Pueblo Steelworkers to vote on Oregon Steel proposal

Six years, three months and 11 days after 1,000-plus Steelworkers walked off the job in Pueblo, Colorado, their dispute appears to be at an end.

Portland-headquartered Oregon Steel Mills and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) announced Jan. 14 an agreement that would end the strike, which became a lockout when strikers agreed to return to work in January 1998 and were refused reinstatement.

The Colorado steel mill where they struck, Colorado Fuel and Iron, since renamed Rocky Mountain Steel Mills, is a subsidiary of Oregon Steel Mills.

USWA President Leo Gerard called the settlement “a bittersweet victory.” In a statement to the press, Gerard said “no settlement can truly compensate Pueblo’s steelworkers, their families and their community for the devastation and suffering they were forced to endure.”

The agreement includes a new five-year contract and a voluntary settlement of the unfair labor practice charges filed by both sides with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Before taking effect, the deal will have to be approved by the NLRB, ratified by a vote of the union members, and get a thumbs-up from the company’s lenders, board and stockholders.

Two weeks after the announcement, no date for the union vote had been set, but the union negotiating team is scheduled to present the deal to workers at a meeting Feb. 9. The unit includes members of USWA Locals 2102 and 3267.

The terms of the settlement agreement and five-year contract include:
• The reinstatement of any workers who have yet to return to the positions they held before the strike. [Most workers who wanted reinstatement have been brought back gradually over the last few years, working alongside replacement workers who will continue to work for the company.]
• A back pay award of $2,500 per person, plus 4,000 newly-issued shares of company stock, currently valued at between $5 and $6 a share.
• A 10-year profit sharing obligation consisting of 25 percent of the Pueblo unit’s pre-tax profit, up to $3 million a year total for the first five years and $4 million a year for the second five.
• Wage increases of approximately 10 percent over five years.
• Improvements to the pension plan, including pension credit for the period of the labor dispute and permission for up to 200 employees to take early retirement.
• The right of the union to designate a member of the company’s board of directors.
• Company neutrality in the event of future union organizing campaigns at its Napa, Calif., and Portland facilities.

In May 2000, a federal administrative law judge agreed with the union that the company was guilty of labor law violations, and ordered immediate reinstatement with back pay for all strikers. That case was still on appeal awaiting a hearing by a five-member board in Washington, D.C., at the time of the settlement. The longer the case dragged out, the more the company’s potential back-pay liability grew, a fact which may have been a factor in the company’s decision to settle the dispute.

Relations between the union and the company had been in deep freeze until president and chief executive officer Joe Corvin stepped down in July 2003 and was replaced by Jim Declusin.

In the company’s statement announcing the deal, Declusin said that at the time of the strike neither side foresaw the severe consequences the strike would have on both sides. “After such a long period of time, there were no winners,” Declusin said. “Today we have put the dispute behind us and look forward to working together with our workforce.”

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