‘ATI is trying to bust our union,’ steelworkers say

By Tony Lane
April 26, 2021

LOUISVILLE, Ohio — “They’re trying to break the union,” Dave Burgess told the Militant  at the Allegheny Technologies Inc. plant here where close to 100 union steelworkers work. “The majority of ATI’s plants are nonunion today.” Company bosses announced in December plans to shut down their plant here in Louisville, as well as facilities in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the No. 3 Finishing Department at Brackenridge, Pennsylvania.

Some 1,300 members of the United Steelworkers are on strike at nine mills and other ATI facilities in five states. Most are in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Burgess, a driver with four years in the plant, said he came to ATI from another union steel mill in nearby Massillon, where the bosses kept chipping away at contract gains workers had made. “Don’t let them open that door. You won’t get it back,” he said.

He said the company had been using “scare tactics” to try and intimidate workers before the strike. Burgess said bosses took out a machine saying they were going to scrap it, though it had been idle for years.

The picket line here is on a main street in this town of 10,000, and strikers report they get a lot of support: cars and trucks honking, and pizza, other food and things strikers need being dropped off.

We spoke with picket captain Rick Jones, who works on the bright anneal line with 27 years in the mill. He told us they’ve gotten support from nearby union steelworkers at two TimkenSteel plants and a Republic Steel mill, in the Canton-Massillon area. The local teachers union, a nearby local of the national air traffic controllers, and a plumbers and pipefitters union local have visited their picket line, he said.

Strikers on picket lines and union halls at other ATI mills Militant  worker-correspondents have visited report a similar response — lots of contributions from individual workers, their families and small-business owners, and visits from union locals.

The bosses’ announcement they planned to shut down here in Louisville had a big impact on workers. Jones said at least 20 workers with less time in the mill had quit since the announcement.

“They won’t give us a date” for the closing, said Karl Brendle, a maintenance worker with 29 years in the plant and former local union president. “They want to carve us out of a shutdown pension or a severance package. They want to deny us the right to transfer.”

A United Steelworkers fact sheet posted on the wall of the picket trailer says the company “will hold [workers] hostage and not grant the shutdown pensions until or unless we ratify the agreement.”

Brendle and Jones both said they thought that nearly half the workers in the plant were very close to having the 30 years needed to qualify for their pension.

Need to organize, strengthen unions

The need for the union movement to take steps to organize more workers was also part of our discussion. Brendle said he understood that less than 10% of ATI’s workforce is unionized.

In addition to past and threatened closures of Steelworkers-organized plants, ATI management — through mergers and expansion — now has a large nonunion operation in North Carolina, which makes more profitable metals for the aerospace industry. The company says it has over 4,500 employees in the Charlotte area alone.

“That’s why they hire these ‘union avoidance’ people. They want to get rid of the union,” Brendle said. He described being part of a successful organizing effort at an ATI forging plant outside Lexington, Kentucky, where workers won a contract in 2008.

We talked about the recent organizing fight by workers at Amazon in Alabama, and what workers at Walmart — where I work — face. “Workers are going to organize,” Brendle said. “What they need is three to four thousand rowdy steelworkers to get them going.”

Strikers pointed to efforts by ATI to use scabs to gear up operations at a number of plants. A company spokesperson said ATI will restart critical operations using salaried employees and interim replacement workers, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Vans transporting scabs have been seen at some of the plants. When I visited the picket line at the Latrobe plant, east of Pittsburgh, workers told me that a van full of strikebreakers had shown up for the first time that day. 

Picket captain Pete Gaynor, an electrician with 33 years in the mill, said they hadn’t started up the mill yet. “They’re not melting. I assume they’re just training.” He explained the company is focusing efforts there because the Latrobe plant has more modern equipment where they can turn out products with less impurities that are more profitable.

Help win solidarity for the strike! Join the picket lines. Send your support or contributions to USW Local 1196 at 1080 Brackenridge Ave., Brackenridge, PA 15014, or USW Local 1046, 925 W. St. Louis Ct., Louisville, OH 44641.

Malcolm Jarrett contributed to this article.