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EAST CHICAGO | Retired steelworker Denis Zamirowski worked in the coke plant of Gary Works for 36 years and isn't happy the company now wants to take away his health insurance benefits.

He estimates Medicaid and all his medications could cost him $400 more a month, not including the added cost of buying supplemental insurance through a private exchange. 

"Losing the medical supplement will kill us," Zamirowski said. "They don't care as long as they give themselves bonuses."

He was one of about 2,000 steelworkers who rallied outside of ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago for a fair contract Wednesday afternoon. Workers touted signs like "United We Bargain, Divided We Beg" and chanted "No contract, no peace," "respect our past, respect our future," and "what do we want? A new contract. When do we want it? Now."

USW Local 1010 and 1011, which represent workers at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, wanted to support the negotiating team in Pittsburgh in its discussions with the Luxembourg-based steelmaker and U.S. Steel. Negotiations have not been proceeding as well as hoped, said Don Seifert, a guide with USW Local 1010.

"We don't anticipate a work stoppage, but if there is one we're going to be prepared," Seifert said. "As you can see, it's not hard for us to organize and get people out. They're talking about cutting benefits, and that's part of our compensation package. For us to let that go is not right. We want to maintain our health care. We want to maintain benefits retirees have earned over the years. All we're looking for is a fair and equitable contract."

ArcelorMittal said it won't negotiate specifics in the industry, but was still proposing continuing to offer industry-leading pay and benefits.

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"It is clear from USW posted updates that the union believes we are only using the challenges facing our USA business to our advantage during a negotiations year and that their membership should hold out for better times ahead," the company wrote in a blog post. "But since 2008, our fixed costs — more than $2 billion per year in five of the last seven years — have remained flat while steel pricing has declined 50 percent during the same period. Our USA business has lost nearly $1.5 billion dollars since 2010, an average loss of nearly $300 million per year."

The company has not cut wages and pensions, but said it cannot continue with the status quo or assume a boom is ahead.

Jacob Cole, a third-generation steelworker who's been in the mill eight years, said he hoped his children still have the opportunity to be employed for a big steelmaker and fairly compensated for their work. He said that includes decent health care coverage.

"Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of mill injuries," he said. "Health care is a big thing we're fighting for. I just want to make sure we maintain our health care. We want to be profitable just like the company."

Mike Porter, who's worked in the mills for 37 years, said he won't stand for cuts to vacation pay, higher deductibles and other company proposals. He said he already received "almost poverty-level" sick pay when he was being treated for prostate cancer.

But Porter's especially worried about retired steelworkers being booted off supplemental company coverage and onto private exchanges.

"Some of those that are retired are only living off $800 a month," he said. "How are they going to afford private health care? Everything keeps going up. It doesn't go down. They don't understand that." 

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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.