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Potential for steelworker strike looms as remaining locals cast authorization vote | TribLIVE.com
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Potential for steelworker strike looms as remaining locals cast authorization vote

Jamie Martines
| Friday, September 7, 2018 5:30 p.m.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Unionized steelworkers and allies rally outside of Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa., on Aug. 30, 2018.

Members of the United Steelworkers union who work at U.S. Steel Corp. plants in Indiana voted overwhelmingly Friday to give their leadership the authorization to call a strike during the current contract negotiations, the Pittsburgh-based union said.

The steelworkers at each U.S. Steel plant voted to authorize a strike against the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker in what the USW said was “a massive show of solidarity, with huge turnouts across the country.”

“Every meeting so far has resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote, many of them unanimous,” USW spokesman R.J. Hufnagel said, referring to votes taken by union members throughout the country this week.

Steelworkers at the Mon Valley Works — Edgar Thomson in Braddock and the Irvin plant in West Mifflin and the Clairton plant — voted Wednesday and Thursday to give the union permission to call a strike.

U.S. Steel said in a statement that its labor contracts remain under extension, as agreed to by both sides and the plants continue to operate.

“While we are aware of the strike authorization vote, talks are ongoing and we continue to work diligently to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion,” the steelmaker said.

United Steelworkers’ master agreement with U.S. Steel covers more than 16,000 workers at 24 locals, according to the union. The union’s negotiations with ArcelorMittal cover about 15,000 members of 13 local.

Committee members will return to Pittsburgh next week to resume negotiations, Hufnagel said.

The USW said it will continue to work on a 48-hour rolling extension of the current agreement that expired Aug. 31. That means the union will provide the company with at least two days’ notice before any work stoppage could begin.

Though both sides have shown signs that they’re willing to continue negotiations, a strike isn’t completely out of the question, said Robert Bruno, professor and director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.

When an employer puts a proposal on the table that restructures the way it’s compensating people, it makes those workers vulnerable, Bruno said.

“And they’re doing this at a time when the ability to produce and sell domestic steel is quite good, and the companies are profitable,” Bruno said. “It makes it really hard for the party you’re negotiating with, in this case the union, really to find a way to agree.”

Widespread union support to authorize a strike signals to the employer — along with politicians in an election year and those who finance the industry — that the union has support to shut down production, Bruno said.

“At a time when really there’s a lot of money to be made,” he said. “And therefore, any shutdown, there’s an increased cost.”

If there’s no progress, an employer like U.S. Steel could also decide to lock union workers out and run steel mills without them, Bruno said.

But doing that in the current political environment could have drawbacks.

“At a time when trade tariffs are, at least in the short term, really kind of juicing up the domestic steel industry, that’s got to be really risky, rather perilous for employers,” Bruno said.

After three years of wage freezes, U.S. Steel’s initial contract renewal proposal, released in late August, called for a seven-year contract extension that included 3.5 percent raises this year, 2 percent raises next year and 1 percent raises in 2020, according to a summary posted to a union web page. After that, raises would be possible but not guaranteed.

The company’s updated contract offer calls for a six-year extension with a 4 percent raise in the first year; a 3 percent raise in the second; and a 1 percent raise in years four through six, with the option to earn an additional 5 percent bonus, the company said. Workers can choose from a no-premium health plan with up to $2,000 per year of company contributions, or a PPO plan for which the company pays 90 percent of the costs.

Union officials estimate the monthly health insurance premiums would cost $85 for a single worker and $237 per month for a family, with additional expenses piling up to as much as $2,000 or $4,000 more per year for families by the end of the contract.

U.S. Steel says it also is offering $6,000 in profit sharing, a $5,000 “health care transition bonus” and a $4,000 signing bonus payable 30 days after contract ratification — perks contingent on a deal reached by Sept. 22.

The union prefers a three-year extension and criticizes U.S. Steel executives for taking advantage of workers in order to pay themselves more. The union also wants U.S. Steel to continue to pay workers’ health care coverage in full.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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