RTI steelworkers won a major victory when Judge Peter Economus ruled Sept. 30 that the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the federal agency set up to protect worker’s pensions, illegally refused to pay pensions when RTI shut down.

“This ruling just gives those workers some small bit of the justice that they deserve,” Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said.

The decision culminates a 15-month battle. RTI had been operating for over a year in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Under the existing labor agreement, workers who had 20-30 years of service would receive immediate pensions (termed “shutdown benefits”) if the company shut down. The PBGC had done just that at nearby LTV Steel in Cleveland when that company faced the same situation.

All that changed, however, when President George Bush fired the director of the PBGC and appointed right-wing ideologue Steven Kandarian to head the agency.

When RTI shut down in August 2002, Kandarian’s first official act struck steelworkers, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New York and Hamilton, Ontario, like a terrorist blast. Instead of receiving the pensions that their contract guaranteed them, the PBGC declared June 2002 the “official” shutdown date. This action was unprecedented, taken only to deny pensions to workers with between 20-30 years’ service.

The USWA launched a campaign to fight for the workers’ pension rights. A lawsuit was filed against the theft of the workers’ pensions. A series of local rallies was organized, culminating in an angry demonstration of 1,000 steelworkers at the federal courthouse in Youngstown, Ohio, when the lawsuit was introduced. That demonstration included hundreds of motorcyclists who roared around the courthouse, stopping all traffic.

Hundreds of resolutions were passed by city councils supporting the workers, and local representatives sent letters to the PBGC demanding the workers’ pensions be paid. Members of Congress organized hearings to support the workers.

The court’s ruling finally answered the workers’ call for justice. “The judge ruled that our members’ strong reliance on the shutdown benefits that were due them outweighed the PBGC’s bottom line,” Steelworkers attorney David Jury said.

It has been an extremely difficult 15 months for the RTI workers. Five RTI workers committed suicide after the PBGC stole their pensions. The first worker to do so, Jay Schoeder, had 29 years of service. He was the brother of the Schoeder boy who had been killed by the National Guard at Kent State in 1969.

Auggie Waldron, 28-year steelworker, fell dead in October 2002 after reading his mail, which stated the company was cutting off his medical benefits. He had been slated to testify at a special hearing with Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Gary Schmitz, Lorain steelworker who was burned over 60 percent of his body in a blast furnace explosion, and then had his pension and medical benefits stolen, was happy for the victory, but cautious. “I just don’t get excited anymore,” he said, “I’ve been screwed too much. I know this is a victory and I’m happy, but I don’t trust the courts. The main thing is we’ve got to get rid of Bush!”

“I’m extremely happy. Just tickled pink,” said Dash Sokol, president of USWA Local 1104 in Lorain, Ohio. “Our members have had a long fight. It’s just great to win round one.”

The joy is tempered with concern, since the PBGC, an arm of the Bush administration, has already stated that it intends to appeal the decision. “Still, it’s a big victory,” said Jim King, a 28-year Lorain steelworker. “This shows that workers fighting for a just cause can win, even in this negative political climate.”

Local papers in the steel towns were reporting that an appeal could take another year and a half to reach resolution, making the issue of pension rights a major issue in the upcoming presidential election. “What really angers me,” said Patti Reich, 26-year steelworker from Canton, Ohio, “is that Bush wants $87 billion for his war in Iraq while we starve here. Most of us are running out of all benefits and those pensions are ours, not his. We have to fight to get him out.”

“Our commitment to our members remains the same,” said Dave McCall, Director of Steelworkers District 1, “We’ll see this fight through to final victory!”

The author, a steelworker who had 29 years, 11 months service when the PBGC stole his and others’ pensions, is now working for the USWA on special projects. He can be reached at bruce@admiral.cc