Judge rules Oregon Steel must pay lost wages

In a long-anticipated ruling, a federal judge agreed May 17 with the Denver office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that Oregon Steel Mills illegally locked out steelworkers at its Pueblo, Colo., plant, and that it owes backpay plus interest to all the strikers.

John Duray, spokesperson for the United Steelworkers of America, said the backpay award has reached at least $60 million, and it's probably much higher. The exact amount won't be determined until the company agrees to pay. The 1,100 workers who went on strike in October 1997 were making $1 million a week when they were working for CF&I, a subsidiary of Portland-based Oregon Steel. Most have been considered "locked out" since the union made an unconditional offer to return to work Dec. 30, 1997, but any wages individual strikers have earned in the interim will be subtracted from the backpay settlement.

That settlement could still be years off if the company appeals the decision, as expected, to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., and then to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Those two bodies reject such appeals 80 percent of the time, so the company has only a slim chance of reversing the decision. But if the company loses those appeals, the backpay award will have continued to grow as the resolution drags out.

Key to the decision of NLRB administrative law judge Albert Mertz was the finding that Oregon Steel Mills committed unfair labor practices prior to the strike, and that those acts - refusal to bargain and threatening and intimidating the workforce - were the cause of the strike. That makes the strike an "unfair labor practice" strike, not an economic strike, and in an unfair labor practice strike, it is illegal for the company to hire permanent replacements, and it is illegal to lock out the strikers if they agree to return.

"We're thrilled. We're thankful. But we're not surprised," said Terry Bonds, director of Steelworkers District 12. "The biggest problem for the company is that when an impartial federal judge heard the company's arguments and listened to the testimony of its witnesses, he didn't believe them."

Steelworkers spokesperson Duray said paying a sizable backpay settlement could prove a significant liability for the publicly-traded Oregon Steel, which has been suffering economically due to a downturn in the industry and the long-term effects of the strike.

Since the strike began, the union has waged a "corporate campaign," pressuring stockholders, lenders, and customers to stop doing business with the company, and pressuring government environmental and occupational safety agencies to crack down on violations. Oregon Steel's stock price has plummeted 90 percent since the strike began.

June 2, 2000 issue

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