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New USW contract with ArcelorMittal preserves health care benefits, strengthens pensions

Steelworkers rally for a fair contract in downtown Gary in August.

This year, for the first time in more than a decade, the United Steelworkers union entered contract talks with steelmakers at a time of prosperity, when the steel market was expected to remain robust for the foreseeable future.

"ArcelorMittal had already generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits during the first six months of 2018, thanks to the hard work of USW members to make our facilities more efficient and productive than ever before and the leadership of our union to curb unfair and often illegal foreign trade, leveling the playing field for American workers and industries to compete in the increasingly global economy," the USW said in a contract summary sent to members.

The union argued its previous contract helped the company survive "the harshest economic conditions our industry has withstood in years."

"We approached this round of negotiations seeking fair contracts that allowed USW members to share in ArcelorMittal’s success, fully aware of the important role our union, its members, retirees and their families played in keeping our facilities viable and the company afloat," the USW said.

ArcelorMittal initially proposed a contract with no wage increases, $8,000 per year in new out-of-pocket health care costs for steelworkers, the doubling of retiree premiums, the elimination of Pension Enhancement Payments and deep concessions in incentive pay, vacation scheduling and pay, family and medical leave.

The USW bargaining committee, which lost late member and USW Local 1010 contract coordinator Luis Aguilar, a 67-year-old Griffith resident, during the negotiations in Pittsburgh, resisted. USW members overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike and many members clamored for a work stoppage.

After months of sometimes contentious negotiations, the bargaining committee brought back a deal that steelworkers overwhelmingly ratified. It was modeled after the template of a deal the USW struck earlier with Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel.

Steelworkers will receive a lump-sum payment of $4,000 as a signing bonus and 14 percent in raises over the next four years. They will no longer get hot-rolled steel bonuses that were added in 2015, when the union agreed to go three years without pay increases, as the bonus was designed to be a supplement to income that the union agreed to scrap in favor of actual raises of 4 percent, 3.5 percent, 3.5 percent and 3 percent.

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The deal includes increases for workers and retirees to co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximum expenditures. ArcelorMittal agreed to pump $3.1 billion into its steel mills and increase hourly contributions to the Steelworkers Pension Trust and the Weirton 401(k) from 70 cents to $3.50 an hour. Pension multipliers increase to $75 for years of continuous service between 20 and 30 years before Jan. 1, 2009, and to $115 per year going forward.

As of 2020, workers with two years of service will get two weeks of vacation per year, a week more than before, according to the USW contract summary.

Steelworkers seeking sickness and accident benefits now can get certified by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, since patients are less likely to see physicians. They have to work at least six months to be eligible for sickness and accident benefits and can get up to 104 weeks if they have more than 20 years of service, so long as an authorized provider certifies they are expected to return to work within one year of the 52nd week of benefits sometime after the 52nd week passes.

ArcelorMittal agreed to increase payments into Retiree Healthcare Accounts to $0.60 per hour and to increase dental benefits to a maximum of $2,250 for annual services at network providers and $1,750 for services at non-network providers.

The agreement maintains the existing health care plan with expanded coverage of diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder. ArcelorMittal is now also offering union workers a high deductible health care plan, but the USW is encouraging members to stick with the existing plan, saying it offers the best coverage and no premium.

Steelworkers would have to pay 20 percent of the cost of health care services in the "Consumer-Driven Plan," as compared to 10 percent or flat copay for most services in the existing plan. 

"The union agreed that the company can offer its high deductible plan, but frankly, we recommend that everyone stays in the PPO medical plan," the USW said in its contract summary to workers. "Work in a steel mill, coke plant or iron ore mine is difficult and often dangerous. It takes a toll on your health. Even if you are young and healthy, the USW recommends that you stay in the PPO medical plan. Things change. Accidents happen. The current PPO medical plan offers the greatest amount of protection against unexpected and catastrophic medical expenses for you and your family."

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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.