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Allenport shutdown would end Big Steel era in Valley

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007

During World War II, the Allenport and Monessen plants of Pittsburgh Steel produced enough core steel for 780 million bullets, and 850,000 rockets.

Twenty five years ago, roughly 3,000 still worked at the Allenport Plant, longtime former United Steel Workers Local 1187 President Gerald "Galvie" Gardner recalled.

But eventually, the sprawling steel production facilities that had helped to define the Mid-Mon Valley's economy shut down.

U.S. Steel closed its Donora Works in the 1960s.

The Monessen Plant of Wheeling-Pittsburgh as well as Combustion-Engineering in Forward Township were both mothballed toward the end of the 1980s.

Although the Koppers Monessen Plant still produces coke - used as fuel for steel production plants elsewhere - closing the Allenport Plant of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel would effectively close the door on steel production in the Valley.

"I think that's the saddest thing I've ever heard in my life," Gardner said. "I spent 37 years in that plant. I enjoyed every day in that plant."

Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel was formed in 1968 with the merger of Wheeling Steel and the Pittsburgh Steel Co.

Wheeling Steel formed in 1920. Pittsburgh Steel dated its roots back to 1901 along the Monongahela River in the Valley.

The decline of the Allenport Plant dates back three decades. In the late 1970s, the hot end closed.

In 1982, Local 1187 approved wage concessions that saved the facility, but likely had lasting repercussions for local workers and the industry.

"I believe the plant wouldn't be there if not for that, but we set up the rest of the industry," Gardner said.

The USW would not be so willing to take concessions the next time the company came calling.

On April 16, 1985, Wheeling-Pittsburgh filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, seeking court permission to also void the labor agreements and unilaterally lower wages.

The courts approved the request and the steelmaker proposed to the USW slashing the wage and benefit rate to $17.50 per hour, a nearly $4 an hour drop from the existing $21.40 rate. The union held its position that it would not go lower than $18.50.

That standoff led to a work stoppage. The United Steelworkers said its members were locked out. The company, to date, claims the workers voluntarily walked off the job.

But either way, 8,500 steelworkers at Wheeling-Pittsburgh were off the job for three months before a compromise contract was approved.

At the time, Gardner recommended the rank and file at Allenport reject the proposed contract. Local 1187 approved the pact, but not by the wide margin it received corporationwide.

The company would not emerge from bankruptcy until Jan. 3, 1991.

In 1996, employees at the corporation's eight plants hit the picket line after the two sides failed to reach a labor agreement.

At the heart of the debate was the union's demand for a new pension plan for more than 4,500 workers. Union workers claimed Wheeling-Pittsburgh could easily afford the pension plan because its financial position had been greatly strengthened in the previous several years.

A new five-year agreement was reached in August 1997 and called for not only a new pension plan but also a retirement enhancement program and hourly wage increases. In turn, the company demanded 850 job cuts.

In 1998, the firm filed suit against 15 Japanese and Russian steel manufacturing and trading companies, claiming they were illegally selling -...for less than the cost of production - hot-rolled steel to its customers in Ohio.

In November 2000, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the second time in its history. Its reorganization plan was accepted by the United States Bankruptcy Court in August 2003.

Gardner said the closure is a sign of the shrinking domestic steel industry. Much of the steel produced here was moved to facilities in the Ohio Valley after the 1985 labor stoppage.

Still, the former Allenport union president believes the plant - and the employees and families it supports - represent a battle worth fighting.

"Where are the politicians?" Gardner said. "Are they going to get together and fight for this plant• Let's get Rendell and the rest of them involved. We cannot in this Valley afford to lose these jobs."

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