EAST CHICAGO | Organizers from area United Steelworkers locals said about 1,000 people were part of an informational picket Monday in a show of solidarity and support for union negotiators trying to secure a new labor agreement with ArcelorMittal and other steel companies.
Hundreds of current steelworkers and retirees lined up at Michigan Avenue and Guthrie Street before marching toward the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor Flat Carbon main office at 3 p.m.
Most of the attendees wore T-shirts supporting the union, "Respect Our Union" stickers, carried "Respect Our Past Securing Our Future" signs or wore yellow "Solidarity" armbands. People also led chants seeking for fair treatment of retirees along with current and future workers.
Don Jones, health, safety and environment committee chair for United Steelworkers Local 1010, said the company's early proposal to set a two-tiered wage scale for workers would lower the standard of living and is a bad sign for the country's shrinking middle class.
"This is all about solidarity," Jones said while pointing to the crowd hundreds deep before marching on Michigan Avenue toward the plant. "This is my future, all of these young faces. It's about standing together."
The current four-year contract expires Saturday.
Elizabeth Vargas, of East Chicago, said she retired in 2011 after working 33 years at Indiana Harbor for ArcelorMittal and its predecessor companies. She said the union afforded her opportunities that she wouldn't otherwise have had, being the first female furnace operator at the No. 2 basic oxygen furnace for Inland Steel.
Vargas said it meant a lot for her to be at the event and can't fathom not being able to bargain for retiree health care, which was one of the company's early proposals in the bargaining process.
Speaking on the phone from Pittsburgh, Jim Robinson, United Steelworkers District 7 director, said Monday's action in East Chicago was one of several organized in ArcelorMittal plants around the country in recent weeks.
Negotiations are taking place between the union and ArcelorMittal in Pittsburgh. The union is separately negotiating new agreements with United States Steel Corp. and Cliffs Natural Resources Inc.
Robinson, who declined to comment about negotiations, said the USW membership has been "very engaged" throughout the bargaining process and the union was committed to securing a new agreement.
In a bargaining update sent to members Monday, union officials said "major economic and non-economic items" have to be addressed before Saturday's deadline and criticized ArcelorMittal management for showing a lack of urgency by postponing or canceling subcommittee meetings.
In a Friday update on the state of negotiations, ArcelorMittal said it remained optimistic about reaching a "fair and equitable contract" with the union without a work stoppage. In a statement issued Monday, the company also asked employees to remain focused on performing their jobs safely and not allow negotiations to serve as a distraction.