Steel Mills

USW Strike Talk Intensifying

Written by Sandy Williams

United Steelworkers are edging closer to strikes at U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal. Workers at both companies have voted overwhelmingly to authorize negotiators to call a strike after providing 48 hours notification.

“Time is running out. From day one, U.S. Steel has built a series of proposals to try to split our union by throwing sparkles and bonuses at active workers while trying to separate future hires and retirees from the herd and isolate them,” USW said in an update to members. “We’re going to keep trying for a few more days to be sure we’ve exhausted every chance to avoid a strike, but soon your local leadership will be back home to walk through the next steps with you.”

U.S. Steel is calling for a six-year contract that makes significant changes to health care, incentives and retirement while offering little in the way of higher wages that workers deferred in the last contract negotiations.

Wrote the USW in an update to members on Sept. 21: “Even the best salesman can’t argue with basic arithmetic. When you consider that we went the last three years without a wage increase and they are now proposing an additional six years, and then factor in their proposed premiums payment, the wage package is only worth about a 1.7 percent increase per year over that time. USS also likes to talk about its proposal to pay two $3,000 bonuses, but one of them is three years down the road, and they are coming at a time of strong profits, when the company should be willing to share that success with the workforce.”

ArcelorMittal is proposing a three-year contract that would install health care premiums for current workers while increasing deductibles and copays, as well as raising premiums for retirees. New hires would be forced into a “high deductible” health care plan. Other concessions would eliminate hot-rolled steel bonuses, cap vacation pay and terminate incentive payments for Labor Grade 1 employees. The USW says proposed wage increases would be wiped out by concessions in the proposal.

Local union leaders are preparing for a strike as negotiators continue to work toward a new contract.

“Your locals have a lot of work to do to be ready in the event the company leadership tries to bully their way through this agreement,” said the USW. “The top management at U.S. Steel is a stubborn and hardheaded bunch and they think they know what’s best for everyone. Particularly themselves, as they’ve demonstrated. 

“We are moving this agenda and we want to be absolutely certain we have to take that final step to strike before we do so. Patience is important at this point. We didn’t come looking for this fight, but we will damn sure win it if it’s forced upon us.”

Strike Could Threaten Midterm Elections

Just as President Trump is congratulating himself on a tariff victory for the steel industry, a strike by steelworkers at the two largest steel producers in the U.S. could disrupt production and threaten Republican success at the polls in November. A strike could possibly throw Republican labor votes to Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, said Adam Dean, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. 

“Why are steelworkers, after decades of lobbying for high tariffs, so unhappy now that Trump has answered their demands?” asked Dean in a Washington Post article. ”The answer is that profits from high steel tariffs aren’t being shared with steelworkers. The strike threat is the union’s effort to capture a share of those profits for workers.”

A precedent was set in the late 1800s when Republicans passed the McKinley tariff of 1890 and profits for steel mills soared. In 1892, seeking a share of those profits, union workers in the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (precursor to the United Steelworkers) were embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with Carnegie Steel Company (now U.S. Steel). The union was eventually locked out by the company and four striking union workers were killed by the Pennsylvania National Guard. The incident caused workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and New York to throw support to the Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in the election later that year.

“In 2016, Trump attracted working class support with the promise of trade protection. In 2018, a steel strike would demonstrate that high tariffs do not automatically increase workers’ wages,” wrote Dean. “Will workers disappointed with Republican tariffs vote for Democrats? If they do, it would be the second time that a steel strike changed the way that workers thought about trade policy and altered an American election.”

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