BY GAETAN WHISTON
PUEBLO, Colorado - Members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Locals 2102 and 3267 were told January 8 that they would receive unemployment compensation retroactive to November 23 from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. This is a reversal of the department's earlier decision to deny benefits, and is based on the conclusion that CF&I Steel has permanently replaced the 1,000 union members who stayed out after striking the company October 3. Since the union locals decided December 30 by 355-259 vote to call off the strike, CF&I has called only 27 union members back to work.
According to union, the strike cut the company's projected shipment for the fourth quarter of 1997 to only 46 percent of the previous quarter, and 40 percent of actual production capacity.
Since November the company has hired 600 replacement workers, who company spokesperson Vicki Tagliafico says will remain along with about 100 union members who crossed the line. The company has stated that they have all the workforce they now need, and will recall former strikers only as jobs open up.
Shortly after the decision to make an unconditional return to work offer, union members set up informational picket lines at the three major gates to the steel mill, as well as at the company's corporate office. The pickets are up from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. On the picket lines several union members told Militant reporters they remained hopeful about getting back into the plant. Ray Holloway, who worked at the mill for eight years, said that calling the strike off was going to "force the company's hand and make them negotiate as they should have done nine months ago."
Mack Archuletta, a union member with 28 years' seniority, added, "The company has bitten off more than it can chew. Hopefully they will see that the union is united and give us a fair contract."
Union member Dan López, who worked for the company for 29 years, told the Militant how he got run over by a strike breaker's car and was out on injury for two months. "The scabs have taken jobs that this union has fought for."
According to USWA Local 2102 president Ernest Hernández, the company must now "obey the law, fire all the scabs they've hired, and recall the striking workers" or pay "back pay liability - which could run as high as $30 million a year." Under federal law, this is supposed to be the case if a labor court determines the strike to have been over unfair labor practices, as opposed to economic issues. Union officials also project keeping up the "corporate campaign" against Wells Fargo and other major business partners of CF&I, which began at the outset of the strike. Meanwhile, the company has changed its name to Rocky Mountain Steel Mills.
A USWA newsletter described the "unconditional offer to return to work" as "key to a number of steelworker victories over the past few years - including the Bridgestone-Firestone strike." When the union called off the 10-month walkout by 4,200 workers at Bridgestone-Firestone, which began in July 1994, the company said it would rehire strikers as openings occurred. Workers returning to the plants had their wages slashed from an average of $17 an hour to an average of $12. In November 1996, more than a year after calling off the strike, the union reached a contract settlement that included a seven- day, 12-hour rotating shift schedule, a two-tier wage scale, a wage increase of 40 cents per hour, and the elimination of health-care premiums. Most of the several dozen workers fired for strike activity were given "amnesty" under this agreement, but a few were not.
The company and the union here have set January 20 - 23 as dates for talks.
Gaetan Whiston is a member of USWA Local 9198 in Roseville,
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