December 5, 2008 Volume 109 Number 23

Organizing drive at Oregon Steel Mills falls short

Union supporters at Evraz Oregon Steel Mills plant in North Portland failed to get majority support for joining United Steelworkers (USW) by a Nov. 26 deadline.

Union organizer Pete Passarelli said about 200 workers signed cards, but that was about 85 short of a majority.

The Russian multinational Evraz bought several steel mills and related facilities in the United States and Canada in recent years, including Portland-headquartered Oregon Steel Mills and IPSCO of Canada.

Evraz left management in place after it acquired Oregon Steel Mills in 2006.

Under its union contract with two Pueblo, Colorado locals, Oregon Steel Mills agreed to recognize the Steelworkers as the representative of workers at the Portland plant if the majority signed union cards over a three-month period. During that time, the company allowed union organizers to talk with workers in break rooms.

It made it harder that wages at the Portland mill — $14 to $15 an hour — are equivalent to those at unionized mills owned by Evraz, Passarelli said. And the bad economy made workers want to hang on to what they got. Oregon Steel Mills laid off about 130 of the plant’s 570 workers in early November, and some workers felt unionizing at such a time was too risky.

Plus, union organizers had to contend with an active steel mill rumor mill. Among the rumors: If they unionized, all workers would lose their seniority and have to start from scratch; workers would lose their profit-sharing bonuses, and bargaining could go either way, meaning that workers might even lose what they currently have.

Where did all the rumors come from? Passarelli suspects anti-union consultants hired by the company played a role. When United Steelworkers showed up in August, Oregon Steel Mills hired The Burke Group, based in Malibu, California, which advertises itself as a “preventative labor relations consulting firm” that helps employers stay “union free.”

Burke Group representatives talked up the disadvantages of unionizing at a mandatory-attendance union information meeting held by Oregon Steel Mills. No union representatives were invited to give a counter-argument.

“If the company really intended to be neutral,” Passarelli said, “they wouldn’t have hired the Burke Group.”

Oregon Steel Mill’s agreement with the locals in Pueblo, Colorado comes up for renegotiation next fall. Bargaining could be tough if the worldwide economic downturn dampens steel demand, and profits.

The current Pueblo contract is a five-year deal signed in 2004 as part of a legal settlement that ended a six-year labor dispute that began as a strike and continued as a lockout. Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Oregon Steel Mills had violated labor law, and the company agreed to a record-setting back pay settlement that is still being paid out.

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