A safety dispute that idled blast furnaces and some other operations at ArcelorMittal's Burns Harbor mill has been resolved after two days of intense negotiations between union officials and management.
"Everyone can report back to work and they will be paid for their time off," said USW Local 6787 President Paul Gipson just after concluding an agreement with management at 2 p.m. Thursday.
A new training program and work rules that will keep a "set of eyes" on the mill's two huge slab casters handling molten steel were a key to striking an agreement, Gipson said. An arbitrator scheduled to meet with the union and company Friday has been told to stay home.
Gipson estimated about 300 employees out of the more than 4,000 that work at the sprawling mill complex were affected by the shutdown of steel and iron making that took place. Gipson said management could have kept idled workers at the mill but opted to send them home.
The dispute started Sunday when 10 employees on the No. 2 caster invoked contract rights and refused to work at the job any longer because of safety concerns after the installation of new computer-controls for the process. The mill's other caster was also shut down because of their concerns.
"These workers didn't just feel uncomfortable, they were in fear of their lives," Gipson said.
On Tuesday, an ArcelorMittal spokeswoman confirmed the company was working with the union to resolve safety concerns raised by union workers.
"At ArcelorMittal, our No. 1 priority continues to be the health and safety of our employees, and we are pleased that this matter has been resolved with USW 6787," Mary Beth Holdford, external communications manager, said in an email to The Times.
The company had recently completed upgrades at Burns Harbor's basic oxygen furnace and continuous caster, according to the statement. The upgrades computerized many of the functions previously done manually by the workforce.
ArcelorMittal's Burns Harbor mill is one of its largest facilities in the United States. It is capable of producing 4.7 million tons of raw steel annually. Much of that steel is processed into high-quality steels used to make autos.
ArcelorMittal is one of only a handful of steelmakers in the United States capable of making steel of that quality, according to steel industry analyst Charles Bradford, of Bradford Research.
A continuing work stoppage at Burns Harbor, combined with a possible one at a U.S. Steel plant in Canada, could have crimped the auto industry's supply of steel, Bradford said. There are U.S. steel plants running below capacity, but they are not the ones that make high-quality auto steel, Bradford said.
Gipson confirmed that there were steel slabs already produced at Burns Harbor as well as other product in inventory that allowed much of the mill to keep functioning.
Gipson said workers directly affected by the changes at Burns Harbor were able to sit down with union officials and management to come up with a solution.
"Management could see they were sincere," Gipson said. "There was objective evidence this could be an unsafe situation."