U.S. Steel, union chiefs cite history of cooperation

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Despite a rocky labor relations image, U.S. Steel Corp. and the union representing thousands of its workers realize they must cooperate on issues affecting the industry, manufacturing and trade matters, leaders said yesterday.

The key is finding common ground on critical matters, said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, during a discussion on labor-management relations with U.S. Steel CEO John P. Surma at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Both sides can cooperate on issues affecting the industry and jobs, but "both of us don't have to give up on our principles ... as long as we don't disagree with the facts," Gerard said.

In 70 years, there have been only two strikes between the two -- a historic 116-day strike by 500,000 steelworkers in 1959 and one in 1986, Gerard said.

"That's a pretty positive track record for collective bargaining," Gerard said, adding "it's one of the best relationships we have."

Surma, a Pittsburgh native, said a crucial point for him in understanding labor-management relations occurred when he became involved in contract negotiations in May 2003 as the steelmaker's chief financial officer. It occurred as U.S. Steel was purchasing bankrupt National Steel Corp.

"The USW relationship was so deeply embedded into the company that I did not understand the soul of the company without understanding that relationship," Surma told more than 225 people at the college's initial lecture in a Pittsburgh Labor & Management Past & Future series.

They said the relations between the two Pittsburgh institutions reached a critical point in 2002-03 as foreign steelmakers were dumping steel onto the U.S. market. Bethlehem Steel Corp. and LTV Steel Corp. were filing for bankruptcy; and U.S. Steel was negotiating to buy bankrupt National Steel Corp. and needed an innovative labor agreement to make it work, Surma said.

"The sense of urgency made us act in ways that took five to six months to do what would have taken five to six years," Gerard said, despite shop-level relationships that were "almost poisonous."

Surma described the deal as one that "saved our backside, somewhat."

"I like to think that the next time around ... we won't have to go to the precipice and look down and don't like where we are," Surma said.

When both sides fight together for the industry in the halls of Congress, Surma said he and Gerard can make a tough team. When they speak alone, however, politicians sometimes hear without listening.

"When we go together on things that are really important, I like to think there's no place (for someone) to hide," Surma said.

Surma recalled that the Steelworkers joined with U.S. Steel in filing a trade complaint two years ago against Chinese tubular producers that were selling pipe in the U.S. market at below cost. They won that case and more than 1,000 workers are on the job because of that, Surma said.

Both leaders said they are committed to working toward a strong manufacturing policy that will provide good-paying jobs and create wealth.

"The most effective way of distributing wealth is labor and management sitting down and deciding how to divide the wealth," Gerard said.

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