BY TONY DUTROW
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio - Several hundred Wheeling-Pitt strikers packed the hall of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 1190 August 5 to discuss a tentative contract. Similar meetings were being held by all eight striking locals throughout the week, leading up to a mail-in vote on the proposed five-year agreement.
Some 4,500 steelworkers at mills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have been on the picket lines since Oct. 1, 1996. Their determined resistance for the past 10 months has dealt a blow to the plans of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel bosses and its parent company WHX to deny these workers a guaranteed pension, the central demand of the strike. Following a 1985 declaration of bankruptcy that provoked a three-month strike, the steelworkers lost their guaranteed pension plan, which was similar to that in place at all other unionized basic steel mills.
In an apparent defeat for Ronald LaBow, chairman of WHX, who crowed that he would never again agree to a guaranteed pension plan, the union won a guarantee of $40 a month per year of service, plus a modified 30-and-out provision that will allow hundreds of steelworkers to retire at age 55 with full pension benefits. Part of the settlement will lead to the elimination of 850 jobs, through attrition and cutting job classifications. If the contract is ratified, those workers will have the right to pension benefits and severance pay.
Workers at the picket lines and at the union meetings had views ranging from elation at winning the guaranteed pension to skepticism. Tom Ordroneic, who's now 59, with 33 years at the Mingo Junction mill, said, "I'm skeptical [about the proposal]. I won't believe it until I'm back at work." He explained that LaBow has a history of backing out of the negotiations and backtracking on promises.
Anthony Scurti said, "This is a good deal for the older guys in the mill, but for us with 25 years, we have to work another 12 years according to this contract. I think most guys will vote for it."
Scurti said he will vote against the contract because eight workers fired for so-called picket line misconduct are not rehired. "I think if 4,500 of us go back, the eight fired should go back with us," he said. According to the August 3 Wheeling News-Register, "anyone discharged during the duration of the strike will have their situation handled at their home plant on a local level."
Scurti pointed to the potential power of the 185,000 UPS workers on strike, "Look what we were able to do with just 4,500 of us."
Over the course of the strike no one crossed the picket line. Scores of strikers hit the road in the past several weeks to protest at gatherings of WHX stockholders demanding a contract.
Plant gate collections for strikers took place at mills and factories throughout the country, and bus caravans from many parts of the region brought unionists to the picket lines.
Tony Dutrow is a member of USWA Local 1557. Sheila
Ostrow, a member USWA Local 1843, contributed to this
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