Steelworkers hope for decent raises, better profit-sharing

Thousands attended a union steelworkers rally in Gary in 2015.

The last time the United Steelworkers union negotiated new contracts with ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel back in 2015, conditions were very different.

Imports captured a record 29 percent of the U.S. market share. Steel mills got idled. Steelworkers got pink slips. Prices dipped as low as $412 per ton for hot-rolled steel. The steelmakers were losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The union's negotiating committee largely played defense, mainly fighting to preserve pay and benefits during a difficult time when steelmakers initially asked employees to chip in up to $3,000 a year for their health insurance benefits and pay deductibles of up to $400 a year for in-network case. No one got a raise, again.

But it's a very different environment as the union prepares for another round of contract talks this summer before the current contracts expire on Sept. 1.

The price of hot rolled steel recently climbed to $726 a ton, according to Steel Benchmarker. Steel stocks have been rising. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently completed its Section 232 investigation, which could result in a major crackdown on foreign steel.

Congress just passed a tax cut that slashes the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, a move that has prompted dozens of companies across the country to raise pay and give employees $1,000 bonuses.

It is unclear if Northwest Indiana's two biggest steelmakers will be as generous as corporations like AT&T, Comcast, and Walmart.

U.S. Steel declined to comment on the upcoming contract talks, and ArcelorMittal did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

United Steelworkers Union District 7 Director Mike Millsap said a committee would meet in June and identify goals for this round of contract talks. Negotiations usually commerce a few months before the contract expired.

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The workers in Northwest Indiana steel mills, who often haven't gotten raises in six years, said they ideally would like to see increased pay, bonuses, paid sick days, personal days, the preservation of health insurance, the ability to bid on jobs at other mills, better profit sharing and other benefits.

An informal online survey of local steelworkers on The Times's NWI Times Steel News Facebook page found widespread desire for raises.

"We haven't had a raise in years," steelworker Saul Herrera said. "We need a real doctor at medical instead of the company-paid doctor who will say you're ok, even if you break a leg or something else serious."

Steelworker Greg Ostrozovich said he would ideally like to see an extra week vacation, perhaps after 10 years, and a profit-sharing plan that actually results in regular quarterly bonuses. ArcelorMittal steelworkers have often complained over the last few years that the international steelmaker turned a profit but they got nothing because their profit-sharing was tied to North American operations, which the company says have not been as profitable.

He called for "a real profit sharing plan that doesn't allow the company to fudge the numbers." He's also concerned about retirement benefits, and would like to see a change in the plan to keep it solvent.

Steelworker Kevin Charles Harris Jr. said he would hope for a raise, the same health insurance, the ability to bid on jobs across the mill, and the preservation of existing retirement benefits.

"We risk our lives out here every day," he said. "Breathe in chemicals, work in brutal heat, sacrifice our health for them."

Union leaders will decide what the USW ultimately will ask for at the bargaining table this summer, Millsap said.


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.