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Thousands of steelworkers, a few sign-waving kids in strollers and even a dog with a "jobs worth fighting for" sign hanging around its neck marched across Northwest Indiana on Thursday to ask for new contracts that raise pay and preserve health care and retiree benefits.

The United Steelworkers union has been negotiating with ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel since July for new contracts covering 31,000 workers nationwide and tens of thousands more retirees, especially in steel-centric Northwest Indiana. Both U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal have offered raises during a boom time for the cyclical industry but are asking for concessions, especially with greater out-of-pocket costs for health insurance for both active workers and retirees.

The two sides remain far from any agreement even as the contracts are set to expire on Sept. 1.

So steelworkers took to the streets outside Gary Works, ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor and ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor Thursday, waiving "steel strong" signs and chanting things like "respect our past, secure our future."

“Today, we saw hard-working people standing up with one voice demanding fair treatment for themselves and their families,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard said. “These workers have gone three years without a wage increase. In that time, they’ve seen the cost of everything go up; they’ve seen their employers report millions of dollars in profits; they’ve seen management pay themselves millions of dollars in bonuses. And today, they stood up and said they’d seen enough.”

During the last contract negotiation in 2015, ArcelorMittal workers conceded no raises because of the downturn in the industry and saved the company money on health insurance by proposing a consolidation of all its insurers, steelworker Jayson Culp said while picketing outside ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago. The union also pursued trade cases that resulted in tariffs that helped drive the price of steel up to $900 a ton and restore the company's profitability, Culp said.

"Their proposals have been insulting so far," he said. "We're looking for significant wage increases. We're looking for job security and we're also looking to keep our health care as it is. We don't want any concessions. They want us to start paying in to our health care. And that's going backward, taking away our wages. The concession shop is closed. They've made hundreds of millions of dollars so far this year."

Steelworkers deserve to be compensated for dangerous jobs that can result in serious injuries or death, Culp said. 

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"We're paid because of the dangerous work we do," he said. "There are certain hazards that cannot be ruled out. A lot of people wouldn't work here if they didn't get paid for the risks they take. We work with moving equipment that weighs 100,000 lbs., 200,000 lbs. There are iron ladles weighing a million lbs... 3,000-degree steel splashing around. I've been burnt before real bad, so have a lot of people out here. People sold their backs to the companies."

The union wants health insurance that provides preventative care because it's ultimately cheaper in the long run, steelworker John Wilkinson said.

"The health care that we're pushing for is also good for the company's long-term sustainability," he said. "You don't have to pay such high costs on the back end when you have good health care to begin with."

Benefits are getting bad-mouthed now, but the steel industry is the most profitable it's been in years, said steelworker Chris Huber, who was marching outside Gary Works late Thursday afternoon.

"I don't want to have to pay for my health insurance. Leave my benefits alone," he said. "Once you agree to that, they'll say 'you're only paying $150 for health insurance a month. That's nothing. You should pay $300 a month because our costs went up.' Well, our costs go up too."

Steelworkers wanted to send a message to the companies that they'll do what it takes to secure a fair contract, Huber said.

"Up to this point there hasn't been any bargaining," he said. "They won't talk anything that costs more money. I'm just hoping it doesn't end up in a strike, but if need be. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes."

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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.