| John Rennison/Hamilton...Lockout at US SteelU.S. Steel Canada has locked out employes at its Hamilton Works facility after the company and the union were unable to reach a new contract.Loading...
Picket lines have gone up around the U.S. Steel Canada plant in Hamilton after 900 workers were locked out Sunday in a dispute over pensions.
About 400 workers and supporters gathered at the company's main gate on Wilcox Street to shout their disapproval at the company's demand for radical changes in their retirement system.
“The company has two demands, they want us to shaft 9,000 pensioners and stop the next generation of steelworkers from having a pension plan,” said Rolf Gerstenberger, president of Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers. “Our pensioners deserve to be able to live in dignity so this is everybody's fight.”
Although the situation was tense – this is the first time the company has withdrawn jobs to back contract demands rather than workers withdrawing their services – the demonstration was peaceful. There was a single incident of shoving and swearing by one man – the noise caught the attention of police but other union members calmed the man. In another incident Gerstenberger had to talk a single member into moving away from the gate so it could be closed, although in the end the crush of workers kept the company's security guards from fully closing the gates
Visible police presence was muted – Inspector Warren Korol and fewer than a half dozen constables chatted with the workers, but kept mostly to the sidelines.
Among themselves, the workers worried about the coming weeks and months when their income will be reduced to $200 a week in strike pay.
Workers wondered what to tell their children who can't take karate lessons or join other activities now. Some also worried if the plant would ever reopen.
“I don't think it's going to open up again,” said veteran Don Brewster, adding despite that fear he still backed the union leadership.
“You have to try to hang onto what you've got,” he said. “You have to have faith in your president, he's a smart man.”
Brewster, after 32 years in the noise, grime and grit of the steel mill, is marking time until he can retire. Officially he's three years short of the service and age combination that would let him go – but with repeated layoffs and shutdowns of the Hamilton plant he hasn't been able to work enough to get that needed time in.
“The way things have been going it could take me six years to make up those three,” he said.
Those shutdowns and layoffs have also strained the financial resources of many steelworkers.
“I guarantee nobody's got any money saved now,” he said. “I've already talked to a real estate agent about selling my house.”
Nearby, friends Kevin Goodwin and Brent Forrest, with less than six years service between them, were already wondering about getting new jobs to see them through the tough times – but they still back the union's position.
“If we give them what they want in this contract, what are they going to want to take back in the next one?” Goodwin asked. “Are we just going to keep going down and giving back until everyone's making minimum wage?”
Forrest also argued it would be wrong to take away from existing pensioners.
“We can't turn our backs on them now because someday we'll be the ones needing help,” he said.
Local 1005 and the company started talking in May about a contract to replace deal that expired in July. The talks foundered quickly, however, over the critical issue of pensions. The company is demanding the existing defined benefit pension plan be closed to new employees. They will be placed, instead, in a defined contribution retirement savings plan. DB plans pay a fixed pension while DC plans pay only according to how much has been saved and what it has earned in interest. Companies prefer these plans because they don't require extra payments to ensure the plan is fully funded.
The former Stelco plans are about $1.2 billion short of what would be needed to cover all their obligations.
The company also wants an end to indexing payments for current retirees.
On Thursday, the company sent a final offer to the union, withdrawing its proposals to change how the cost of living allowance is calculated and to reduce maximum vacations by two weeks. The offer was coupled with a threat to lock the workers out if the deal wasn't put to a vote.
The union has refused to hold that vote, arguing the deal amounts to a betrayal of veteran and retired workers. If the company wants a vote, Gerstenberger said, it can apply to the provincial government for a forced vote.
“They don't want to do that because they want to be able to say it was the union that shafted the pensioners,” Gerstenberger said. “They want to see if the younger workers will grovel and be afraid.”
A vocal minority of union members has used The Spectator's website comments section to call for that vote, but there were no such calls at Sunday's demonstration.
“How can 900 people vote to shaft 9,000?” Gerstenberger asked. “They even want us to shaft the people who haven't been hired yet. If they want a vote they can get one, but they want the union to do it for them.”
Workers were joined Sunday by NDP MPs Dave Christopherson, Chris Charlton and Wayne Marston, as well as MPP Paul Miller, Hamilton and District Labour Council president Mary Long and Darren Green, president of the Hamilton Area Steel Workers Council and Mayor-elect Bob Bratina.
Miller, who along with his father, grandfather and uncles put a combined 300 years of service into the former Stelco, praised the workers for carrying on a tradition of fighting to improve their lot.
“They fought for the benefits the company is trying to take away,” he said. “This is all part of a North America-wide effort to break unions and make everyone work for $12 an hour.”
Bratina, also the son and grandson of Stelco workers, called the lockout “a terrible thing to happen to good people.
“I'm ashamed we have to be here tonight,” he said. “We're not being treated fairly, and maybe not even legally, by this company.”
Christopherson delivered the most passionate speech of the evening, lashing out at a federal government that allowed U.S. Steel to buy Stelco on the grounds the deal was a “net benefit” for Canada, and then sat meekly by while the company attacked its own workforce.
“When are we going to see a federal government that will stand up and represent working people?” he shouted. “Where's the net benefit in this deal now?”
The federal government has launched a lawsuit against the company for failing to meet employment and production minimums during the first three years of its ownership. That suit remains tied up in legal arguments. The court isn't expected to start hearing the substance of the issue before March or April.
Ken Neumann, Canadian director of the United Steel Workers, also targeted the federal government for failing local workers.
“This is just another example of a failed situation for the government,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is another foreign company forcing devastation on another of our communities.”
In an e-mailed statement in the name of James D. Garraux, U.S. Steel's general counsel and senior vice-president for corporate affairs, the company called the union's position “completely unrealistic” and urged a vote on its final offer.
“It is very disappointing that United Steelworkers, Local 1005 has refused to take our contract offer to the employees of U.S. Steel Canada for a vote.
“As a company, we made substantial concessions in our offer of November 4, 2010 from our earlier position. We did this in good faith and in an effort to reach an agreement that would be beneficial to Hamilton Works and our employees. We fully believe that our offer is fair and reasonable under the circumstances. Unfortunately, our offer has been met with intransigence by Local 1005. As a result, there is no chance at this time for a settlement and the lockout has commenced.
“In our view the position of Local 1005 is completely unrealistic. The points that they object to have long been a standard part of collective bargaining settlements with the Steelworkers and other unions throughout the United States and Canada. For example, the defined benefit pension plan covering Steelworker-represented employees of U.S. Steel in the United States was closed to new entrants in 2003. Additionally, none of the retirees covered by that plan receive ‘indexing,'” it reads.
“For Local 1005 to expect a different result at Hamilton, particularly in light of the current economic landscape and Hamilton's status as one of the most challenged steelmaking facilities in all of North America, makes no sense to us.
“In our view, the actions of Local 1005 amount to a futile ideological crusade at a time when common-sense and practicality is required.”
With the start of the lockout, the union has opened a help centre at the union hall on Kenilworth Avenue North for members applying for employment insurance benefits. Plans have also been posted on the union's website (uswa1005.ca) for picket patrols of four hours each with an eight-hour night shift. Members are to report to the Wilcox Street main gate for their assignments.
This is my voice
Capital has no conscience.