Steelworkers to continue working without contract

Aug 28, 2015
Originally published on July 1, 2016 11:35 am

Updated September 1, 2015 at 1:23 p.m.

A contract between the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel is set to expire midnight Tuesday, and a last-minute deal is not expected. The company employs roughly 2,000 in Granite City, and operations at the plant will likely continue past the deadline.

Members of the United Steelworkers say they are not planning a strike at this point and the company says it remains committed to operating "without disruption as labor contract talks continue."

The key issues for the national negotiations include a potential increase in employee and retiree health care costs, overtime and outside workers.

Terms of the current contract will remain in place past the midnight deadline as efforts continue to hammer out a new deal.

Original Story Posted August 25, 2015

A potential strike by workers at U.S. Steel is another development in what has been a roller-coaster year for the company's Granite City operation. The contract between the company and its unionized employees expires on Tuesday.

Decisions affecting more than 2,000 area workers are being made well-beyond the Metro East, including Washington, D.C. That is where lawmakers debated legislation designed to fast-track the international trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The United Steelworkers of America says the pact could put Metro East jobs in jeopardy by making it easier for overseas companies to enter the U.S. market.

"People think it's just steel industry that's affected. No. It's plastic, rubbers, tires, medical supplies pharmaceuticals,” steelworker Christopher Earhart told St. Louis Public Radio during a demonstration outside U.S. Rep. Mike Bost's Belleville office in May. “Man, it's everything.”

Others agreed that fast-tracking legislation and international trade agreements harm more than steel companies.

“To me, this economy is really in jeopardy,” said Jerry Koroby, also a member of the union.

“And if we don't do something it's going to be a lot of people out of work and to me that's bad. Very bad.”

Federal lawmakers eventually approved the measure. That made it easier for President Barack Obama to sign the overall trade deal. It's a package that United Steelworkers Sub District 2 Director Dave Dowling said is similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"We know that NAFTA has had a devastating impact on manufacturing jobs - on the middle class,” said Dowling.

“That has resulted in some of the wage inequity that is so prevalent in our society right now. Future trade deals we fear will continue to have the effect of NAFTA."

The downturns related to international trade agreements and global demand are nothing new to Granite City and the overall domestic steel industry.

Jeffrey Manuel is an associate professor of historical studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and told St. Louis Public Radio that a similar debate involving tariffs and dumping took place earlier this decade.

"Beneath all this of course, is just an overall decline in the importance of the U.S. Steel industry relative to global producers and things like that,” said Manuel.

“I think that's really, you know, globalization and those type of processes are in my opinion are the big underlying driver of all this."

Some industry observers have said there could be some help for domestic producers.

Included in the hundreds of pages of the fast-track legislation and Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal are new rules to help U.S. companies concerned that overseas producers are selling, or dumping, products here at less than fair value.

“Quite often what would happen is the plant would have to shut down, so that they can then argue and say, see we had damages,” Rep. Bost told reporters during a visit to Granite City Works earlier this summer.

“Now we can use the profit line, we can use other mechanisms so that we can then move forward and then aggressively go to the WTO and can tell them this has got to stop.”

The first international trade case under the new regulations is still being played out. The U.S. Department of Commerce will decide later this year if companies from China, Italy, India, Korea and Taiwan are violating anti-dumping laws.

In addition to Washington and potentially Italy and China, the fate of the Granite City plant is also being played out in Pittsburgh. The headquarters of U.S. Steel is in the Pennsylvania city and that's where executives announced in January plans to temporarily shut down the Metro East operation, only to reverse that decision a few months later.

In fact, the company seems to have completely changed its tune, based on comments made by Vice President Geoff Turk in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio during a stop in Granite City a few weeks ago.

“We're constantly looking at to get our footprint and to make sure that we're competitive and that we earn that right to grow and we can grow profitability in the future. And so, we view this facility as a big part of that," Turk said.

The company has been adding equipment and is still expected to fire up a second blast furnace at the plant next month.

Brining it online will follow a decision by U.S. Steel to end steelmaking at a plant in Alabama due to a drop in global consumption and potential dumping by overseas companies.

Granite City remains resilient despite all the uncertainty in the steel industry.

“That's one of the real defining characteristics I think of the culture of these places is a sort of stubborn tenacity to hang on in the face of bad times and to know even when the good times are there is to know that might be around the corner," said SIUE’s Manuel.

So, with global supply and trade factors looming large, U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers are hoping to avoid a strike and strengthen the industry's future with a new deal.

The clock is ticking.

The contract between the company and its unionized employees expires Tuesday.

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