Members of the United Steelworkers (USW) on September 1 staged solidarity rallies in six states in response to Big Steel’s threats to undermine the future of steelworkers, their families, and their communities.
Thanks to 75 years of union struggles, work in the nation’s steel mills can provide a decent living. The benefits of these good jobs spill over into the communities where union members live.
But the nation’s two biggest steel companies, US Steel and Arcelor Mittal, are taking a hard line as the union and the two companies negotiate new collective bargaining agreements. The companies want the workers to agree to major concessions.
Union contracts have expired at both companies, but steelworkers continue to work while bargaining continues.
Another company, Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI), one of the largest producers of specialty steel and other specialty metal products, has gone one step further by locking out its 2,200 union workers at eleven plants in six states.
The lockout began on August 15 after ATI workers refused to accept concession demands from the company that included take-home pay cuts, benefit cuts, more outsourcing, and more forced overtime.
On top of that, ATI wants to deprive future steelworkers of hard-won gains that steelworker solidarity has achieved.
If ATI, which reported $4.2 billion in revenue for 2014, succeeds in imposing its concession demands, it’s hard to imagine that US Steel and Arcelor Mittal wouldn’t want to do the same.
“This is a fight not just for active steelworkers or retirees,” said Dave McCall, USW District 1 director at the September 1 rally in Pittsburg. “It’s a fight for the future.”
To emphasize his point that the future of the next generation of steelworkers is at stake, McCall paused before concluding his statement then as he spoke, held up the young daughter of a nearby union member for all to see.
Among other things, ATI wants union members to accept higher health care costs, no pay raises, the company’s complete control over scheduling and overtime, and an end to bonus payments. (The bonus payments would be replaced by a one-time $1 an hour raise that wouldn’t apply to new hires.)
The company also wants the authority to implement further health care cuts in order to avoid paying the Affordable Care Act excise tax.
Additionally, ATI wants to end its defined benefit pension and its health insurance plan for new hires.
The pension would be replaced by a 401(k) savings plan and the health care insurance would be replaced by a health savings account plan, which among other things requires beneficiaries to pay excessively high deductibles.
New hires also won’t be eligible for the lump sum payments that the company is offering in lieu of a pay raise.
In addition to locking out its union workers, ATI has hired replacement workers to keep its plants from shutting down during the lockout.
ATI, US Steel, and Arcelor Mittal are using a temporary downturn in steel prices as an excuse to demand long-term concessions from their workers.
Like other commodities, the price of steel and other metals produced by these companies fluctuates.
Currently, steel prices are down because of world-wide over production, which has caused a glut on the market.
This glut is primarily due to the economic downturn in China, which has reduced internal demand for steel and other metals in that country and caused China to sell its excess steel on the global market.
Another factor is the drop in oil prices, which has lowered the industry’s demand for steel used in drilling and exploration.
But the current glut won’t persist. According to CAPX, a publication of the Center for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite policy and research center in the UK,
In the long term, commodity prices will recover. The majority of the world’s population lives in countries which have not industrialized, and it won’t be long until they do. Hundreds of megacities around the world are taking shape, and all of these will be hungry for steel, copper and oil.
When the price of steel rises, ATI and the other steel companies will be making big profits again, but if they succeed in forcing their workers to accept their concessions, their workers won’t share in the company’s prosperity.
It won’t just be the workers who suffer. The communities where the workers live and spend their money will also suffer.
One of these communities is Brackenridge, Pennsylvania where one of the ATI plants is located.
Brackenridge has already begun to feel the effects of the lockout.
One Brackenridge business owner Matt Struhar, who runs Maddio’s Pizza and Subs, saw his business drop off by 40 percent after the lockout began.
He posted a Facebook message urging others in the community to support the locked out workers.
The message of support generated a strong outpouring of support for Struhar’s business especially from union members.
To show appreciation for Struhar and his message, one group of union workers drove all the way from Indiana to buy food at Struhar’s restaurant.
The response he received confirmed to Sturhar that supporting the locked out workers was the right thing to do.
“It’s shown me that we really are in this together,” said Struhar in an email message. “We really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I hope ATI realizes this and ends this unfair lockout soon so we can all get back to work for our community’s sake, and for every community in America that’s depending on good, union jobs.