Steelworker protest results in 21 arrests
PORTLAND, OR -- Nearly two dozen union, religious and community leaders were arrested Nov. 4 after an old-fashioned arm-in-arm sit-in protest in the lobby of Wells Fargo Bank in downtown Portland. A simultaneous action took place at the bank's San Francisco headquarters, where 32 people were arrested while attempting to call on chief executive officer Paul Hazen.
The demonstrations were part of a national "Speak Out" campaign spearheaded by the United Steelworkers of America in response to a strike and the permanent replacement of 1,100 of its members at Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) Steel Mill in Pueblo. CF&I is owned by Portland-based Oregon Steel Mills.
Last Sunday, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney marshaled national union leaders and members from throughout Colorado to the CF&I strikers' cause at a Solidarity Conference in Pueblo. Following the conference, the strikers, families and supporters held a Solidarity Rally at the mill.
Part of the Steelworkers' strategy to bring Oregon Steel back to the bargaining table to negotiate a decent contract is to publicize what is happening at the Pueblo mill wherever Oregon Steel has business interests. It is urging the company's major shareholders, many of whom manage union pension funds -- and who are seeing the value of their investments in Oregon Steel decline on a daily basis -- to press worker demands on the company and its president and chief operating officer Joe Corvin.
The corporate campaign began last month when Steelworkers exposed the link between Oregon Steel and the Crabbe Huson Group, Inc. -- a Portland-based company that owns 10 percent of Oregon Steel's stock and manages a large amount of union retirement money -- by distributing information about the situation at Crabbe Huson–s exhibit booth at the 43rd Annual International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans Conference in Vancouver, B.C., a major industry event that attracted more than 6,000 participants.
The Steelworkers targeted Wells Fargo Bank, maintaining that it is the lead partner in a consortium of banks extending a huge line of credit to Oregon Steel while managing eight percent of the company's stock.
"Management at Oregon Steel cannot pursue their union-busting plan without the strong support of Wells Fargo," a Steelworker spokesman said. Wells Fargo is actively supporting union busting. Our message is that anyone who cares about working people should not do business with a company that is bankrolling a strike that is destroying working families and their community."
The Portland rally attracted nearly 100 demonstrators, including some striking Steelworkers from Pueblo. The San Francisco event drew nearly 250 participants. Almost 40 people sat down on the floor of the bank lobby in Portland, many locking arms.
After a bank official asked the group to leave and the protesters refused, police were called.
"We were given a choice of either laying down and taking more immoral and illegal abuse or stand up to say enough is enough," said Charlie Fetty, a mechanical technician at the Pueblo mill. He described on-site conditions where "my partner got his legs smashed and was denied his worker's compensation benefits while the hospital bills were mounting."
"It is a hard, dirty job on unforgiving equipment that can get a hold on you," he told the Northwest Labor Press. "When we complain, the only tools management has are fear, intimidation and threats."
Fellow Pueblo worker Jim Sandusky complained about the company forcing production workers to work overtime, "sometimes in excess of 72 hours a week."
"Even on down days they will call some of us in to work 12-16 hours repairing leaking and burst pipes," he said. "A lot of the machinery is worn out."
David Foster, District 11 director of the Steelworkers in Minneapolis, Minn., said the union "will not take hiring of 1,200 permanent replacements lying down," before being escorted out of the building through a crowd of supporters and media on the steps and the waiting police vans. He was one of 21 persons handcuffed, cited and released. No formal charges have been filed, but arraignment on second-degree criminal trespass could be held in mid-December, according to the Portland Police Bureau.
"We call on Wells Fargo to use its influence as an eight percent shareholder and demand this company act in a responsible manner," he said, urging the company to "call off the labor replacement hiring and meet at the bargaining table where this belongs."
Alice Dale, executive director of the Oregon Public Employees Union and another who was arrested, said the company should use some of the millions it makes in profits to ensure adequate benefits for employees. "It is unconscionable that CF&I advertised for permanent replacements even before the strike began," she said.
Among those read their rights and put in a paddywagon in San Francisco was Jean Eilers, AFL-CIO state director for Oregon, who was there for an AFL-CIO regional field staff meeting.
The Steelworkers recently released a hard-hitting report -- "Why We Are on Strike at CF&I Steel" documenting alleged illegal acts by CF&I/Oregon Steel management during recent contract negotiations that forced the strike. The report notes that the company's bad-faith bargaining and threats to and intimidation of employees caused the strike. It also discusses some of the issues over which workers are fighting, including management demands for outrageous levels of mandatory overtime -- often on short notice -- and for an absolute right to control job assignments, regardless of a worker's skill level or seniority; and the company's refusal to provide adequate health care coverage for retirees or a pension plan providing more than half the amount provided to other Steelworkers.
Rather than bargaining on these matters, the company harassed union members for wearing union stickers and threatened workers with the loss of their jobs or the permanent closing of parts of the plant if they went out on strike -- all violations of U.S. labor law, the union said.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.