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Strike energizes organized labor before contract talks

Workers strike outside the BP Whiting Refinery this year.

WHITING | Fellow United Steelworkers from other local unions rallied with USW Local 7-1 under the shadow of the "glass house" office building at the BP Whiting Refinery.

Steelworkers from the mills marched in solidarity down 119th Street with the striking refinery workers.

They came out to the picket lines with coffee, pizza and firewood to keep the burn barrel roaring on nights where the temperature was 10 below zero and a lashing wind whipped off Lake Michigan. They came out to fundraisers at local lodges and dropped used baby clothes off at the union hall.

Now the strike is over. But contract talks are coming up later this year at Northwest Indiana's big steel mills and at Ford's factories just across the state line, and organized labor in the Calumet Region has a new energy.

"The strike helped bring some solidarity to Northwest Indiana," USW District 7 Director Mike Millsap said. "It shows that when we'll stand up when we're forced to. We're not looking for battles, but for fair contracts. We'll stand up when pushed, if we need to."

USW Local 7-1 overwhelmingly voted Monday to approve a new four-year contract they say preserves their collective bargaining rights and gives them more of a say in staffing and safety. Workers said they faced dangerous conditions, such as working so much overtime they get fatigued.

"I don't understand why we're in the 21st century and we still have to do stuff like this," worker Sharon Warnecke said. "It isn't about money. We all want to make money. That's why we have jobs. Why can't we negotiate this and keep doing our jobs?"

Warnecke said she gained a deeper appreciation for the union as the strike dragged on for three months. Other union locals supported the workers on the picket lines by donating cash and food.

Union workers throughout Northwest Indiana showed a great deal of solidarity during the longest national refinery strike since 1980, Warnecke said.

If other strikes take place, she said she plans to swing by the picket lines to bring workers coffee and doughnuts.

"The key is solidarity and standing strong side by side, knowing there's strength in many," she said.

Other unions that are having contract talks this year should know that USW Local 7-1, which represents about 1,100 workers at the refinery, will have their backs, worker Teri Smith said.

The strike in Whiting should set a tone for upcoming contract talks with ArcelorMittal, Ford and U.S. Steel, she said.

"Hopefully, our behavior will send a message to the other companies that Northwest Indiana is a strong union territory," she said. "We will stand together."

The unions are fighting for a larger cause at a time when incomes are eroding and the middle class is shrinking, Smith said.

"From the beginning, we felt like the region was under attack," she said. "We felt like the middle class was under attack."

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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.

Senior Copy Editor

Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.