Clairton steelworkers signal they're ready to strike; U.S. Steel says that won't happen
Steelworkers at Clairton Coke Works voted unanimously Wednesday to give national union leaders the green light to strike if contract talks with U.S. Steel continue to falter.
The vote by 700 union members from Allegheny, Fayette and Washington counties signals that if necessary, Clairton’s Local 1557 chapter is ready to join more than 16,000 U.S. Steel workers in striking for the first time in three decades.
The company doesn’t expect that to happen.
“We do not anticipate a strike,” U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday night. “Our plants continue to operate in a safe and orderly fashion.
“Talks are ongoing, and we continue to work diligently to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.”
Mimicking similar votes this week by union chapters around the country, not a single Clairton steelworker voted against a possible strike during three meetings held Wednesday at Clariton City Building, about 15 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
After three years of wage freezes, U.S. Steel offered pay raises and bonus options of “meager” amounts while proposing contracts that will slash overtime and hike costs across the board for health care coverage — even as the company’s performance is on the upswing, said Don Furko, president of USW Local 1557, which represents about 1,150 workers.
“The biggest sticking point is our health care,” Furko said. “We shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of their corporate greed.”
The union’s national office issued a statement accusing “self-serving bosses” of U.S. Steel using the “windfalls of tariffs and current industry climate that we helped to create to pay themselves even more, and then turn to us with dramatic shifting and wage packages that are far below what we’ve earned and deserve.”
Last month, U.S. Steel reported second-quarter net earnings of $214 million, down from the $261 million in net earnings in the second quarter of 2017, a company news release said. CEO David Burritt said in the second quarter earnings report that he was “increasingly optimistic” about the company’s long-term profitable growth.
U.S. Steel’s initial contract 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.
They’ve since offered slightly higher raises through 2020, union officials said.
The union says that U.S. Steel should “just stop and wrap-up an agreement” after guaranteeing at least three years of “moderate increases.”
“Instead, now they insist on a six-year agreement with the last three years including just an annual 1 percent wage increase,” the union said. “By then, workers would be well into paying for a new expensive health care package. The plane is to place everyone into their corporate ‘bonus’ scheme and tell them that this is a substitute for an honest wage increase. It is not.”
Under the company’s latest offer, premiums for health care and dental coverage for workers with families could climb to $237 per month starting in January, and by the end of the contract workers could be paying an estimated $2,000 to $4,000 more a year or more should significant health problems arise, the union said.
U.S. Steel has proposed a one-time, $5,000 payment to help workers make the transition away from the days of the company picking up all or most of the health care tab.
The union claims that U.S. Steel is “trying to buy a long-term, very cheap deal with some upfront money to distract workers from long-term costs.”
“We pay with our health,” Furko said. “We have seconds and minutes and days taken off our lives by working in these environments, and that’s why traditionally they’ve paid for our coverage.”
Last week, more than 150 steelworkers marched outside the gates of Clairton Coke Works demanding a better pay and benefits package. A few members chanted “1986,” citing the last year the United Steelworkers union last struck.
About 2,500 union members work at three U.S. Steel mills in Western Pennsylvania — Clairton Coke Works, Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and Irvin Works in West Mifflin, a union spokesman said.
Since the last contract agreement in 2015, natural gas drilling activity fell to a 10-year low, and the company shuttered several plants, none in Western Pennsylvania. U.S. Steel reported net losses of $1.7 billion from 2015 through 2017.
The contracts had been scheduled to expire on Sept. 1.
On Saturday, both sides agreed to extend talks — a move that U.S. Steel said was made “in the best interest of our employees, customers, stockholders and other stakeholders.”
Union spokesman R.J. Hufnagel said that local chapters will continue voting on whether to give negotiators the power to strike through Friday. National union leaders will then return to the bargaining table.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.