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Former Allegheny Ludlum workers urge rank and file to reject proposed contract

| Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dozens of Allegheny Ludlum retirees delivered a simple message to the current rank and file during informational contract meetings on Monday: "Vote no."

The retirees picketed in Brackenridge and Leechburg in an effort to convince active laborers that ratifying the tentative agreement between Allegheny Technologies and the United Steelworkers union hurts everyone who has worked, does work or will work for the company.

Their primary concern is the prospect of paying more for health care, with pension payments they say aren't keeping pace with inflation.

"Soon, I'm going to be giving them more money than they're giving me," said Robert Fasano of West Leechburg, who retired from the now shuttered West Leechburg plant in 1993. "Maybe not this contract, but the next one."

Tom Conway, a USW vice president who negotiated the proposed contract, said ballots are cast by mail and will be counted on July 26. The union's current contract expired June 30 but was extended to Aug. 1.

"This is just the beginning. That's the trouble," said retiree Rich Brestensky, an officer with Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), which works with the USW to address the needs of former workers.

Brestensky, who believes the tentative contract will lead to future union concessions if it's approved, was among more than 50 retirees who picketed the meetings at the American Legion in Brackenridge. A similar number of retirees surrounded the Leechburg union hall Monday afternoon — far outnumbering the union workers meeting inside.

"Any (benefit) you lose, you're not going to get back," said Dan Kerr of Ford City, who retired from Bagdad Works in 2004 after 31 years.

Retired workers don't get to vote on the agreement. "We're pretty much defenseless," Kerr said.

Many current workers leaving the 8 a.m. meeting in Brackenridge said they side with the retirees. Some wore stickers that read, "Vote No."

"I don't see anybody wearing a 'Vote Yes' sticker," said Tony Slomkoski, a retired worker and local SOAR president.

"The company is being as greedy as possible," said one worker who declined to give his name. "They don't want to come down off of anything."

Several local retirees voiced displeasure with union management as well. One boasted a sign declaring the USW the "United Steal Workers."

The workers are being asked to contribute to their health care costs by paying deductibles ranging from $300 for an individual to $600 for a family.

At the beginning of next year, the retirees would see their monthly health care contributions jump threefold for someone who is too young for Medicare and fivefold for someone who can collect Medicare. For a couple on Medicare, monthly premiums could soar to nearly $300.

"Some of these guys are only getting $500, $600, $700 per month (from their pension)," said Kurt Szymanksi of Leechburg, who retired in 2003 after 32 years in the Kiski Valley mills.

"They're splitting the union," another employee said. "The new employees don't get the same as us. The union is supposed to be 'All for one and one for all.'"

The proposal eliminates wage-based pension benefits for new hires. They also won't be eligible for medical benefits upon retirement.

Brackenridge Works laborer Walt Sproat said he's unhappy with what's being offered, given the profits the company has made. "We're making them a fortune," he said. "We don't want it all. We just want a piece of the pie."

He said a whittled labor base is being asked to do more work, including being forced to work overtime. "Some guys are working 60 to 70 days straight," he said.

Szymanski said the union agreed to reopen the last contract in 2004 when Allegheny Ludlum was struggling. That's when the union accepted the first ever retiree health care premiums, which started in 2008. Now that the company's profits are flourishing, retirees want Ludlum to share the wealth.

Tim Oakes of Lower Burrell retired in 2003, just before the last contract was renegotiated. He said he didn't quibble when premiums first were instituted, figuring most people contributed to their health insurance costs. But he fears the costs will continue to rise.

"It'll keep going up," said Oakes, who worked for Ludlum's West Leechburg and Vandergrift plants for 32 years. "What can we do• We don't work anywhere. No one wants to hire me at this age."

Sproat said he voted against the contract and expects most others in the Local 1196 in Brackenridge to do the same. None of the workers who spoke with a reporter in Brackenridge said they approve of the proposed contract.

Asked how the members of Local 1138 in Leechburg feel about the contract, local president Dave Bridgen said, "It depends on who you ask. Some guys don't mind it."

Conway said he expects about 2,500 votes to be cast among 12 locals. Ratification requires a simply majority, he said.

He argued there are positives associated with the proposal, noting the company agreed to pump $37 million into the Voluntary Employee Benefit Association retirement fund based on profits. That's money than would be added to the fund on top of the company's existing obligation, he said.

Company spokesman Dan Greenfield declined to comment.

"I hope they turn it down," said retiree Tim Caramellino of Leechburg. He said the "free-for-life" health care was a big part of his decision to retire in 2003 after 30 years at the three Kiski Valleys mills.

After about seven years of retirement, the new contract has Dan Kerr wondering if he'll be looking for a new job.

"I might have to go back to work," said Kerr. "I just bought a boat — I really don't want to have to do that."

Additional Information:

Contract basics

Allegheny Ludlum workers are voting on a proposed contract between their union, the United Steelworkers, and Ludlum's parent company, Allegheny Technologies. The rank and file are in line for wage increases, although the proposal calls for health care concessions. Here's a look at some major points in the contract, according to a summary the union provided to the Valley News Dispatch:

Term: Four years • July 1 to June 30, 2015.

Wages: A $3,000 signing bonus plus hourly increases of 75 cents in the first and third years and $1,500 lump sums in the second and fourth years.

Medical benefits: A $300 deductible for individual medical coverage and a $600 deductible for family coverage.

Longevity incentive: • At the end of 12 months worked, and after 30 years service and after age 60, an award of $750 will be made;

• At the end of 12 months worked, after 30 years service and after age 62, an award of $1,250 will be made;

• At the end of 12 months worked, after 30 years service and after age 65, an award of $1,500 will be made.

Union members can kick the entire amount into a 401(k).

Spousal benefit: Payments of $1,500 for pre-1974 'Surviving Spouses' and $1,100 for post-1974 'Surviving Spouses' will be made annually.

New hires: • Will receive medical benefits after 60 calendar days rather than 520 hours.

• Employees hired on or after July 1, 2011, will not be eligible for retiree medical coverage.

• Employees hired on or after July 1, 2011, are not eligible for a wage-based pension benefit. Pension benefits will be calculated based on the multipliers under the pension plan at the time of retirement.

• Employees hired on or after July 1, 2011, will receive a personal retirement account contribution from the company of $1 per hour worked.

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