‘ONE DAY LONGER–ONE DAY STRONGER!’ say striking US steelworkers

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‘ONE day longer, one day stronger,’ chanted about 150 members and supporters of the United Steelworkers union last Sunday.

They were holding a rally to mark over a year-long lockout at Sherwin Alumina in Gregory, Texas, which is owned by Swiss commodities Glencore. The union represents about 450 Sherwin Alumina employees who have been locked out of their jobs since October 10, 2014. The lockout came after the workers refused to accept cuts in pay and benefits for active and retired employees.

The union has repeatedly offered to return to work while negotiations continue, but the company has refused, union officials said. Families and community supporters gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 278 Union Hall for the event, which featured family activities and guest speakers including the union’s international vice president Fred Redmond and State Rep. Abel Herrero.

‘They (Sherwin Alumina) wanted to take away retiree health care. They wanted to cut pensions for new hires, they cut your livelihood and your weekly earnings. That was just not acceptable,’ union District 13 Director Ruben Garza said. The plant, on State Highway 361 outside Gregory, is where employees extract aluminum oxide, called alumina, from bauxite ore.

Alumina’s uses include aeroplanes, beer cans, fire-retardant carpet, seat cushions, toothpaste, deodourant, antacid and artificial marble. Leonor Whitfield, who had worked with the company for about 36 years said she felt betrayed by its proposal and refusal of the union’s negotiations.

‘We drew unemployment for the first six months and now we are cut off. Myself and my husband have had to cut back on things financially. We are now relying on the union, who is helping us out and we are now also having to pull out of our personal savings,’ Whitfield said.

Elsewhere in Texas, two Pantex employee union groups have filed charges with the National Labour Relations Board against employer Consolidated Nuclear Security, alleging it refused two separate requests to furnish information, documents show.

The Metal Trades Council, which is a combination of ten local unions that represent 1,150 workers at Pantex nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant near Amarillo, Carson County, filed its charges on Sept. 1, and the Pantex Guards Union filed its charges on Sept. 16.

The charges cite the alleged refusals as violations of the National Labour Relations Act. On August 8, members of the MTC rejected a four-year contract proposal from CNS. An ongoing strike began on August 28 after MTC rejected the idea of a benefits valuation, which would compare Pantex workers’ benefits with those of businesses in the area.

Monday marked the 33rd day of the strike, surpassing the last MTC strike at Pantex in 1970 that lasted for 26 days. On September 22, federal negotiators arrived at the Pantex Plant to help resolve the labour dispute. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director Allison Beck sent Deputy Director Scot L. Beckenbaugh to settle the issue.

In a press release on September 16, Beck said that ‘while FMCS has been monitoring the situation closely and mediation is normally a completely voluntary process, we cannot stand by and let this critical nuclear weapons facility continue to experience a work stoppage’. Three days after his arrival, the federal mediator had issued a temporary recess for both parties to review new information.

Beckenbaugh has confirmed that CNS, MTC and the negotiators will reconvene this week to discuss the new information. Each of the parties has declined further comment. We’re going to honour their request to keep it tamped down, keep the media out of it until it’s done,’ said Ron Ault, President of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which is the umbrella group of the MTC.

MTC also has filed a deferred charge alleging CNS unilaterally changed a labour contract that was filed in March. ”My understanding was that we had a contract originally before we went into these negotiations and they were not following through with the services and benefits that had been approved and done, which isn’t unusual,’ said Glenn Baber, treasurer of the MTC. ‘At the end of the year, they changed from one insurance company to another.’

If the NLRB finds merit in the claim that CNS had refused to furnish information, the strikers will enjoy greater protection from losing their jobs. Another contract negotiation is pending at the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There, the Atomic Trades and Labour Council also filed charges against CNS on September 1, citing an unlawful change of contract without negotiation.

‘We’ve extended the Y-12 contract until the Amarillo strike is over because we didn’t want to have whipsaw negotiations,’ Ault said. ‘We won’t begin negotiations at Y-12 in Oak Ridge until Pantex is settled.’

• Motorists honked their horns or shouted encouragement at Emily Shiffer and the 15 or so others in Dallas, holding signs asking for a minimum wage increase. For Shiffer, it’s a matter of survival: she earns minimum wage, which isn’t enough to support herself and her 11-year-old daughter.

‘I’ve gone to bed some nights without eating so my daughter can eat,’ she said. About 15 members of the statewide ‘Raise the Wage PA’ coalition, which consists of approximately 70 organisations, demonstrated at the intersection of state Routes 415 and 309 in Dallas, near the office of state Senator Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, last Wednesday.

The coalition, which includes businesses, labour unions and faith-based groups, is pushing for legislation to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from the federal level of $7.25 per hour to $10.10 an hour. Baker and state Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Palmyra, who chair the Labour and Industry committees in the Senate and House, are being targeted for not moving proposed bills out of committee.

‘Polls show that 66 per cent of Pennsylvania residents support a $10.10 minimum wage, but no votes have been scheduled,’ Dave Carey, Director of NE PA Area Labour Federation, AFL-CIO, stated.

Kennie Harr, Social Action chairwoman of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Wyoming Valley, said representatives of Raise the Wage PA met with Baker a month ago.

‘She was very nice,’ Harr said. ‘She was actually surprised at some of the statistics we showed to her, but she did not commit to anything.’ Out of Pennsylvania’s four million workers, one in four is earning minimum wage; most of those are over age 20, and more than half of minimum wage earners are women, Harr said.

Shiffer and her daughter live with her sister and brother-in-law because her salary at Kmart won’t cover rent for a place of her own, let alone utilities and transportation. She has no car, so she has to take the bus to work. It’s an ironic situation: Shiffer said she needs a car to get a better job, but without the money from a better job, she can’t afford a car.

With a wage increase to $10.10 an hour, Shiffer said she would at least be able to rent a place of her own. It’s not a question of managing finances, when you get paid $7.25 an hour: ‘It’s just impossible,’ Shiffer said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ website notes that 29 states and Washington D.C. have minimum wages above the federal level. Those 29 include ‘every state bordering Pennsylvania’, Harr said, ‘and they have not had any of the consequences people opposed to raising minimum wage have been putting out’.