Chesterton Tribune

Gipson: USW/Arcelor contract talks 'ugly' with 10 days to go

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In only 10 days—on Aug. 31—the United Steelworkers’ current four-year contract with ArcelorMittal will expire.

Despite the loom of that deadline, however, nothing like a middle ground has been reached across the table and negotiators haven’t even begun to talk about wages yet, USW Local 6787 President Paul Gipson told the Chesterton Tribune after deadline Monday.

It’s still too early to talk strike, Gipson emphasized—although at this point in 2008, he said, the membership had already taken a strike vote—but the word Gipson used to describe the talks in Pittsburgh, Pa., wasn’t a pretty one: “ugly.”

The sticking point, Gipson said, is ArcelorMittal’s intransigent strategy to decrease costs in the name of “flexibility and “long-term sustainability,” based on the company’s prognostications for a continued weak global economy.

ArcelorMittal may cite its $21 billion debt, Gipson added, but “the economy can change, Wall Street can change, and then we’re stuck with a concessionary contract. They say it’s such an unstable economy, it’s hard to agree to anything. Give me a break. Car sales are about as good as in 2007 and certainly above what was normal prior to 2007.”

“We just got a profit-sharing check,” Gipson noted. “The average guy got around $1,500. This is a profitable company. It is not a company on the doorstep of bankruptcy. This is a company that’s very competitive. It’s doesn’t borrow money from the banks. It’s got extended credit that’s just about triple-A.”

“But what they’re proposing is more ridiculous than what Bethlehem Steel put on the table in 1985,” Gipson said.

What is ArcelorMittal seeking?

“They want to lower costs in every area of our present agreement, including wages, I’m sure,” Gipson said. “Anything that increases costs they will not entertain. It’s not the position to begin with. We see that as unfair bargaining. But that’s to be decided.”

Among other things, Gipson said:

•ArcelorMittal is seeking to change the involuntary-layoff language in the Memorandum of Understanding reached late in 2008. “They’d like to be able to lay-off whenever they want to.”

•The company is also seeking to expand the non-core worker language to allow the hiring of more contractors.

•ArcelorMittal wants to alter the incentive plan such that no incentives would be paid “when the market is down, regardless of output.”

•The company wants to eliminate retiree health care for workers hired after Sept. 1, 2012.

•In addition, under an ArcelorMittal proposal, workers hired after Sept. 1 would no longer have a pension plan and would only receive 401(K) contributions.”

“We haven’t even talked wages yet,” Gipson said. “We haven’t gotten out of the other stuff. A few local issues have been settled but nothing of economics. Anything that would increase costs has not been resolved.”

So: will the USW strike?

“It’s too early to say,” Gipson said. “But if this were two days before deadline, and not 10, I would say yes.”

“Who knows?” Gipson speculated. “They could be planning to lock us out. I’m not looking forward to going on strike or being locked out. I’m more concerned about customer loss and competitors getting the edge on us. They might be a multinational company. But they’ve got a good market in the U.S. and pretty soon customers are going to start peeling off. They’ve got a pipe dream. They’ve got blinders on.”

Gipson added that, on Wednesday or Thursday, he expects ArcelorMittal to begin banking the furnaces. And that’s an issue all by itself. “It costs a lot of money to shut a facility,” he said. “It cost $35 million to shut down the 110-inch plate mill. They stand to lose a ton of money, besides the damage that can result from taking a basic oxygen furnace down.”

Throughout the summer, members have been receiving regular updates on the negotiations. The most recent one, released today, announces that a special meeting will be scheduled soon to explain the union’s position and the company’s.

“Decisions will be made soon as to what is of value to all of us and our families,” that update concludes. “We are in a fight for our livelihood. Rest assured, your union will last one day longer than ArcelorMittal regardless of the cost. Management’s bargaining team would be wise to take our union’s proposals more seriously. Only then will they find out the real definition of long-term sustainability—something they seem to be confused about at this time but Steelworkers have always understood.”



Posted 8/21/2012