Steelworkers and teachers: Two unions, one struggle

GARY, Ind. — “When we say ‘justice for all,'” says Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, “we mean fair wages.” And good health care, she adds. And safe working conditions.

Chances are, she doesn’t need to explain what the Pledge of Allegiance means at a United Steelworkers’ rally in Gary, Indiana. The crowd carries American flags next to “Fair Contract Now” placards in USW blue and yellow. But workers are nodding in agreement, and she continues:

“We’re very clear that this company created this city, but they didn’t do it in a boardroom. They did it on the backs of the workers that walked through those gates.”

The crowd of 3000 steelworkers and allies gathered near U.S. Steel’s Gary Works to protest a contract proposal that compromises worker safety, restricts collective bargaining rights, and slashes employee and retiree benefits. The rally was one of a series of demonstrations around the country as USW negotiates contracts with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal.

The mayor’s message of fair play, justice, and respect for workers also spoke to my union, the Chicago Teachers Union. We’re in contract negotiations, too. The Board of Education insists on a seven percent pay cut and an increased contribution to health insurance, and refuses to negotiate on issues like class size and workplace sanitation, which directly impact children’s learning.

Times are tough, says Chicago Public Schools. Years of “pension holidays,” refusal to renegotiate interest rates with Bank of America, and failure to seek new sources of revenue have left the district in the red, with its debt listed at junk status by three major ratings agencies.

In other words: To keep the banks happy, public schools have to tighten their belts. Never mind that the district doles out lavish funding to non-union charter schools and shady, politically connected consulting firms.

Times are hard, says the steel industry. Global overcapacity drives down prices, and a strong U.S. dollar makes imported steel more competitive. Fixed costs like pensions – which have to be paid regardless of production levels – interfere with the ability to make money for shareholders.

In other words: To make money for the shareholders, workers have to go without. Never mind that 2014 was U.S. Steel’s most profitable year since 2008.

But times are hard for workers, too, says Valerie Tucker, who works in water treatment at Gary Works’ number 2 caster. “We depend on our wages to survive.”

Frank E. Williams knows that story. He started work at National Steel in 1976 and he’d like to be retired now. When National Steel went bankrupt in 2003, though, his pension got wiped out. Until he can collect Social Security to round things out, Frank will keep working at Gary Works, scheduling steel processing. He’s angry about a deal where corporate executives protect their benefits and pass the pain on to workers.

Like Valerie and Frank, the teachers, students, and communities of Chicago Public Schools are trying to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. On Wednesday, the Board of Education voted to authorize a budget that leaves teaching positions unfilled and cuts special education services. This attack comes in the wake of deep cuts in last year’s move to “student-based budgeting” and the closure of 50 neighborhood elementary schools in 2013.

Funding for the budget falls $480 million short, and CPS is calling on Springfield to make up the difference – a move to enlist the anti-labor Rauner administration in pressuring the Chicago Teachers Union to accept a disgraceful contract.

These stories exemplify the corporate attack on working people. Banks, shareholders, executives all get their share, and workers, communities, and taxpayers are left to foot the bill. “They’re trying to take us back to 1953,” says Christie Shaffer, a quality tester at U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant. “They want to take away everything we worked for.”

For teachers and for steelworkers, it comes down to “shared sacrifice” that’s only ever shared among the people who have the least to sacrifice.

In the face of the corporate onslaught, workers are prepared to stand up for their rights, as they have many times before. “I’m not going to give up like this,” says third-generation steelworker Eric Bliss, who attended the rally with his family.

Beatrice Lumpkin agrees. She’s been a steelworker and a teacher and remains active as a retiree in both USW and CTU. “Yes, teachers and steelworkers are both facing employers who won’t negotiate with the union in good faith,” she says. “But we are fighting back and we’re both going to win!”

Photo: USW Local 1066s Facebook post.




Scott Hiley
Scott Hiley

Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels. He is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in People’s World (U.S.),  Morning Star (UK), and l’Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.