the USWA has organized mass demonstrations, lobbied, resorted to eminent domain legislation in Cleveland and camped out in Washington D.C. to defend the living standards of hundreds of thousands of families and communities across the country. Thousands of steelworkers and retirees have had their pensions stolen and health care stripped away as a result of bankruptcies.

Now, steelworkers at National Steel are preparing to bank furnaces and ‘shut it down’ if Bankruptcy Judge John H. Squires, in Chicago, awards ownership of National Steel to AK Steel. A decision is expected on April 21.

The union’s ‘corporate strategy’ extends to National’s creditors. “We’re in the process of contacting National Steel’s lenders and creditors to inform them of severe consequences if National’s executives pander to AK Steel’s inability to negotiate a modern, progressive labor agreement,” said USWA President Leo Gerard.

In 1999, AK locked out steelworkers in Mansfield, Ohio, to break the union. The corporation failed and steelworkers are back at work under a union contract after a three-year struggle.

The April 9 tentative agreement had been reached with US Steel and National. US Steel is the other bidder for National Steel, and their offer is also on the table before Judge Squires. The agreement protects retiree pensions and health care at US Steel and enhances those benefits for National retirees, reduces the number of bosses to improve productivity, offers the highest wages in the industry and transfers more workplace control from foremen to steelworkers

The tentative contract cracks down on company contracting out of union work. “We’re not saving these plants for the damned contractors,” said union chief negotiator Tom Conway. US Steel has a hundred-year history of top-heavy management, where often there is one boss for every two workers. The agreement sets that ratio at one boss for every four workers.

The new contract binds US Steel to continue making steel and using raw materials and transportation in North America. In 2000, the corporation began buying up steel mills in the Slovak Republic and is now the largest private owner of steel facilities in Central Europe. Like previous union contracts, it forces a commitment from US Steel to invest and continue to modernize the mills. US Steel employs 13,000 workers.

Details of the new contract are on their way to the membership for discussion and ratification.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com