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Global steel redefines labor plans

Organizers are looking at the needs of workers in foreign countries, where partners of U.S. steel companies are based.

Associated Press
Published September 1, 2005

CLEVELAND - When steelmaking was king in Cleveland and others across the nation, labor unions were as strong as the metal their members made.

With hundreds of thousands of members, the United Steelworkers of America and the Independent Steelworkers Union were powerful forces that held their own against the multimillion-dollar companies the unions often squared off with.

Today, when organized labor is shrinking with the steel industry, union workers are trying to figure out how they can remain influential in the United States and become a force internationally. The steel industry has emerged from tough times by consolidating, and businesses that survived are increasingly tied to foreign firms.

"This is a global steel world whether we like it or not," said Thomas Conway, vice president and a globalization strategist of the Pittsburgh-based USWA. "We believe labor needs a global solution."

Exactly how globalization will redefine unions is a work in progress.

Experts say declining membership has hurt unions' clout with companies and in politics. The USWA is down to 90,000 members who make steel; 10 years ago, membership was 140,000.

Workers have made concessions to keep plants open, such as agreeing to cut jobs and retiree benefits at International Steel Group Inc., based in Cleveland before it merged this year with Netherlands-based Mittal Steel Co.

"With the global structure of the steel industry, the question comes down to how can the (United) Steelworkers, for example, utilize its relationship with companies like Mittal to maximize political clout?" said Paul F. Gerhart, a business professor who studies collective bargaining at Case Western Reserve University.

Unions say they are working with international labor organizations to push for fair wages and safety standards worldwide. And they are recruiting members from nonsteel fields, being more open to supporting candidates from outside their traditional Democratic base and lobbying lawmakers for tough trade rules unions say are needed to protect the U.S. steel jobs.

"If we're going to deal with globalization, we'll need to build a stronger labor organization. In that respect, it's no different than organizing was years ago," Conway said.

Before it merged, Cleveland's ISG quickly grew into the country's largest integrated steel company behind the leadership of New York financier Wilbur Ross.

Ross is widely credited with getting unions on board with the concept of leaner mills that that require fewer workers to do more than one duty, unlike the days when union rules allowed only one job per person. That enabled the mills to compete with foreign companies that made steel cheaper and flooded the U.S. market with inexpensive imports.

Ross said workers' rights are not developed yet in many parts of the world.

"The safety records in many developing countries are not very satisfactory," he said. "Their environmental records are awful in many cases. There are a lot of things that are done here that are not done in some of the less developed countries.

"I believe that over time that will change and you will have more of a balance of power between labor and management in these emerging countries."

Union leaders say that while they're used to doing business in places like Cleveland, the USWA has not paid much attention to other steelmaking countries such as Serbia or Brazil.

That's changing as U.S. workers find themselves on the same payroll as workers abroad.

"U.S. Steel has operations in Serbia. We sent our safety and health technicians and experts over there for a couple of weeks," Conway said. "There shouldn't be differences in safety at steel mills regardless of what country they are in. U.S. Steel hasn't resisted that."

The USWA has built relationships with two international union organizations: the International Metalworkers Federation and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions. The groups are creating global councils for sharing information and coordinating bargaining strategies.

The International Metalworkers' Federation, based in Geneva, Switzerland, represents the collective interests of 25-million metalworkers in more than 200 unions or associations in about 100 countries. Some affiliated organizations are the Miners & Metallurgical Workers' Union of Russia in Moscow, the HKTUC Metalworkers' Coordinating Committee in Hong Kong and the HKTUC Metalworkers' Coordinating Committee in Frankfurt, Germany.

Cooperation among steel labor across borders won't be easy, said David Phelps, president of the Washington-based American Institute for International Steel.

"Market economics would vary from country to country, so for example an international steel workers' wage would seem to be a nonsensical concept. But if the goal is international cooperation, I'd find it hard to find fault with that idea," he said.

Mittal Steel USA-Cleveland maintenance electrician Ralph Meyers said the message is clear that unionized workers at his plant have to be more productive. The mill where he works employed about 3,200 people shortly before shutting down in bankruptcy in 2001. It has about 1,350 employees now who do jobs similar to co-workers in Mittal plants in places including Hunedoara, Romania; Katowice, Poland; and Sidi Amar, Algeria.

"Here, we're trying to do the best we can with what we've got," Meyers said. "The bottom line is you either produce or you cease to exist."

The USWA, which remains the dominant union for steel labor, is merging with unions that don't make steel to help it survive. Workers have been added from industries including other metals, rubber, plastics, glass, petroleum, chemicals, paper and health care. The union has a total of 1.2-million active and retired members.

Mark Glyptis, president of the Independent Steelworkers Union, based in Weirton, W.Va., said his union represents about 2,100 workers at Mittal Steel USA-Weirton, the former Weirton Steel that was one of about 40 steel bankruptcies this decade. Ten years ago, the ISU had about 4,800 members.

[Last modified September 1, 2005, 00:57:17]

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