PITTSBURGH – The ink was hardly dry on President Bush’s executive order imposing a 30 percent tariff on imported steel for three years, when the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) announce dit was launching a campaign to restore and protect health care for 600,000 USWA retirees.

Speaking on behalf of the 750,000-member union, Vice President Leon Lynch framed the campaign in the atmosphere of crisis knifing the country’s industrial heartland.

“Today, National Steel company filed for bankruptcy, becoming the 32nd steel company to file bankruptcy during this current crisis. This filing offers ample evidence that the crisis in steel is far from over. For 600,000 retirees whose health care is at risk, it is anything but over,” Lynch told reporters.

“Today we are launching an unprecedented campaign of political activism to win protection of retiree health-care benefits … Within a short time, we will be introducing legislation that creates a trust that protects a significant portion of health benefits.”

Union Vice President Andrew (Lefty) Palm backed the call with grass-roots muscle.

Noting that the Feb. 28 rally of 30,000 was only planned three weeks in advance, Palm said, “We are going to do the same thing for this legislation. We are sure of one thing. There is going to be a bill. It is going to get to the president’s desk.”

Palm added, “It is a double hit. In the 1980s when the mills shut down, thousands of people lost their jobs because of imports. Now, [those same] people are losing their benefits because of imports and “it is just not fair.”

More than 220 members of the House of Representives have signed HR-808, legislation that is designed to address many issues with retiree health care a major provision.

“There is some light at the end of the tunnel for those who work in the steel mills today,” said International Secretary-Treasurer, James English.

“But there is no light as a result of yesterday’s decision for those hundreds of thousands of retirees of the steel industry who retired with health insurance they expected to keep it for the rest of their lives. But because of the unfair trade, because of the surge of imports over the last five years, that hope has been dashed.

“Many of them retired before they were eligible for Medicare and as a result of having their health insurance cut off, they don’t have any type of insurance. Even for those who have medicare they have lost the one thing retirees need most- coverage for prescription.”

English added that the healthcare legislation will “ help in the consolidation of our industry.”

A key element of the campaign is “leveling the playing field,” English said.

“Level the playing field because the companies in other countries do not have health insurance costs to deal with because that is taken care of by the government. So this will be an effort to allow us to compete.”

Companies in other countries do not have that overhead because their governments have universal, cradle-to-grave healthcare.

The USWA is not married to funding health care from the newly imposed tariffs, which only last three years. “Our preference would be for a trust fund to be established that would be funded from federal sources whether it be from the tariff or from any other way.” said English.

Steelworkers are not a special group, English pointed out. The USWA has supported universal health coverage since 1984.


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.