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Workers are on strike at the Union Electric Steel plant in Valparaiso to fight for better pay.

About 80 to 85 workers are picketing over wages outside the plant at 3702 Montdale Drive, where they make forged and cast rolls for steel mills, both across Northwest Indiana and abroad. Workers are standing sentinel in front of the factory with signs and burn barrels 24/7, and may move out to the more heavily trafficked U.S. 30 just north of the machining facility.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 2018 had been negotiating with the Carnegie, Pennsylvania-based company since the start of May, but reached an impasse over the company's proposed pay raises of 9 percent over a four-year period. That amount is the same as the company offered three years ago during a severe downturn in the steel industry.

Now business is booming, workers say, and they are asking for annual pay raises of 3 percent to 4 percent to cover cost-of-living increases.

"It's a slap in the face," worker Kyle Yarnell said of company offers. "We've met every quota they've had. They have three times as many orders on the books. We've done everything they've asked, increasing productivity and production."

Company spokeswoman Melanie Sprowson said Union Electric Steel is able to continue serving customers but hopes to resolve the strike as soon as possible.

"Throughout the process, we have sought a competitive labor agreement that addresses the concerns of all stakeholders," she said. "Union Electric Steel remains committed to reaching an agreement with the union."

Production has ground to a halt at Valparaiso, but Union Electric Steel operates 11 other plants around the world and staggers the contract negotiations so they don't all take place at once.

IAM members in Valparaiso voted overwhelmingly to reject the company's pre-strike offers, with 99 percent rejecting the first proposal.

"We're pretty together on this," Yarnell said. "From what I've heard it's unprecedented."

Dave Lintner, committee chairman with IAM Local 2018, said the Valparaiso plant went from losing money three years ago to becoming the most profitable in the Union Electric Steel system. He said the company will do even better this year with a corporate tax cut that reduced the federal rate to 21 percent, down from 35 percent.

"That money was supposed to trickle down to the workers," he said. "But these companies are being greedy and holding onto the whole thing. These workers are very productive and very proud of what they do. They deserve fair compensation."

The union is prepared to strike as long as it takes to get pay increases that cover cost-of-living increases, Yarnell said.

"We've come together until they can meet us halfway," he said. "We just want fair, living wages. We would love any and all support as we strike for fair wages."

Gallery: Scenes from the 1986 steel strike/lockout


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.