7/25/08

Steelworkers on strike in Ohio

Union members withhold work, forgive pay

Workers at Thomas Steel Strip walked off the job Thursday, still angry that retiree health benefits were changed three years ago. Workers want to guarantee that the steel processor must bargain with the union before changing retiree benefits again, said Dennis Brubaker, a staff representative for United Steelworkers of America.

Negotiations on that issue and others have been going on for a year. The 260 union members of USW Local 3253 had been working without a contract since their last deal expired Aug. 1, 2007.

Brubaker said negotiations took place frequently last year but became stalled in December. A mediator stopped arranging bargaining sessions because both sides were standing firm in their demands, he said.

A bargaining session was held last week, but “things kept falling apart,” Brubaker said. Union officials decided they wanted to strike in order to force action at the bargaining table, he said.

Someone answering the phone at the steel processor said the company was not making any comment.

Brubaker said workers are concerned about their health care benefits when they retire because of changes the company enacted in 2005. The company reduced benefits for retirees who were under age 65 and eliminated coverage for those who were 65 and eligible for Medicaid.

Retirees staged protests outside the plant when changes were made. The union tried to stop the changes but found that recent court cases prevented it from bargaining for retirees unless such negotiations are provided for in the contract.

Brubaker predicted in 2006 that the company was in for “quite a battle” during the next round of negotiations because of the health care changes.

The union also is not satisfied with the company’s pay offer. Thomas wants its total compensation rates to remain the same, so it is demanding that any raises be offset with concessions, Brubaker said. Thomas has proposed that these could come in reduced health care and pension benefits and a lower pay scale for new workers, he said.

The last contract provided a top wage of $15 an hour, plus production incentives.

Also, Thomas wants to change work rules and job classifications as other steel plants have done, Brubaker said. The union is willing to discuss those changes but wants the company to take the actions that other steel companies have done to reduce the number of managers who are overseeing workers, he said.

He said Thomas has a little more than two salaried workers for every hourly worker. WCI Steel, which gained a union contract that increased worker flexibility, has a ratio of four to one, he said.

He said company officials have said that the plant is losing money. One of its main products is battery casings.

(vindy.com)

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