Steelworkers' lockout at Rocky Mountain Steel enters fifth year

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

"One day longer" is the fighting slogan of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) when the 700,000-member union goes to war with an industrial employer. The idea is tenacity - never surrender. It worked at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane and at Titan Tire in Indiana. But what to do when an employer is so union-hostile that "one day longer" is its slogan too?

October marked the beginning of the fifth year of the USWA's dispute with Rocky Mountain Steel Mills, a Pueblo, Colo., subsidiary of Portland-based Oregon Steel Mills. At the beginning of the dispute the subsidiary was known as CF&I.

The conflict is the longest dispute in Steelworker history.

It began when 1,100 workers walked off the job Oct. 3, 1997 in a strike called to protest unfair labor practices.

Eighty-eight days later they made an unconditional offer to return to work, but Oregon Steel Mills refused to take them back. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered the company to reinstate the strikers, since it's illegal to hire "permanent replacements" when workers strike over violations of labor law.

The company stalled, but eventually began calling strikers back. About 400 workers have been recalled and are working, without a union contract, alongside 200 strikebreakers and 100 workers who crossed strike picket lines. Another couple hundred have found other permanent jobs, moved, retired, suffered long-term disability, or died. But some 300 workers remain locked out.

The union maintains that Oregon Steel Mills hurts its own financial position every day it delays reinstating the workers, because it will owe any wages lost by workers since the Dec. 30, 1997 offer to return to work. Oregon Steel Mills lawyers dispute this claim, arguing from the beginning that the strike was an "economic" strike, not an "unfair labor practice" strike. Neither the NLRB agent who investigated nor an administrative law judge who heard the case agreed with the company. Over 100 separate violations of labor law were sustained, including a threat to close the plant, refusal to bargain, and intimidating the workforce.

Oregon Steel appealed the judge's May 2000 decision, and since then the case has been awaiting a hearing before the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.

Steelworkers spokesperson Steve Hopcraft says odds are low that the company will prevail in court, but legal maneuvers could tie up a resolution for years.

From the beginning, the USWA knew it couldn't expect swift justice from the NLRB, and it used other methods to put pressure on Oregon Steel. Foremost has been its "corporate campaign" - hurting company profits by making a case before customers, lenders, stockholders, elected representatives, government regulators, the media, and the general public.

Their strategies have hurt Oregon Steel financially. It's hard to quantify how much, but it's an amount far more than the union's economic proposals during the 1997 bargaining. Though the strike itself was called in protest of labor law violations, there was an economic component to the union's dispute with the company at that time, chiefly a difference over pension coverage.

Pension commitments are a frequent source of union-management conflict in the U.S. steel industry. The industry has been shrinking for decades for numerous reasons, including dumping of cheap foreign steel, automation, worldwide overproduction, and reduced demand. The result has been few new hires and a dramatically aging workforce. Bethlehem Steel, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, has 16,000 workers and 74,000 retirees. The Pueblo mill shrank from 10,000 workers in the 1950s to 1,100 in 1997, and is operating with 700 workers today.

Ernie Hernandez, president of one of the two USWA locals at the Pueblo mill, says the average union Steelworker at the mill was 45 at the time of the strike; now the majority are over 50.

But union leaders say no settlement was possible on pensions or any other issue, because the company had in mind all along provoking a strike.

"They're a ruthless company," Hernandez said, "They're lean, mean, and looking for green. They have no compassion for human beings. Union busting was their bottom line."

Oregon Steel signed a contract with the USWA when it bought the bankrupt Pueblo mill in 1993, but it has an anti-union history that dates back to 1983, when the company, then known as Gilmore Steel, busted the union at its Rivergate mill in Portland. There too, union leaders say the company provoked a strike by refusing to bargain a contract. When workers struck, the company hired permanent replacements.

Ten months later, strikers offered to return to work, but the company refused to take them back. The union was decertified in 1984 when the Reagan-era Labor Board ruled that the strikebreakers were employees too and could vote to throw out the union.

As in Pueblo, the company violated labor laws in the course of the Portland dispute, but after pursuing legal appeals that dragged out 11 years, the company faced penalties of less than $1 million.

The same people who busted the Portland union in 1983 are in charge of the company today. Oregon Steel Chairman Thomas Boklund was Gilmore Steel's chief operating officer, while Oregon Steel chief executive officer Joe Corvin was a Gilmore Steel foreman and former member of the Steelworkers Union.

The company changed its name to Oregon Steel Mills in 1987, but union leaders think its anti-union strategy remains the same. In the Pueblo case, however, no vote on decertifying the union can take place until the NLRB case is settled, which could take years.

To prepare for that day, the Steelworkers have been working to rebuild the union inside the Pueblo mill. Hernandez said most recalled members continue to pay union dues, though workers don't have a union contract. Hernandez said the union still tries to serve union functions under the terms of the company-imposed last-and-final offer, advocating for safety and pursuing grievances when workers feel wronged, even when the worker in question may be a strikebreaker.

Other locked-out workers continue to collect strike benefits on a hardship basis, and the corporate campaign continues.

For Hernandez and other union Steelworkers in Pueblo, the bitter conflict with Oregon Steel calls to mind another earlier struggle. Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I), the Rockefeller-owned Pueblo company Oregon Steel purchased in 1993, was the antagonist in a 1914 strike by mineworkers that ended in the most notorious anti-union violence in U.S. labor history - the Ludlow Massacre - in which troops turned machine guns on a tent city inhabited by homeless workers and their families, killing dozens of women and children. The Pueblo mill has been union for generations; many workers there have ancestors that were part of the Ludlow struggle.

For now, Hernandez says, employers have traded machine guns and goons for lawyers and public relations professionals, but the essence is the same.

November 2, 2001 issue

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