Steelworkers ratchet up pressure on Wells Fargo

A new team of Steelworkers has come to town. Its mission: to escalate an AFL-CIO boycott of Wells Fargo Bank and apply pressure on Oregon Steel Mills.

Portland-headquartered Oregon Steel Mills, owner of Rocky Mountain Steel (formerly CF&I) in Pueblo, Colo., locked out more than 1,000 Steelworkers Union members in December 1997 after they made an unconditional offer to return to work, following a two-month strike over lousy pensions and excessive overtime (90 to 100 hours a week).

Wells Fargo was drawn into the dispute because on two occasions it rescued Oregon Steel from default on a $125 million line of credit by renegotiating the loan and lending more money.

That led to Wells Fargo being placed on the national AFL-CIO's Unfair/Do Not Patronize List. Since then, close to $260 million in deposits have been withdrawn from the bank. Wells Fargo recently merged with Norwest Financial & Mortgage to create the nation's largest originator of home mortgages and the seventh-largest bank, with more than 5,700 offices in 21 states. Steelworkers Union officials said the merger will give labor a much larger playing field to pursue the boycott.

"Wells Fargo is the surviving name in the merger, and Norwest, therefore, inherits the sorry legacy of Oregon Steel's war on workers in Pueblo," a union official said.

The Steelworkers Union maintained an office in the Portland metropolitan area throughout 1998, where it coordinated rallies and job actions at Oregon Steel's downtown corporate office and staged protests at various Wells Fargo banks. In October, spouses of several strikers chained themselves to pillars inside the downtown Portland branch of Wells Fargo. A dozen women were arrested.

On Jan. 2 a new team of boycott organizers came to town, only now they will be asking city and county governments to withdraw funds from Wells Fargo. They are set up in a small office in Vancouver, Wash. Similar campaigns are operating in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Denver and Canada.

"The City of Portland does business with Wells Fargo Bank, and they are first on our list," said Paul Bogart, an international union representative from Seattle. Joining Bogart on the Portland team are international representative Fernando Terrazas of Tucson, Ariz., and three Rocky Mountain strikers from Pueblo - Joel Buchanan, Jim Gallegor and Nick Mikatich. The three men have a combined 100 years of service to the company.

"We're involved in a struggle where an out-of-town corporation is having a serious impact on the lives of hundreds of families in Pueblo," said Buchanan. "Our only choice is to come to Portland and continue raising public awareness and try to get support from community allies."

In addition to labor unions, the Steelworkers are reaching out to community, religious and political groups for support. In December, a coalition that included members of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon went to Pueblo on a fact-finding mission. Other higher level meetings have taken place involving Wells Fargo Bank, the Steelworkers, the City of San Francisco, and the national AFL-CIO.

"This conflict is about a bunch of folks in a community who want to make a living and a company that wants to make a killing," said Mikatich, a third-generation employee who has been at the Colorado mill for 32 years.

Terrazas believes Oregon Steel's intent is to break the union. "They're betting the ranch that they can bust us by taking this to the highest levels in court. They're surprised as hell that we're still here."

The National Labor Relations Board has brought Rocky Mountain/Oregon Steel Mills to trial on more than 127 violations of federal law. The company has appealed two guilty verdicts by regional administrative law judges, but if the charges are ultimately upheld, Oregon Steel will be liable for up to $1 million a week in back pay starting Dec. 30, 1997.

February 5, 1999 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.