Chesterton Tribune



Steelworkers recall their history with one week left in contract

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At 2:45 p.m. Friday someone with a portable PA rig in the RailCats parking lot began playing Dave Alvin’s “Gary, Indiana, 1959.”

Of the several thousand Steelworkers who ended up converging on the parking lot on Friday, maybe a couple--they’d have to be pushing 80 now--made their bones in ‘59, when the Steelworkers struck U.S. Steel in what to that point was the longest steel strike in American history.

But then the accountants and lawyers and bosses at U.S. Steel / Sent down the word that we had to take their rotten deal / But from Birmingham to Pueblo, Oakland to Allentown, / The workers got together and we shut the Big Boys down.

The company refused to make concessions, trusting that Eisenhower would invoke Taft-Hartley and order the Steelworkers back to work. He did just that and the order was routinely challenged but 116 days after the picket lines went up the U.S. Supreme Court kicked them down, affirming Ike and forcing the Steelworkers back into the mills.

Two months later, however, in January 1960, the union succeeded in negotiating a new contract with the company which included not only an automatic cost-of-living adjustment but much improved health and pension benefits.

For the USW locals negotiating right now with USS in Pittsburgh--with one week exactly before the current contract expires--it’s all about history, all about the brothers and sisters whose sacrifices and solidarity more than half a century ago prevailed against the Big Boys, all about preserving their hard-won gains.

Rob Popplewell, chair of Local 1066’s Grievance Committee, talked to the Chesterton Tribune after Friday’s rally. And he made that point abundantly clear. “We don’t want to go back 50 years,” he said. “Back to no overtime after eight hours and healthcare deductibles. The members are determined to get a fair contract. We have faith in our leadership to stay strong and get that fair contract.”

The union’s position, staked out in July, is that the company is looking to leverage the temporary downturn--at least partially the result of a flood of illegal imports, a strong dollar, and the crash in oil prices--to force permanent, egregiously unfair concessions on the membership.

Popplewell wondered, though, where exactly USS CEO Mario Longhi was making his concessions, when his total compensation better than doubled in 2014, to more than $13 million, when he was enjoying perks like use of the corporate jet, and when he was touting The Carnegie Way, the belt-tightening strategy behind a number of idlings and closures affecting thousands.

“He gets millions and they’re wanting us to make concessions,” Popplewell said. “We’ve been very determined to help save the company money. At the end of the day it’s the people on the floor, the ones with 20 and 30 and 40 years, who have the experience, who know how to. But they turn a deaf ear to us.”

Popplewell acknowledged that some of the moves pursued under The Carnegie Way have made sense. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been employed at U.S. Steel for 20 years. There are some things they needed to do to trim the fat. But they’ve got to the bone now, the foundation of the business, and it’s going to get very ugly very fast.”

How ugly?

Last week, the company announced the permanent shuttering, later this year, of the Fairfield, Ala., Works, a closure which will put 1,100 people out of work. “It was hard news to hear,” Popplewell said. “You don’t want to see anyone lose a job. I went behind a building and shed a tear.”

The Fairfield closure won’t just affect membership there, though. It won’t just affect the management either, for that matter. Popplewell said that it will also impact the community, where as he understands it one steelworker job supports eight to 10 other jobs in the Fairfield area.

The same is true in Gary and the region, Popplewell added. “I don’t think the community understands. There’s something like four to five jobs per steelworker job in Northwest Indiana. That’s a lot of people.”

No one, in other words, would come out of a strike unbloodied: blue-collar, white-, and the collateral damage in the community at large. “A strike is something we don’t want,” he said. “Neither side wants it. But at the end of the day it’s possible. It depends on the company, whether they’re willing to let it happen.”

Friday’s rally was important, Popplewell noted, as negotiations head to the wire. “We needed to come together and we needed to stand strong and we needed to show our leaders we’re behind them,” he said. “They’re very good leaders. They’re all very smart. I trust them to make whatever decision they make. Our president, Billy McCall, he’s a damn good leader. He’s fair, he knows what’s right, and he knows what’s wrong. I stand behind him 110 percent. I’d go to the battlefield every day for him.”

And battlefield maybe there will be. “Because at this point in time, I’m not going back 50, 60, 70 years,” Popplewell said. “I don’t want to go back. I will not go back.”


Posted 8/24/2015




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