Striking ATI workers denied unemployment benefits in Ohio

As the strike of 1,300 Allegheny Technologies (ATI) steelworkers in five states approaches the end of its third month, the United Steelworkers union (USW) has informed workers that the state of Ohio has ruled against providing unemployment benefits to striking workers in that state. The decision is a strong indication that strikers in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts will also be denied benefits. This ruling is a devastating exposure of the USW's entire conduct of the strike, which has already led to mass attrition of experienced workers.

At the onset of the strike on March 30, the USW all but promised workers unemployment benefits and used that as a justification for starving workers on the picket line on below-poverty-level strike pay of $150-$175 per week out. The USW's line was that $900 a week in unemployment benefits would allow workers to strike longer, but this would only be possible if workers conducted the struggle as an Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) strike in which workers could not raise any economic demands.

For the entire duration of the strike, the USW used the ULP claim as the grounds for insisting that workers raise no demands and refrain from active picketing, let alone calling for sympathy action from other workers. In practice, this muzzled workers, kept them isolated, and prevented them from taking any action that could achieve their demands. These include a substantial wage increase, an end to layoffs, premium-free healthcare, and an end to benefit tiers, which divide newer and more experienced workers.

At a meeting at of ATI Brackenridge workers this week in Pennsylvania, USW lead negotiator Dave McCall broke the news about the Ohio case, workers told the World Socialist Web Site. As of this writing, the USW has not posted this news on its ATI Bargaining Updates webpage. McCall then further angered workers by denying requests for basic assistance with the conduct of the strike, such as keeping the union hall open on weekends for picketing workers.

A worker at ATI Brackenridge expressed the anger many workers are feeling against the USW, saying, “They’re giving me $150 a week, and they won't give me the $150 if I do work [a second job]. They want me to come down there and picket every day. They expect me to change my entire life. I think they’re aware of the fact that it’s completely ridiculous, it’s unfair. To my understanding, everybody at the USW International is getting paid. We’re losing money. It’s us that are down there every day, putting in the effort.”

In the meeting with McCall, Brackenridge workers opposed the USW’s isolation of the strike and complained about the lack of information and publicity about their strike. McCall lamely noted that the USW puts out occasional press releases and it isn’t the USW’s fault if the media are not picking them up. In fact, the USW is adamantly opposed to any measures which would inform other workers and draw them into a common fight.

“The USW does a great job of putting on a glossy coat of paint,” the striking worker told the WSWS. “They have all these things you can go into to be leaders in your union. At the end of the day, the USW is every bit as much a business as ATI. They are looking after their interests, and our interests are essentially nonexistent.”

The USW’s isolation of the three-month strike has led to a growing number of workers choosing to retire early because they recognize the USW will not fight for them. “The vast majority of guys at Brackenridge hired in between 1988 and 1989. There was another big hire in 2005-06 and they have their 15 [years] in. A lot of people who had no intention of leaving have signed their papers to retire.”

The striking worker said the company has constantly slashed jobs with no resistance from the USW. “The guys at Brackenridge have just been decimated. There were maybe 800 at the beginning of last year. With the closing of #3 [department], it went down to maybe 500-600 at the start of the strike. Now, news is they might not bring the melt shop back up. The finishing shop is done.”

Successive USW-backed contracts have robbed new hires of pensions and other benefits, creating a tiered system, which ATI's current contract proposal would further extend. This creates an incentive for ATI to replace experienced workers with new hires, which is precisely what the current attrition is allowing ATI to do. Thus, the USW's deliberate sabotage of the ATI strike is helping the company save money by forcing out higher paid, more experienced workers.

A worker at the Vandergrift plant in Pennsylvania reported the same attrition of the workforce during the strike, with as many as one out of six workers quitting. “A lot of people have taken other jobs and aren't coming back. A guy from New Castle [a plant in Indiana that closed in the early 2000s] got his 15 [years], froze his time, and went back to Indiana to do something else. I think we're about 30 people short now. That's a lot. We have 170 people at Vandergrift.”

Explaining the implications of this loss, the worker continued, “When we go back, we’re probably running 7 days a week. I know what's coming. To get people in there to alleviate that takes time because the company’s not real quick on that.

“The other day I thought, ‘maybe all the guys who are leaving was part of the plan to get them out of there.’ For the guys with 15 [years], in the past typically ATI would buy you out to get you off the books. Most of the guys take the lump sum money, and when you do that, you sever ties with ATI. That’s people who had defined-benefit pensions and healthcare.

"This is really good for them [ATI]. Workers like me are getting forced out because they don't want to live with this oppressive lifestyle."

The loss of unemployment benefits in Ohio, and the likely loss of those benefits in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, is a serious warning to ATI workers. The USW never had a strategy to win the strike. It had one to lose. As was the case in the 2015-2016 lockout, the USW is waiting until it believes the workforce is sufficiently worn down to accept ATI’s major demands. With the prospect of financial security quickly vanishing for many workers, the USW will likely attempt to ram through another pro-company deal sooner rather than later.

Workers must understand that “bargaining” between the USW and ATI is not a negotiation between antagonistic parties. These two businesses are debating behind closed doors how best to give the company what it wants, irrespective of what workers need.

The USW is deeply embedded within the Democratic Party and is poised to profit handsomely from the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan. The USW is doing everything it can to keep a lid on workers' militancy to avoid jeopardizing this money-making opportunity. This requires preventing strikes if possible and keeping them isolated if they emerge.

But workers at ATI have many powerful allies. Within the USW, 650 ExxonMobil refinery workers are locked out at a refinery in Beaumont, Texas. 2,400 miners in Sudbury, Ontario have been on strike since January 1. 2,500 steelworkers in Quebec are angered over the USW betrayal of their strike against ArcelorMittal. Roughly 70 workers at Custom Hoists in Ashland, Ohio walked off the job on June 13. In addition, 1,100 Warrior Met coal miners remain on strike in Alabama. 700 nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts have been on strike since March.

Most importantly, nearly 3,000 striking Volvo workers in Dublin, Virginia are showing the way forward for ATI and all workers. Recognizing the treachery of the United Auto Workers (UAW), workers have formed the Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee, which led the fight to defeat two UAW-backed contracts 90-91 percent. The committee has issued an open letter to the UAW and advanced a real strategy to win their strike.

ATI workers should follow the Volvo workers’ lead and form democratically controlled rank-and-file committees, independent of the USW. Now that ULP unemployment benefits have been exposed as a lie, workers should reject the USW’s efforts to gag them and raise their own demands, based on what they need, not what the company and the USW say is affordable.

These should include the opportunity for all workers who retired during the strike to return to their prior positions with no loss of pay or seniority, the recovery of all concessions and across-the-board wage increases and cost-of-living allowances to protect workers from rising prices. They should also demand no cuts to health care, full pensions for new hires, job security (including for the hundreds of workers slated to lose their jobs this contract), an end to wage and benefit tiers, and a return to the eight-hour day. At the same time, to sustain striking workers and their families, ATI workers should demand immediate payment of $900 a week in strike pay from the USW’s $170 million Strike and Defense Fund.

ATI workers cannot fight alone! Striking workers should establish lines of communication with striking Volvo workers and other workers in struggle. In Pennsylvania, ATI workers should send delegations to their brothers and sisters working nearby at US Steel plants, the Custom Hoists strikers in Ashland, and elsewhere in the area. ATI workers in Massachusetts and Connecticut should send delegations to striking Worcester nurses. At the same time, all workers have the duty to break the isolation of the ATI, ExxonMobil, Warrior Met, Massachusetts nurses, and Volvo strike and fight for joint demonstrations, protests and strikes.

We call on all workers who agree with this perspective to contact the World Socialist Web Site today to learn how to join the growing network of national and international rank-and-file committees.