Elections bring 3 new presidents to local steelworkers' halls

2012-05-12T21:30:00Z 2012-05-13T22:34:05Z Elections bring 3 new presidents to local steelworkers' hallsBy Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

At least three United Steelworkers union locals representing steel industry workers in Northwest Indiana will have new leadership starting a three-year term this month.

Members from United Steelworkers locals 1011, 1014 and 6103 elected new presidents in April. The last few months have been election season at USW locals as candidates made pitches to members to fill a slew of positions.

Lonnie Asher was elected to a three-year term as president of Local 1011, which represents workers on the west side of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor. Former President Tom Tyrka retired at the beginning of the year, and Vice President Mariano "Chief" Flores filled the rest of the unexpired term.

Longtime union member and griever Terry Pappas beat incumbent Bill Kalin to be president of Local 6103, which gathers a majority of its members from the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant in Portage.

The new leader of Local 1014 for production and maintenance employees at U.S. Steel Gary Works is Rodney Lewis. Jerry Littles, president of Local 1014, said he decided to not seek elective office for personal reasons, but he still plans to remain active with the local's political activities.

Changes in demographics, attitudes

The amount of change in the locals in the recent election wasn't unique, USW District 7 Director Jim Robinson said. He said there were a lot of well-contested races for positions such as union stewards and on the grievance committee.

"I think that's a result of the demographic changes within our membership," said Robinson, whose district represents workers in Indiana and Illinois. "As a lot of the people who went to work in the (1970s) are retiring, ... people that have been hired in the last 10 to 15 years, and in some cases even less, are starting to step up and run for office."

Robinson said it's a positive sign that more people are getting involved in local leadership. The experience they get from senior leadership can be important, especially when the union enters into contract negotiations.

USW Local 6787 President Paul Gipson described the recent election to his 10th term in union leadership as the sweetest victory he's ever had.

Despite the crises and restructurings the steel industry has undergone in his steel career, Gipson said the recent recession "was the closest thing to a depression I've ever seen in my lifetime." The union was four months removed from negotiating a new four-year bargaining agreement when the economy tanked.

"It was almost like, didn't anyone see this coming?" said Gipson, who leads more than 3,200 workers who largely work at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor. "The industry was absolutely being threatened."

When plant employment was threatened by more than 2,000 scheduled layoffs in November 2008, the union and company negotiated a layoff minimization plan to help save a number of jobs. Also, Gipson said the local ratified a memorandum of understanding with the company in spring 2010 to create a framework for investment in the Burns Harbor facility. The caveat was that workers had to agree to address parts of a lucrative incentive package that raised labor costs.

It was a close election, and Gipson said it was partly the result of workers' sentiment that they didn't see why they had to give up things in exchange for something the company was going to do, anyway. He said his administration is going to have to do a better job of educating membership about how important the agreements are to the plant's future.

Gipson said this term is likely his last as president.

Looking ahead

Now that the elections are over, Anthony Galoozis Jr., president of USW Local 1066, said union members quietly are anticipating contract negotiation discussions that should start this summer. Local 1066 represents sheet and tin workers at U.S. Steel Gary Works.

The current four-year agreements for workers at U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal expire Sept. 1. Both contracts are expected to be negotiated concurrently. The United Steelworkers international has reached out to membership about what they would like to see in upcoming negotiations.

USW spokesman Tony Montana declined to reveal details about the union's bargaining strategy but said the union is continuing discussions with its members about contract issues.

"The (union) is preparing our members for tough negotiations," Montana said. "We are depending on membership solidarity throughout the (process). Our members are going to be educated on the issues and kept up to date on negotiations throughout the summer."

Gipson, of USW Local 6787, said he hopes negotiations in this bargaining session avoid a development that drove some discontent among members of the United Auto Workers during last year's negotiations with domestic automakers. He said he does not want to see a two-tiered wage scale implemented because "it's destructive" and not a good thing for workers.

Montana declined to comment on the issue.

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