Steelworkers hopeful Colorado dispute may end at Oregon Steel

For years it seemed the Colorado dispute between the United Steelworkers of America and Oregon Steel Mills was in deep freeze. Now, in its sixth year, the conflict may be thawing. The two parties have begun to meet again, and union leaders say they are hopeful a settlement may be on its way.

The conflict began Oct. 3, 1997, when about 1,100 workers went on strike at the company's Pueblo, Colorado, subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Steel Mills. Three months later, the union made an unconditional offer to return to work, but the company refused to take them back.

For several years, the union waged an energetic campaign to put pressure on Portland-headquartered Oregon Steel Mills by persuading customers to buy elsewhere, helping blow the whistle on safety violations, accusing the company of Clean Air Act violations, and making the case to investors that the company was in bad shape. The Steelworkers convinced other unions to close accounts with Wells Fargo, and the bank pulled out as Oregon Steel's lead lender.

But the union strategy shifted in 2000, as the company began recalling locked-out strikers. About 400 strikers were eventually called back to work, while several hundred could not be found, about 200 chose not to return, and 100 or so could not return because of failing health, stress-related disability or age.

Returning strikers work without the benefit of a collective bargaining agreement, though the company implemented its own proposal as a de facto contract in October 2000. In this situation, members must pay union dues on their own; a majority are paying, said Ernie Hernandez, president of Local 2102, one of two Pueblo locals at the plant.

At the Pueblo complex, the tube mill, which manufactures pipe for oil rigs, is almost entirely union, while in the rod and bar, rail, and steel production areas, former strikers work alongside about 165 strikebreakers, who aren't allowed to join the union. It's a slow boil of hostility and hard feelings, Hernandez said. "It's going to be pretty tough to forget what happened here in the last five years."

With union members back at work in the Pueblo plant, the union has largely suspended its corporate campaign.

Then at the company's April 2002 stockholders meeting, the union noticed a change in tone. Chief executive officer Joe Corvin even shook hands with union representatives in attendance. "That's the first time he'd ever spoken to me," Hernandez said.

Since then, about 10 company and union representatives have been taking part in periodic discussions - though both Hernandez and Oregon Steel Mills spokesperson Vicki Tagliafico stop short of calling them negotiations.

Tagliafico said a resolution to the dispute would likely include a signed union contract and some settlement of the unfair labor practice charges.

When they struck, Pueblo steelworkers believed their jobs would be protected by U.S. labor law, which makes a distinction between strikes over economic matters and strikes called to protest violations of labor law, known as "unfair labor practices." Employers are prohibited from hiring permanent replacements in unfair labor practice strikes.

But as the strikers learned, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has a legal process that takes eons to get a result. Twenty-eight months after strikers offered to go back to work, a judge ordered the company to reinstate them with back pay. The company appealed, and the case has awaited hearing by the agency's five-member board. Though the union won its case at every level so far, union leaders fear that the Bush-appointed board, considered hostile to labor, might overturn those earlier rulings.

Thus, a union withdrawal of the unfair labor practice charges in return for some private settlement could be part of an eventual truce.

"If there's a favorable economic proposal, we would probably agree to drop the charges," Hernandez said. "We will not settle for peanuts; we may settle for peanut butter and jam, but it ain't going to be peanuts."

December 20, 2002 issue

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