Steel Mills

ATI Workers Continue to Endure Lockout

Written by Sandy Williams

Union workers at Allegheny Technologies have been locked out of the company for more than four months after balking at concessions in the company’s final proposal.

The lockout was an insult to USW workers who agreed to earlier concessions to bring a $1.2 billion steel rolling mill to Brackenridge, Pa.

The mill was considered vital to the economic health of the Pennsylvania region.

“We knew we had to bring it here, no matter what, not just for us, but for the community and for future workers,” said Allegheny Ludlum/Safety, Health & Environmental Coordinator Terry Davidek, Local 1996 president from 1994 to 2000, in the Spring 2013 issue of USW@Work.

The USW and ATI began talks in in 2006 regarding consolidating a meltshop in Natrona, Pa., into the Brackenridge facility.

“So, that was the big key to it – if we were able to make an agreement to consolidate the two mills,” said Walt Hill, president of Local 1196 from 2006 to 2009. “That’s when we got into major discussions about building the new hot mill in Brackenridge.”

The new mill was expected to generate 1400 manufacturing jobs with more in the future.

“We knew this was a project not to be taken lightly. It was a 50- or 60- year commitment from the company to stay in Brackenridge,” said Walt Hill, current grievance committee chair and. “The negotiating committee and the executive board were completely focused on what needed to be done.”

In 2008, an agreement was reached that the mill would be built in Brackenridge. As part of the deal, workers agreed to concessions that would make the work force more flexible in the future.

“I’m a third generation steelworker at Brackenridge,” Hill said. “I can tell you I thought a lot about what the men fought for over 70 years. That was always in the back of my mind.”

Workers were shifted to new jobs and trained in the computer technology planned for the new mill. The changes were not popular with the entire workforce but most agreed getting the mill was a coup for the community and for job security.

“Some people would much rather have the old rules than the new rules,’’ Hill said. “But you’ve got to deal with the world market today. I mean, you could hang onto an agreement and shut the plant down. We didn’t want to go there.”

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse interviewed workers who made those concessions in an article published Dec. 3, 2015. Workers told Greenhouse that they worked 12 hour shifts six days a week to prepare for opening of the mill only to be locked out after being asked to make even more concessions in the latest contract negotiations.

“This is our reward for putting in all this overtime to help open the new mill?” asked ATI maintenance mechanic, Chris Cummings. “I do think it’s absolutely necessary for the company to stay competitive. But they’re asking too much.”

ATI maintains that worker pay and benefits are more than the company’s competitors and concessions are necessary for survival of the business in the global market. Dan Greenfield, ATI vice president for investor relations, estimated average ATI steelworker wages in 2014 at $94,000 (including incentive pay and benefits). In Greenhouse’s article, Todd Barbieaux, an overhead crane operator at ATI, disputed that estimate:

“In reality we’re $60,000-a-year guys,” he said, even when incentive pay and Sunday differential are added to the steelworkers’ base wage of $24.99 an hour. With the push to build the new mill, he made over $100,000 last year only because of “a lot of 80-hour weeks, with more than 600 hours overtime.” But that’s not normal, he said. “You’re working one and a half years in a year.”

Steelworkers at ATI have worked with management to entreat the government to address unfairly traded steel imports from China but say ATI is using a cyclic change in market conditions to force wage and benefit cuts on workers.

The company’s flat rolled products division has lost money in 10 of the last 11 quarters, a situation that the USW agrees is not sustainable but that will not be solved by wage, health and pension cuts.

USW International Vice President Tom Conway, who supported ATI’s development of Brackenridge, appeared on radio show NPR-On Point with Greenhouse to discuss the labor negotiations at ATI.

“No one denies that we have a lot of pressure here from China, but their demands would reach into three decades from now,” said Conway “They’ve just sort of got this in their head that ‘We now have this opportunity, we can’t let this crisis go unused, we’re going to blame it all on China and chase these wages down.’”

ATI union wages have been flat in the past years while CEO wages have gone up—not unnoticed by the rank and file worker. CEO Richard Harshman’s pay increased by 70 percent in 2014, going from $4.7 million per year to $8 million. Workers want to know how the company can ask for deep wage concessions when at the same time inflating salaries of management.

Conway said a “greedy boss is running the company.”

“We’re at a point where things need to come to some common sense,” Conway said. “These are people who work very hard, very, very long hours, week after week without a break, don’t see their families. And to think that he’s providing them something out of the goodness of his heart is just an arrogance that is unbelievable.”

The USW is challenging the lockout in court, claiming it is illegal. If the court sides with the union, the company would be forced to pay back wages to all workers that have been locked out. Whether the union strategy, will work, or force a compromise by the company, is unclear.

Conway believes the union will eventually prevail.

“Frankly, we’re going to win this thing. If the company thinks they’re going to break these people by treating them this way, they’re just mistaken.”

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