The Return of the Despots

Richard Cucarese

Richard Cucarese Rapid Response Coordinator, USW Local 4889

The volcanic rumble, the orange glow, the masses of sparks resembling endless armies of fireflies.  The rattle and hum of oversized machinery and larger than life men, as if they were Vulcan himself, manipulating mountains of hot lava into the cold, hardened forms used for bridges, buildings, autos and other products. This is how history has romantically described the “hell on earth” battle, which making steel has always been.

There is also a much less romantic aspect of the steel industry which, as of late, does not garner the same attention as it did over the last half century; the contract negotiations between the United Steelworkers (USW) and U.S. Steel.  Though there has been a much more collegial rapport between both sides over the past few negotiation sessions, 2015 has the makings of the contentious contract talks from the union's inception back in the 1940’s.

While the Steelworkers have come to the table discussing how this former goliath of industry can regain some of its pre-recession swagger, it seems the current CEO, Mario Longhi, wants to reintroduce the despotic, robber baron days presided over by Andrew Carnegie’s right hand man, Henry Clay Frick.

Although the industry has faced some rough times recently due to China and other countries flooding the market with cheap steel – the result of unfettered currency manipulation – steel manufacturers have faced much darker times. Mr. Longhi and USW International President Leo W. Gerard have travelled to Washington D.C. to ask for help and push for the Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015.  Mr. Longhi has followed this up by attempting to punish the heart and soul of his business, its 16,000 mill employees, for the inept and impotent business decisions of his corporation.

In 2014, U.S. Steel recorded healthy profits for the first time since the recession.  In 2015, though as China dumped increasing amounts of illegally-subsidized steel on the international market – Steelworkers have endured shortened work weeks, massive reductions in income, layoffs and plants being idled.  They have suffered this without rancor or contention, and in the solemn hope that these sacrifices would help the company.  They have instead heard their sacrifices were met with proposals from U.S. Steel such as modifications of full-day and full-week guarantees to only four hours per day and 32 hours per week.  The company is also looking to take away union workers’ bidding rights, scheduling rights and overtime pay after eight hours.  U.S. Steel also is looking to cripple the bargaining units with unheard of increases to cost that active workers and retirees must pay for health insurance.

Through these hard times and draconian proposals, Steelworkers have also had to endure the U.S. Steel board of directors giving Mr. Longhi an $8.5 million raise in salary and compensation.  This was added to his already massive total of $5.5 million.

Corporations, aided by their friends in government have stacked the deck against working Americans and their families. They have lobbied for and gotten passed harsh measures like so-called Right-to-Work which have crushed unions and diminished workers’ bargaining abilities.  It is time for all Americans, union and non-union, blue and white collar to say, enough is enough.  We have watched too many factories close, too many lucrative jobs get outsourced and too many families suffer the consequences of bad policies. 

If we falter this time, it may just be too late to reverse this trend, and a new era of robber barons and despots will enjoy a new Gilded Age, while millions more workers and families are added to the rolls of the impoverished. 

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Richard Cucarese is the Rapid Response Coordinator for the United Steelworkers Local 4889.

Contact him on Twitter@stlwrkr4889.

Posted In: Union Matters

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