The United Steelworkers union (USW) announced Friday that it reached a tentative agreement with Allegheny Technologies (ATI) to end the three-month strike by 1,300 workers at nine facilities in Pennsylvania and other states. In a July 2 statement, USW officials said the strike would continue until the “ratification process is complete,” with a vote on the new four-year deal being “scheduled as soon as possible.”
Top USW officials predictably praised the deal, with International Vice President David McCall, who chaired the negotiations with ATI, saying, “The unity of USW members at ATI has proven that we can accomplish great things when we stand together to fight for the respect and dignity of a fair contract.” In fact, the USW has spent the last three months isolating the embattled ATI workers and condemning them to starvation-level strike benefits of $150 a week for individuals and $200 for families.
McCall released no detailed information about the contract. Instead, in the vaguest manner, the USW statement said, “Broadly, the proposed agreement provides lump sum payments, meaningful wage increases and maintains a premium-free health insurance plan for union members without establishing a permanent lower tier of benefits for new hires.”
Long and bitter experience has taught ATI workers that they cannot trust any of the self-serving claims coming out of the USW’s Pittsburgh headquarters. There is no doubt the new deal will benefit ATI and the USW bureaucracy, not the workers, just like the one the USW signed to end the seven-month lockout in 2015-2016. That contract led to the loss of over 900 jobs and a significant worsening of the living standards and working conditions of ATI workers.
ATI workers have not stood on the picket lines for three months and endured the loss of a quarter of their yearly income to accept another sellout deal. They must demand the immediate release of the full contract, not just the so-called “highlights,” along with all the secret letters of agreement and memoranda of understanding. Workers must have a full two weeks to study and discuss the deal and establish lines of communication with their brothers and sisters throughout ATI and the steel industry to reject their contract with the contempt it deserves.
The USW statement makes no mention of many of the most critical issues in the strike: job security, forced overtime, ending the already existing two-tier system for new hires, and the near bankruptcy of the retiree health care fund. Throughout the strike, the USW has never opposed ATI's plans for further plant closures and roughly another 400 layoffs, instead saying only that it would get a severance package for workers losing their jobs.
Workers at ATI have not had a wage increase in seven years. Any combination of lump sum payments and small wage increases will do nothing to reverse the years-long erosion of income, not to mention a further cut in real wages due to rising inflation.
The USW claims the agreement prevents ATI from increasing health care premiums, but again nothing can be taken at face value. Over the last several contracts, the USW and ATI have agreed to substandard health and pension benefits for new hires. This system is hated by steelworkers who are forced to work side-by-side with co-workers who are getting vastly different pay and benefits. The two-tier system also incentivizes management to cut the jobs of older workers and replace them with lower-costing new hires.
The USW has long made similar claims about protecting health benefits only to oversee the steady undermining of medical coverage for current and retired workers, and the shifting of costs from the companies to the workers. The USW-administered Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association (VEBA), which covers retiree health care, was negotiated as part of past concessions contracts. With the acquiescence of the USW, ATI has been underfunding the VEBA plan for years. If current trends continue, it will run out of resources in the next several years, leaving retirees without their promised healthcare.
While these funds are legally separate from the USW’s ever-growing coffers, the USW benefits directly with massive administration and management fees as well as high-paying jobs that are awarded to family members and cronies.
It is also not clear from the USW’s announcement how soon and under what conditions the striking workers would return to work if the deal is ratified. In 2016, after the end of the lockout, workers were forced to work next to managers who had been strikebreakers and the grievance process was suspended, allowing the company to do virtually anything it wanted.
Since March 30, the USW has kept the 1,300 striking steelworkers isolated from the growing number of struggles of other steelworkers, miners, nurses, autoworkers and many more who have gone on strike as part of a growing national and international movement of the working class. This includes 650 USW members locked out by ExxonMobil at its refinery in Beaumont, Texas, and 2,400 miners in Sudbury, Ontario who have been on strike since January 1. Roughly 70 workers at Custom Hoists in Ashland, Ohio walked off the job on June 13. In addition, 1,100 Warrior Met coal miners remain on strike in Alabama and 700 nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts have been on strike since March.
It is no accident that the USW announces a tentative contract at the same time that the United Auto Workers is seeking to end the strike by 2,900 Volvo Truck workers in Virginia and push through another pro-company deal. The initiative taken by the Virginia workers, who set up the Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee to organize a fight independently of the corporatist UAW, has sent fear into the hearts of trade union bureaucracies throughout the US and internationally.
ATI workers should begin now to campaign for the defeat of the USW-backed deal. At the same time, it is critical that ATI workers, along with workers at ExxonMobil, US Steel, Cleveland Cliffs, Vale Inco, and other corporations, follow the lead of the Volvo workers and build rank-and-file solidarity committees to provide the leadership necessary to mobilize workers against the corporate-government onslaught on jobs and living standards. These committees must fight for what workers need, regardless of what the companies say they can afford. Their demands should include an end to layoffs, the restoration of all concessions granted by the USW, a return to the eight-hour day, and at least $900 a week in strike pay.
To mount such a counter-offensive, steelworkers must reject the nationalist poison long used by the USW to divide workers internationally and unite with their brothers and sisters around the world in the global metal, mining and energy industries.
Workers who agree with this perspective should contact the World Socialist Web Site today to learn how to join the growing network of national and international rank-and-file committees.
Sign up for the WSWS email newsletter
This Morning in Metals: Steelworkers reach tentative deal to end three-month ATI strike
This morning in metals news: the United Steelworkers union this week announced it had reached a tentative deal with Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) to end a three-month strike; meanwhile, Ford China’s sales rose by 24% in the first half of the year; and, lastly, the U.S. and Mexico announced a course of remediation under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) Rapid Response Labor Mechanism.
The MetalMiner Best Practice Library offers a wealth of knowledge and tips to help buyers stay on top of metals markets and buying strategies.
USW announces tentative deal to end ATI strike
The United Steelworkers union in late March announced a strike at nine ATI facilities, citing “unfair labor practices.”
About three months later, that strike appears to be at an end.
The union this week announced it had reached a tentative deal on a four-year contract with ATI to end the labor stoppage.
“Broadly, the proposed agreement provides lump sum payments, meaningful wage increases and maintains a premium-free health insurance plan for union members without establishing a permanent lower tier of benefits for new hires,” the USW said in a release earlier this month.
“If the proposed agreement is ratified, the recall process would begin immediately, and USW members are expected to return to work shortly after the ratification process is complete.”
Ford China touts sales rise
Ford China reported its first-half sales jumped by 24%.
Sales exceeded 306,700 vehicles, the automaker said.
“This growth came despite the challenge of the global semiconductor shortage, which impacted Ford sales in Greater China in the second quarter, with sales of approximately 152,900 units representing a decline of 3.6% year-over-year,” Ford said in a release.
In addition, sales of Lincoln luxury vehicles jumped by 111.4% year over year. Meanwhile, Ford brand passenger vehicle sales rose by 6%.
US, Mexico reach remediation for workers at GM facility in Mexico
Lastly, we recently noted the one-year anniversary of the USMCA, in addition to the inaugural meeting of the agreement’s Labor Council.
In a statement, the United States Trade Representative said the two countries announced a course of remediation under the USMCA’s Rapid Response Labor Mechanism. The remediation will cover the loss of worker rights at the General Motors facility in Silao, Mexico.
“The United States and Mexico today announced a course of remediation which seeks to provide the workers of the General Motors facility in Silao, Mexico with the ability to vote on whether to approve (legitimize) their collective bargaining agreement in free and democratic conditions, and to remediate the denial of the right of free association and collective bargaining to workers at the facility,” the USTR said in a statement. “This first course of remediation under United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s novel Rapid Response Labor Mechanism reflects the shared intent of the United States and Mexico that trade benefit workers.”
In addition, the course of remediation’s end date is Sept. 20, 2021.
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2021 Allegheny Technologies strike
The 2021 Allegheny Technologies strike was a labor strike involving about 1,300 workers for metals manufacturing company Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI), all unionized with the United Steelworkers (USW). The strike began on March 30 and ended on July 13 with the ratification of a new labor contract. Strikers returned to work by July 19.
In 2020, ATI was severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the company reporting over $1 billion in losses for that year. In February of that year, the company's labor contract with the USW (which represented roughly 1,300 employees in nine facilities) expired, but citing the pandemic and a general lack of progress in negotiations for a new contract, the union agreed to extend the expired contract until February 2021. By January of that year, negotiations had resumed, but like before, neither side could come to an agreement, with the main issue concerning the company's health care plan. The company was pushing for workers to pay a monthly premium, while the union was steadfast in objecting to premiums, arguing that adding premiums would negate the pay increase offered in the new contract. Additional issues included concerns over outsourcing and opposition to changes to the company's scheduling and overtime system. On March 5, several days after the extended contract had expired, workers voted to authorize strike action, and on the morning of March 30, they performed a walkout and began picketing.
Over the next few months, the company and union held on-again off-again negotiations, during which time the main point of contention continued to be the health care plan. In late May, federal mediators became involved, by which point the two sides had settled almost all other issues. On July 6, following several days of intense negotiations, the union announced a tentative agreement with the company that included a guarantee of no premiums in the workers' health care plan. Workers voted to accept the agreement on July 13 and returned to work by July 19. The new contract has generally been seen as a win for the union, as it addresses all of the issues they had had with the company's original proposals. At the same time, the union estimates that the strike cost the company millions of dollars, with the company posting a $49.2 million loss for the second quarter of 2021.
Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) is an American metals manufacturing company with facilities located throughout the Northern United States. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the company suffered a loss of income of US$1.6 billion and announced plans to cut approximately 400 jobs, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describing the company as a "struggling Pittsburgh-based metals giant". Going into 2020, several hundred unionized workers, organized under the United Steelworkers (USW), were working under a four-year labor contract that had been approved in 2016 following a six-month lockout, the first in ATI's history. This contract expired on February 29, 2020, With negotiations for a new contract starting the previous month. However, by March 2020, in light of the pandemic and a lack of progress on negotiations for a new contract, the union agreed to a one-year contract extension that would expire on February 28, 2021. In addition, ATI gave each worker a $500 bonus as a show of good faith in continuing the negotiations with the union. The contract covered approximately 1,300[note 2] workers in nine facilities, located in Waterbury, Connecticut; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Lockport, New York; Louisville, Ohio; and the Pennsylvania locales of Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, Vandergrift, and Washington.[note 3]
In January 2021, the union and company recommenced negotiations, but similar to the previous year, they struggled to come to an agreement. The company's proposal of an immediate $3,000 payment to workers with an additional 8.5 percent pay raise spread out over the course of the four-year contract was considered too little, especially given that the workers had previously had a seven-year wage freeze. Furthermore, the union alleged that changes to the company's overtime system could cause some workers to work 12-hour shifts while not receiving overtime pay due to not having worked over 40 hours per week. Additional concerns included changes that the union stated would cause some outsourcing of union work to contractors. Workers also complained about the lack of cost-of-living allowances from the company. ATI countered that the proposal would see wage increases while maintaining the workers' premium-free health insurance plan, which was guaranteed for the first three years of the plan and became an option starting in 2024. One union member stated that the monthly cost of the premium would have negated the increase in pay. As a result of the impasse, the contract expired without a replacement on February 28 and several days later, on March 5, union members voted to authorize strike action, with about 95 percent in favor. This authorization meant that union leadership could commence a strike without holding an additional round of voting. In the days following the vote, hundreds of union members held multiple rallies at the nine facilities that would be affected. On March 9, the union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board that the company had been withholding "essential bargaining information".
On March 26, USW announced that the ATI workers would be going on strike over unfair labor practices starting at 7 a.m. on March 30. This would be the first strike ATI had experienced since a 69-day strike in 1994. Following the announcement, ATI stated they would be using remaining salaried employees and interns to continue operations, with one industry analyst speculating that the company would focus on their most profitable products, like titanium. The analyst also speculated that the strike action would hurt ATI and help industry competitors Acerinox and Outokumpu, who operated non-union plants in the right-to-work states of Alabama and Kentucky. In a last-minute effort to avoid the strike, on March 29, the company rescinded portions of the contract that would have changed the contracting system and made changes to its health care proposal, but this offer was also rejected. Additionally, news articles published the day the strike began stated that the company was offering 9 percent wage increase,[note 4] in addition to a $4,000 lump sum payment.
Course of the strike
As announced, at 7 a.m. on March 30, approximately 1,300 ATI employees at the nine locations performed a walkout. Immediately following this, they commenced picketing against the company. Within the first day of the strike, union representatives claimed that they had made progress in negotiations and were willing to accept a $4,000 payment alongside 11 percent wage increases over the course of the contract, but were still at odds with the company over the terms of the health care policy. On April 14, USW announced that strikers would qualify for COBRA health care through the American Rescue Plan Act once their ATI plans expire at the end of April. On April 19, union and company representatives met for renewed negotiations. By this time, the company stated that they had withdrawn their proposals regarding outsourcing and scheduling, with health care remaining the main point of contention. However, by April 22, the union had rejected the proposal set forth by the company. Following this, the company gave the union an ultimatum, saying that if the union did not accept the company's proposal by April 26, proposals made by the company would "begin to reflect the costs incurred by ATI as a result of the strike". The union still rejected the company's proposal, again citing issues with the company's proposed health care plan. On April 29, about a month into the strike, ATI announced that they had sustained a $7.9 million loss for the first financial quarter of 2021.
On May 6, USW submitted a counterproposal to the company, which was rejected by the company later that same day, with the company calling the offer a "bait and switch". By May 14, representatives from both the union and company stated they would be open to mediation through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. This happened on May 21, with both sides negotiating with a federal mediator present. Additionally around this time, company representatives claimed that all production orders were being met during the strike, a statement refuted by union representatives, who claimed that customers were placing orders with ATI's competitors. Despite the federal mediation, negotiations continued into June. However, by this time, USW claimed that ATI was no longer actively pushing for the health care premiums and were instead discussing other cost-cutting methods with the health care plan. By June 19 though, negotiations had once again stalled. On June 21, USW's local union in New Bedford held a rally that was widely attended by members of other labor unions in the area and featured Massachusetts State RepresentativeAntonio Cabral speaking out in support of the strikers. USW local unions in other affected areas also held rallies to keep up support for the strike.
On July 6, after three months on strike, multiple news sources reported that a tentative agreement had been reached between the union and company following several days of negotiations the previous week. According to a union representative, as part of the agreement, (which had been reached on July 2) union members would not have to pay a monthly insurance premium. At the time of the announcement, voting on accepting the terms of the agreement was scheduled to begin on July 13. That day, union members voted to ratify the deal, with workers returning to their positions July 19. The union did not reveal voting details. With the agreement, the company stated that they intended to be back to full production by September.
The four-year labor contract between ATI and USW was retroactive, starting from March 1, 2021 and running to February 28, 2025. As per the terms of the contract, the workers would receive a three percent annual wage increase starting every March 1. In addition, they would receive a one-time bonus of $4,000 and additional payments of $1,500 on February 1 of 2025 and 2025. Pertaining to the health care, the workers would not have to pay any monthly premium, but in exchange there would be increases to copays and deductibles. Additionally, increases in drug costs would be capped at 3.5 percent annually. A committee was also formed by the union and company with the goal of seeking out ways to keep health care costs low. The contract also contained provisions that the union says protects against outsourcing and addresses other minor issues. The settlement was considered a success for the union, with one representative stating that almost all of the union's demands had been met. The union claimed that ATI lost $100 million, stating that the price of steel had risen to an all-time high during the strike and that the company had been unable to fully capitalize on that. For the second quarter of 2021, ATI reported a loss of $49.2 million.
On July 19, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on complaints from some union members who contended that the company was withholding the $4,000 bonuses, with the union alleging that the company's actions were "blatantly contrary to our agreement".
- ^The specific cities are:
- Waterbury, Connecticut
- New Bedford, Massachusetts
- Lockport, New York
- Louisville, Ohio
- Brackenridge, Pennsylvania
- Latrobe, Pennsylvania
- Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania
- Vandergrift, Pennsylvania
- Washington, Pennsylvania
- ^One source gives this number as 1,400.
- ^One source additionally mentions plants in Monaca, Oakdale, and Zelienople, all in Pennsylvania.
- ^The increase would be spread out over the first three years of the contract in 3 percent annual increases.
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- ^ abRittmeyer, Brian C. (March 24, 2020). "Allegheny Technologies Inc., steelworkers union agree to 1-year contract extension". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Archived from the original on September 14, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
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- ^ abLindstrom, Natasha (March 5, 2021). "'We've had enough': 95% of United Steelworkers support striking against ATI". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Archived from the original on September 14, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^ abcdeLindstrom, Natasha (March 16, 2021). "On verge of strike, United Steelworkers rally outside ATI's Brackenridge facility". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Archived from the original on March 26, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
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- ^ abcdeRittmeyer, Brian C. (March 26, 2021). "United Steelworkers announces strike date at ATI facilities". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Archived from the original on March 30, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
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- ^ abcdeBerke, Ben (July 6, 2021). "Steelworkers in New Bedford to vote next week on ending 14-week strike". The Public's Radio. Archived from the original on July 6, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Lewis, C. M. (April 1, 2021). "Citing Unfair Labor Practices, 1,300 Steelworkers Strike in Five States". In These Times. Archived from the original on June 28, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Sabatini, Patricia (March 30, 2021). "ATI to keep operating as workers go on strike". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Block Communications. Archived from the original on March 30, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^ abRaymond, Alyssa (March 30, 2021). "United Steelworkers go on strike at nine ATI facilities over unfair labor practices". WPXI. Archived from the original on March 30, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
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- ^Berke, Ben (April 23, 2021). "Steelworkers strike for higher pay in New Bedford, joining 1,300 across northeast". The Public's Radio. Archived from the original on April 23, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^ abMericle, Julia (April 26, 2021). "Ultimatum deadline looms in ATI strike". Pittsburgh Business Times. American City Business Journals. Archived from the original on April 26, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Shrum, Rick (April 27, 2021). "Strike continues as union reject's ATI offer". Observer-Reporter. Archived from the original on September 14, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Rittmeyer, Brian C. (April 29, 2021). "ATI announces $7.9M 1st quarter loss as Steelworkers strike continues". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Archived from the original on September 14, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Sabatini, Patricia (April 29, 2021). "ATI posts first-quarter loss as USW strike drags on". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Block Communications. Archived from the original on April 29, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^ abLennon, Anastasia E. (June 2, 2021). "New Bedford steelworkers enter third month of striking for higher pay, fair contract from company". The Standard-Times. Gannett. Archived from the original on June 2, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Mericle, Julia (May 6, 2021). "USW presents ATI with updated proposal, awaits response". Pittsburgh Business Times. American City Business Journals. Archived from the original on May 7, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
- ^Mericle, Julia (May 6, 2021). "ATI turns down USW's latest offer, strike continues". Pittsburgh Business Times. American City Business Journals. Archived from the original on May 7, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
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New Bedford steelworkers enter third month of striking for higher pay, fair contract from company
NEW BEDFORD — For more than two months, local members of United Steelworkers have stood outside Allegheny Technologies Inc. on Rodney French Boulevard, rain or shine, to call for wage increases and a fair contract from their Pennsylvania-based employer.
The approximately 60 union members, who work for ATI manufacturing metals for razors, computers, medical equipment and aircraft, are picketing as part of the larger strike with approximately 1,300 USW members across multiple states. USW is protesting ATI's offers in contract negotiations for 2021 through 2024.
"What they were offering as far as what we were going to have to pay in health care would go over what we'd be getting in raises. So we'd actually be losing money," said local union leader John Camarao.
Camarao, 50, has worked for ATI for about 17 years as a furnace operator and said they have not had a wage increase since 2014.
In a bargaining bulletin on March 31, the union called ATI's contract proposals unreasonable and unfair.
"Management’s conduct has undermined our ability to bargain for the contract we deserve, and their actions are intended to intimidate or coerce us from standing together to fight for a fair contract and to break our solidarity," the bulletin stated. The union said bargaining began in January.
Health care a primary issue
Natalie Gillespie, a spokesperson for ATI, said by email on May 28 that the company and union reconvened negotiations with a federal mediator on May 21 and that health care is the primary issue remaining to be addressed.
She said both sides are seeking information and data validation from third-party sources and they expect to resume talks thereafter.
ATI has hired replacement workers to minimize the impact on production. Camarao voiced skepticism about productivity at the New Bedford site, but Gillespie said replacement workers have done a "phenomenal job."
Will Monteiro, 47, who has worked for ATI for nearly 20 years, said this is an issue of "corporate greed" given the money corporate executives earn. Gillespie, in contrast, said ATI's standing offer was "very generous" and would place the average earners in the top 15% of all United States wage earners despite the company losing money at the time.
ATI first-quarter losses
ATI reported a $7.9 million loss in the first quarter of 2021 with $693 million in sales. The company is proposing to increase wages through a $2,500 lump sum payment in the first year, and a total of 9% base wage increase for the subsequent three years in the contract term (3% per year). Gillespie said the offer, which was made initially in late April, still stands.
Monteiro and Camarao said last month that ATI plans to stop profit sharing for the retiree fund, which employees also contribute to, but Gillespie said the company's proposal maintains retirement benefits for current and future employees.
"We're fighting for ourselves, we're fighting for the new hires and we're fighting for the retirees because we're going to end up being in that position," Camarao said.
"It's not just a fight for the guys who are active here. We also want to take care of the guys who paved the way for us," Monteiro said. "We work in a toxic environment, and then you want to attack our health care."
Gillespie said the "critical issue" separating the parties is how to control health care cost inflation going forward. She said the company needs to address it now in order to contain costs and that under its proposal, ATI would provide an "above-market plan" with "below-market monthly premiums."
Strike will continue
As of USW's latest statement on May 27, the union remains opposed to any plan that requires employees to pay premiums.
Camarao and Monteiro said they intend to continue striking until an agreement is reached, even if it means no paycheck, which they say has been tough as workers need to support their families and pay the bills.
They said despite the disagreements with corporate leadership, they want to see the company succeed.
"We want [the company] to be successful. We want to secure the jobs for the future. This plant has been here for a lot of years. We want to keep that going," Monteiro said.
Standard-Times reporter Anastasia E. Lennon can be reached at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter at @aelennon1. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.
View CommentsSours: https://www.southcoasttoday.com/story/news/local/2021/06/02/new-bedford-steelworkers-strike-higher-pay-fair-contract/5143217001/
Strike ati steel
Striking ATI Steelworkers Hold the Line for Premium-Free Health Insurance
Across the country, steelworkers at nine plants of Allegheny Technologies, Inc. have been on strike for the last 11 weeks.
They want raises; to stop contracting out; to secure full funding of their retirement benefits; and to beat back management’s efforts to introduce health insurance premiums and a second tier of coverage for younger workers.
The Steelworkers union (USW) accuses ATI of unfair labor practices including bad faith bargaining, and of holding retiree benefits hostage for contract concessions.
ATI, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, makes steel used in aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processes, and electrical energy generation.
Five years ago ATI locked workers out for seven months, demanding major concessions on wages, pensions, and health insurance. Workers fought off the bulk of those demands, though the company was able to shed future liability for the pension by replacing it with a 401(k) for anyone hired after 2015—a huge cost shift to workers that makes a decent retirement at age 65 unlikely for new hires.
There were 2,200 workers at 12 unionized sites back then. There are 1,300 at nine sites this time around.
Most of the shops are in areas still reeling from the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s. Five are in western Pennsylvania: Canton Township, Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, and Vandergrift. The others are in Louisville, Ohio; Lockport, New York; East Hartford, Connecticut; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 60 members are on strike.
One of only a few remaining union manufacturers in southeast Massachusetts, ATI has long been seen as a place to earn decent pay and a respectable retirement.
As a young organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the ’80s and early ’90s I spent many mornings and afternoons leafleting at the ATI plant in New Bedford—then called Rodney Metals, before it was eventually bought out by ATI—and other shops in the area, encouraging workers to organize. (I like to think we helped lay the groundwork for the USW’s eventual success in the mid-’90s.)
Back then there were thousands and thousands of decently paid union workers in manufacturing, and those union shops drove the area rates and standards. The spillover effect was real. Non-union employers like Rodney Metals were “forced” to pay similar rates and conditions in order to compete for workers.
Those days are gone. Like many places throughout the country, southeast Massachusetts lost thousands of manufacturing jobs—union and nonunion—during the Reagan era of greed, union-busting, and moving jobs to lower-wage, nonunion locations (sometimes overseas, but not always). UE lost close to 2,000 members in southeast Massachusetts in less than a decade.
Some of the more innovative and militant strategies to fight plant closings were developed from the struggles of these workers to defend and preserve manufacturing jobs in hard-hit industrial New England.
Now, with the pension replaced by a 401(k) and after seven years of wage freezes, working at ATI—or in manufacturing generally—is not such a great deal anymore. Factory work in the area is now pretty much all nonunion, and most places pay less and provide fewer benefits than they did 20 years ago.
Plus, anyone who has worked in a factory knows the toll the work takes on your body and soul. The camaraderie can be great, but the brutal pace of work in an unhealthy environment is unrelenting. Your body slowly unravels and falls apart.
FLUSH WITH CASH
Now ATI is demanding to gut the benefits of present and future workers even further, which will further erode the living standards of the area. To sell its offers, the company points to wage increases and lump sum payments—but, as the union has pointed out, these are all based on savings generated from other concessionary proposals.
Meanwhile, the company has almost “a billion dollars in liquidity and more than half a billion dollars in the cash drawer,” according to a strike bulletin from the union. The three top executives made $22 million last year in salaries and an additional $17 million in bonuses.
The average hourly rate for production workers is only in the mid-$20s per hour, with the lowest-paying job around $22. Lots of maintenance work has been subcontracted, especially since the last contract. Presently to contract out work the company simply has to notify the union and engage in a discussion; if it doesn’t, the company pays a penalty to a local charity.
These “notification” requirements have done little to stop the company from decimating the maintenance department. But even this weak arrangement isn’t enough for ATI. It wants no accountability or discussion with the union about keeping maintenance work in-house, and it continues to propose eliminating arbitration over even the minimal requirement to give notice.
A PREMIUM ON HEALTH INSURANCE
This strike is in large measure over health insurance. In a sea of non-union workplaces with unaffordable health plans, ATI workers are striking to keep their plan affordable to members.
Presently the company pays the entire health insurance premium—workers were able to stave off ATI’s efforts to force them to pay premiums during the 2015-16 lockout. Workers have an upfront deductible that is 10 percent of first-dollar coverage up to $300 for an individual and $600 for a family per year. If you go outside the network, it is double those figures.
ATI now wants workers to pay 5 percent of the premium and increase the deductible to $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a family. What the company is really after, however, are the new hires: the company wants them to pay 10 percent of their premiums. It’s the typical and divisive two-tier system that unions know all too well.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches and publishes national health insurance data and conducts annual surveys on employer-provided health insurance, says that in 1999 the average annual premium was $2,196 for single plans and $5,791 for family plans. Twenty years later those figures have skyrocketed by 240 percent and 269 percent, respectively, to $7,470 for individuals and $21,342 for families.
Employers still contribute the majority of that, but workers now pay an average of $5,588 in premiums alone for family coverage (up from $1,543 in 1999), not to mention the increased share of other medical costs they bear. Wages over that same period have increased, on average, only 77 percent.
A BENCHMARK FOR ALL
Up until the 1980s, when the health insurance industry and employers began imposing premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and other schemes to gobble up more of our paychecks, fully employer-paid health insurance was not uncommon at all.
Those union workplaces that have been able to maintain that standard help all of us—not just their members. They set a benchmark for the wages and benefits that other employers in the same industry or geographic area need to provide to stay “competitive.” They influence what workers and the local community expect a job to offer.
When a benefit is allowed to erode over time, so does the standard. Seeing these workers at ATI fighting to defend premium-free health insurance, something most unions have lost, is inspiring.
“I am proud of my fellow brothers and sisters on the line,” said Bedford ATI worker John Camarao, the grievance chair for USW Local 1357. “Members are in a great hardship right now entering the third month of the strike, but what we’re fighting for is not only for our future but for the future of new hires and our retirees’ benefits.
“Their demands are meant to divide us, but instead they have united us, and our resolve is to see this to the end.”
Peter Knowlton is the retired general president of the United Electrical Workers (UE).
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