The lockout of more than 2,200 union workers by Allegheny Technologies Inc. was illegal, federal labor officials said Friday, setting the stage for proceedings that could push the two sides to resolve their contentious labor dispute.
The decision by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh followed complaints from the United Steelworkers union that the Downtown-based specialty steel maker acted in bad faith in trying to force the union to accept contract concessions that resulted in a stalemate.
The determination paves the way for a trial before an administrative law judge should the company and the union fail to negotiate a settlement over the unfair labor practice allegations, Jessica Kahanek, an NLRB spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Friday. But a labor expert said it could spur a return to the bargaining table.
“We are trying to facilitate to a settlement, but I can’t speak to the chances of a settlement happening,” Kahanek said.
The union filed charges with the NLRB in September, accusing ATI of unfair labor practices in contract negotiations that started in May and culminated in the Aug. 15 lockout. The union is seeking lost wages and benefits for its members since the beginning of the lockout and for the company to bargain a new contract in good faith.
“In all my years as a negotiator, I have never seen a company engage in such obvious bad-faith bargaining,” Tom Conway, the union’s international vice president and lead negotiator with ATI, said in a written statement. “We are delighted that the regional director agreed with us on every major point that we made.”
ATI spokesman Dan Greenfield said the determination “is not a final decision that any of the union’s allegations have legal or factual merit.”
“We have acted properly throughout these negotiations,” Greenfield said. “We look forward to presenting our evidence in the proper venues.”
Among the union’s allegations were that ATI refused to bargain in good faith and it used coercive tactics, including surveillance and threats, against employees of ATI’s Flat-Rolled Products’ plants in six states, including in Midland, Latrobe, Washington, Harrison, Gilpin and Vandergrift, who were locked out Aug. 15 after union negotiators rejected what the company said was its final offer.
Kahanek declined to specify which charges the NLRB’s regional office found to have merit, except for deciding that the lockout violated federal labor law. Further details will be available when the agency files its complaint, which may happen in early January, she said. A date has not been set for a trial before an administrative law judge.
The two sides have not talked since September, when they met with a federal mediator to try to end the standoff.
John Delaney, a labor expert and professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, said, “There really wasn’t a lot of pressure for the company to go back to the table, but this might create some.”
ATI’s Greenfield declined to comment beyond the company’s statement that it will challenge the complaint. Steelworkers spokesman R.J. Hufnagel could not be reached.
Talks between the union and ATI broke down in August after the company presented a “last, best and final” contract offer, which included concessions it was demanding from the union on health care benefits, outsourcing factory jobs and worker scheduling.
ATI has said it needs to reduce long-term employee costs to better compete in the global economy, where a flood of cheap imports, weak demand and falling steel prices have decimated steel company earnings. But the union has said ATI is using a temporary downturn in the steel industry to gut hard-won benefits.
ATI is operating many of the Flat-Rolled Products plants using temporary and salaried workers. The company announced last week it planned to idle plants in Midland and Gilpin next year, affecting nearly 600 workers, because of weakness in steel markets.
The company, which reported financial losses in the second and third quarters this year, said steel “prices have fallen throughout 2015 and are now at historic lows.”
About 75 Steelworkers were holding a rally Friday at the entrance to ATI’s Bagdad plant in Gilpin when the NLRB ruling was announced.
“I love it,” said Bud Stivers of Kittanning and a member of USW Local 1196 in Brackenridge. “They’re going to appeal it, but it means a lot. Hopefully it will get us our back pay, get them back to the table, and we can go back to do what we do best.”
Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or [email protected]. Staff writer Tom Yerace contributed to this report.