BRACKENRIDGE, Pa. — Scores of union steelworkers joined picket lines at the Allegheny Technologies Inc. mill here March 30, and at the mill in Washington, as 1,300 United Steelworkers members in five states struck against the company’s profit-driven concession demands. Most workers that Militant correspondents spoke with were veterans of the seven-month ATI lockout in 2015.
“Too many things were left on the table,” said Todd Barbiaux, a crane operator and president of United Steelworkers Local 1196 at Brackenridge. Workers haven’t had a raise since 2014.
Barbiaux and others on the picket lines explained the company seeks to take away overtime rates after eight hours and that most workers at the Brackenridge mill work 12-hour shifts.
Another issue is health care. “This is a specialty steel plant. Work conditions are tough, because part of the picture are the cancer-causing particles in the air,” Brad Phillips, who has worked at ATI’s mill in Washington for 14 years, told the Militant on the picket line there. “There’s no cost-of-living allowance. The salaried workers get their bonuses and raises, but not us.”
Contracting out union work is also a key issue. “The company lays maintenance people off and still brings contractors in. It’s a direct attack on the bargaining unit,” Lance Jablonski, a maintenance worker who has 20 years in Brackenridge, said.
Jablonski pointed to how the company is trying “to divide us up” by having workers on different tiers in terms of wages, retirement and health care plans. The latest proposal, he said, “would break it down to three tiers.”
“The biggest issue is health care,” said Dave Varsho, a garage worker and unit chair of USW Local 7139-05, in Washington. “They want to separate the union into different health care programs and make us pay more and more,” he said. “They want to eventually eliminate health care from the bargaining agreement.”
In the bosses’ proposed concession contract workers will have to start paying health care premiums for the first time.
A number of workers told us how the company tries to divide workers up. “They want to deepen the tier system,” said John Hickman, a shipping worker in Washington with 33 years in the mill. “They bring in new hires at 80% of the pay we get and at the same time raise their health care costs. People can’t work at those wages and pay hundreds and perhaps a thousand dollars a month for health care.”
The bosses have been cutting the union workforce and closing down mills they don’t consider profitable enough. They’re shifting production out of stainless steel, which they claim doesn’t make enough money, and expanding new nonunion facilities in North Carolina that make specialty metals for aerospace and defense industries.
There are workers laid off at both the Washington and Brackenridge mills. Jim Allenberg, a maintenance worker, told the Militant he took a job at Brackenridge in 2018 because he thought it was secure. “Now I have no job, I’m out on the street,” after the company idled the finishing mill there, Allenberg said.
Bud Olsen, a crane operator at Brackenridge, said the company “wants to eliminate jobs and bring in contract people to do union jobs, do all the maintenance and repair work.” He said the wage raises in the proposed contract were contingent on accepting these job cuts. “There’s a lot of families that would effect.”
Ron Stein, a maintenance worker who has 33 years in the Washington plant, told a similar story. “In 2007 there were 250 workers here. Now there are 180, but 20 of those guys are laid off.”
While Militant worker-correspondents were at the Washington picket line, a retired United Mine Workers member joined the picket with a big UMW flag, saying, “I have come to bring you brothers some solidarity.” A discussion followed about mine and mill closings and fights both he and the Steelworkers had seen.
The ATI lockout six years ago was a bitter battle. The Steelworkers need solidarity and support.
Organize to get the word out about the strike, join the picket line and build solidarity in your union and community. You can contact USW Local 1196 at 1080 Brackenridge Ave., Brackenridge, PA 15014, and at firstname.lastname@example.org
USW Local 7139 is at 1505 Jefferson Ave., Washington, PA 15301.
Malcolm Jarrett and Ruth Robinett contributed to this article.