News: Nerves of Steel

Locked-out AK Steel union workers brace for the worst

Darin Overholser

A large blue canopy covers a fold-up table strewn with food, snacks and Thermos bottles filled with steaming coffee. Coolers overflowing with ice and sodas are makeshift chairs around a 55-gallon drum spewing out flames near a stack of firewood. Around the barrels are a dozen or more men and women huddled around the flames.

Is it a riverfront parking lot after the last Bengals-Steelers game? Nope. A platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq taking a break from battle? Not this time. A simple funeral gathering? Possibly. Consider it last rites for a local union and the welfare of thousands of local workers, retirees and their dependents.

This is the scene at nearly a dozen entrance gates to the AK Steel plant in Middletown, where Tristate steelworkers have been camped since March 1. While the descriptions might seem to portray a typical strikers' picket line, they don't.

The nearly 2,700 steelworkers aren't on strike — they've been physically locked out by the management of one of the nation's largest steel manufacturers. In this case, AK's workers disagreed with management over numerous key issues, yet offered to work under the old contract (which expired at midnight Feb. 28) while negotiating a new contract. AK Steel's management declined the offer.

The Armco Employees Independent Federation (AEIF) members were literally escorted off the Middletown property early on March 1 when AK refused to allow the workers to continue working at the plant without a contract, a move that was legal but which union officials say showed bad faith. The company replaced union members with management members and skilled temporary workers hired from Ohio and surrounding states.

Escorted away, in addition to hundreds of union members, were many of the 140 or more employees who submitted their applications for retirement on the last day of the contract.

Herb Davis, one of those retiring, has more than 42 years in the plant's mobile equipment department. Speaking of his retirement, an occasion when most companies present a dinner party, gifts and thanks, he says, "It wasn't supposed to end this way."

No trouble at the gate
Mark Bowen is a 29-year employee at the Middletown mill. He started working in steel at age 20 and — instead of his normal job on the production line, processing steel coils in acid to remove rust and discolorations — he's now managing one of AK's main gates for the union. One of the locked-out employees, he's responsible for the safety and welfare of every union member at the gate while on duty.

"We had a guy down here last week that confronted us, and I told him to get in his truck and leave," Bowen says. "We're not going to have any trouble here because that's what the company wants — trouble. If there's trouble at a gate, an injunction against us could be ordered. It's not going to happen on my watch."

The rift between AK and AEIF members comes as no surprise. It appears to be a growing trend that major U.S. companies seek concessions from longtime employees and abandon retirees who sometimes gave up to 40 years of their lives to support the company through good times and bad.

Some companies are shedding pension obligations through bankruptcy proceedings, and others simply are walking away from what corporate investor literature terms "legacy costs." Companies utilizing these two routes in recent years have included: airlines Delta, Eastern, Continental and Northwest; steel mills LTV, Bethlehem, U.S. Steel and National Steel; and other major corporations such as Delphi and K-mart. American corporate icons Ford and General Motors might be headed that way soon.

AK's temporary workers are hired at a rate of about $24 an hour and housed in area motels. They're called "scabs" by union members nationwide.

While they're just trying to earn a living, they're also being placed in precarious positions far from their homes and families and between longtime employees and their employer, for what might be a temporary paycheck. When AK and the AEIF settle their dispute, the temporary workers will be laid off and sent packing.

"They are temporary replacement employees," says Alan McCoy, AK's vice president of government and public relations. "That's what we advertised for and that's what they are, and as a result they get no benefits other than wages."

Unfortunately for AEIF members, some of their own have caved in to AK and crossed the line to return to work. Reportedly there have been some difficulties inside the plant with production.

"They're sending steel coils down to Worthington, a non-union company in Monroe, for processing," Bowen says, "because of problems with the temporary labor."

McCoy says outsourcing of work at AK was going on prior to the labor dispute and will continue after it's resolved.

"In terms of specifics," he says, "we never disclose that type of information publicly other than to say we do use outside processors."

Bowen bemoans union members who cross the picket line and return to work as scabs being rewarded by AK with salaried positions.

"Two weeks ago (one worker) was down here with us yelling 'Scab!' at the temporary help coming through the gates," Bowen says, "and now he's inside working a salaried position."

'Not just out here for ourselves'
Despite the fact that AK paid out more than $60 million dollars in cash, stock and benefits just a few years ago to a handful of departing executives, the company insists that a key portion of their plan to return to profitability includes "making headway with progressive new agreements with a number of our smaller bargaining units."

In layman's terms: screwing the little guy. That's the AEIF, an independent union with no strike fund, which many unions have; a strike fund pays members a reduced wage if they're on strike or locked out.

AK investor relations materials go on to state "we must find ways to eliminate as much of this competitive disparity as possible, including through smaller workforces, fewer job classes and less costly benefit packages."

For retired employees, their benefits will become the responsibility of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal corporation financed by employer insurance contributions. It also means retiree pay benefits are drastically reduced and medical and dental benefits could be eliminated.

AK Steel, formerly Armco Steel, is one of the nation's largest steel manufacturers, operating seven plants in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Currently AK has more than 30,000 retirees, each of whom is contractually guaranteed certain healthcare — plus nearly 28,000 spouses and dependents — and pay benefits tied to their service and retirement from AK and Armco.

Entering the sixth week of the lock-out, the Middletown community still rallies around the steelworkers. More than 60 businesses have publicly declared their support. A constant supply of food and supplies shows up daily at AK's gates.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) sent a letter of support to the AEIF after reading about the lock-out in The New York Times. Local bands and other labor unions have held fundraisers.

While non-union members are prohibited from working the picket line, that doesn't mean their thoughts and prayers aren't with the steelworkers. In fact, retired steelworkers are some of the strongest supporters of the locked-out union.

"We're not just out here for ourselves," says Bowen, standing in a 30-mph wind with smoke from the burning barrel blowing over him and other picketers, as he speaks of retired steelworkers. "We're out here for them." ©

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