According to workers on the picket lines, specialty steel maker Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) is moving forward with plans to hire scabs to replace 1,300 steelworkers for the duration of their strike.
The company has said that it plans to continue production using management, contractors, as well as hiring replacements for the striking workers, but has not yet provided details of how or when they will do this.
On Tuesday morning, 1,300 steelworkers at nine mills in five states went on strike against Allegheny Technologies Inc. They had been working without a contract since February, when a one-year extension to their previous four-year contract expired.
The strike is taking place at five Pennsylvania facilities—Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, Vandergrift and Washington—as well as at four mills in Lockport, New York; Louisville, Ohio; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Waterbury, Connecticut.
In 2015-16, ATI locked out the steelworkers for over seven months. During that lockout, the company used scabs from the strikebreaking firm, Strom Engineering, to staff the mills. But, according to one striking worker, it was unable to do so this time since they are “tied up in court with them.” ATI is in the process of contracting with another strikebreaking firm.
The company has already increased security at all its facilities as it prepares to begin bringing in strikebreakers.
“We haven’t had a raise in seven years,” said one worker who has been with the company at its Brackenridge mill for 23 years. “The company is saying that they are giving us a raise, but they take that away to pay for health care.
“We used to follow US Steel with our contracts, but we have been taking concessions after concessions. We haven’t kept up with them. We just want a fair contract. They want to eliminate lots of jobs in the Machine Shop, the Locomotive Shop and the truck garage.”
Jobs are another major issue for the workers. Since 2015, the number of employees has been cut from 2,200 to just 1,300 today. ATI has closed its Bagdad and Midland mills and cut several product lines.
“They are shutting the Number 3 department. Usually when they shut a department down of that size, you would get a severance payment. But they are not giving them anything.
“A lot of people are retiring. This is no easy life. We are crawling into all kinds of machines. I’ve had my knee replaced, six back and shoulder operations. When you do retire, there is no quality of life. It is a tough environment inside the mill.
“That is why health care is so important for us. Other companies provide health care, I don’t see why they don’t, with all the money we make them. I don’t see why they treat us the way they do. We make them a high-quality product; we should be able to take care of ourselves and our families.”
ATI is demanding that workers pay increased premiums for their health insurance and that new hires be placed in a plan that provides less coverage and costs more.
Jeff Lewis works in the Brackenridge strip mill. “The company will say one thing and then does another. It doesn’t matter what contract we sign, they say they are retaining the right to change the contract at any point.
“They’ve laid a lot of people off. People need jobs to support their families and themselves. We had no increase for this whole contract, five years. They say they are offering a pay raise, but there are a lot of details they are not telling people.
“They just want to keep cutting and cutting us. We have to stand up.”
The ATI strike is part of an upsurge in the class struggle throughout the United States. Steelworkers in Atchison, Kansas are also on strike, and 3,000 graduate students at Columbia University in New York City have been on strike for nearly three weeks. Yesterday, 1,100 mine workers at the Warrior Met Coal company in Alabama went on strike. Met Coal was formed in 2016 out of the bankruptcy of Walter Energy, when United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) allowed the bankruptcy court to eliminate the pensions for nearly 3,000 retired miners.
However, far from seeking to unite these struggles, the United Steelworkers (USW) union is seeking to cut off striking ATI workers and isolate their struggle. The strike at ATI comes only a few months after it called off a strike and forced through a sellout contract at NLMK Pennsylvania in Farrell, Pennsylvania.
The USW presents the strike to steelworkers as an “unfair labor practice” (ULP), as a clever tactic that will allow workers to receive unemployment benefits and bar the company from labeling scabs it hires as permanent replacements. In reality, this has become another union method of isolating the workers. Since the strike has been called over “unfair labor practice,” the union refuses to present any actual demands for wage increases, job security, health care or pensions.
The union used the same tactic in the 2015 nationwide refinery strike. Calling out only a small portion of the union’s membership, it used the ULP designation of the strike to avoid any concrete demands, eventually betraying the strike with a sellout agreement. In spite of the central issue of the strike being safety and dangerous working conditions, the USW left workers at a refinery in Galveston, Texas on strike by themselves when management at the facility refused to accept the national agreement.
From a purely legal standpoint, bargaining in “good faith” is a very low bar for ATI to meet, and in most cases the National Labor Relations Board will rule in favor of the company. It also allows the union to call off the strike at any time, claiming that the company is now “willing to bargain.”
In a prepared statement, David McCall, USW international vice president in charge of negotiations, made clear his intentions to end the strike as soon as possible. “We are willing to meet with management all day, every day. But ATI needs to engage with us to resolve the outstanding issues. We will continue to bargain in good faith, and we strongly urge ATI to start doing the same.”
The way forward for ATI workers is to form independent rank-and-file committees of their own to fight against the isolation imposed by the USW. These committees must demand an end to dangerous working conditions, substantial increases to wages and benefits, full income and health care benefits for all retirees and a reinstatement of the eight-hour day.
Workers must also demand that all negotiations between the USW and the corporations be livestreamed and that the full contract be made available to members to study and discuss for two weeks before voting.
The Socialist Equality Party and the WSWS will do everything possible to support the organization of these committees. Contact us today if you are interested in forming a rank-and-file strike committee at your plant.