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CHICAGO — United Steelworkers union members rallied outside ArcelorMittal North America headquarters to send a message they want a fair contract.

They got that message across better than they could have hoped, not just from a megaphone on the sidewalk in the bitter cold, but upstairs in an executive office.

ArcelorMittal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lakshmi Mittal, strolled across the plaza of One North Dearborn while USW members were marching and chanting demands for a new contract.

Mittal, who lives in London and was once ranked by Forbes Magazine as the sixth wealthiest person in the world, spoke briefly with union members, asking them why they were rallying. They told their CEO they wanted a new contract for 13,000 unionized steelworkers after the current one expired in September. 

Mittal invited the union leaders on hand into the glass skyscraper for a meeting. Mittal and ArcelorMittal Americas CEO Lou Schorsch, who's leaving the company, had a brief discussion with a delegation of union members over coffee.

USW members told the executives the union won't agree to relinquish hard-earned benefits, or to triple the amount retirees contribute to health insurance premiums.

"The company's demands would immediately lower the standards of living for members and retirees," said USW District 1 Director David McCall, who chairs the union's negotiations with ArcelorMittal. "Further, these proposals are clearly designed to undermine our ability to defend our benefits in future negotiations." 

ArcelorMittal is looking to cut expenses after losing $711 million in the third quarter. The entire industry is struggling. ATI, U.S. Steel and Steel Dynamics all reported losses.

Spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said no discussion took place of contract proposals or details of the ongoing negotiations. She said they discussed a need to be more cost-competitive, the impact of imports, a need for more worker productivity, and how each ArcelorMittal business unit around the world must be self-sustaining.

"Contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers serve an opportunity to align our cost structure with the current realities facing our industry and create a more sustainable business, not just for our company but also for our employees," Holdford said. "Mr. Mittal also stressed that the USW is and will continue to be a valued partner moving forward. The meeting was cordial, respectful and, frankly, Mr. Mittal's willingness to approach the demonstrators and invite them in for coffee serves as an example of the transparent and honest dialogue the company is trying to have around the issues impacting our business and industry."

Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal recently dropped a demand steelworkers start paying monthly premiums. It is still asking for concessions steelworkers reject, including on co-pays. 

The two sides are however not close to a new deal, said Don Seifert, training coordinator for USW Local 1010 out of Hammond.

"The message is they need to get off their duffs and offer a fair contract," Seifert said. "We're not asking for the world. We'll accept anything that's fair."

Negotiations have been going on since June.

All of the USW locals at local ArcelorMittal mills were represented at the rally. The union is committing to bargaining in good faith, and just wants a fair and equitable contract that preserves existing benefits, said USW member Sarah Smith, who's a CAT coordinator with USW 6787 out of Burns Harbor. 

"We want them to see that every ArcelorMittal plant across the country is unified," Smith said. "Health care is extremely important to active members and retirees. Our retirees are on fixed incomes. They have absolutely no way of generating more income to pay for these health care costs."

Health care remains the foremost issue in bargaining, but there are other concerns, such as the company wanting to deny the union access to records that would be used in safety training and limit when workers can take vacation to planned outages, Smith said.

Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees executive board member Scott Marshall said the company is demanding too much of retirees.

"They want to take away our benefits, they want to take away our pensions," Marshall said. "They got all kinds of cuts coming down, especially for retirees. Things get more expensive when you get older, not less expensive. But the union is fighting every step of the way."

USW Local 9777 Financial Secretary Jeff Tuinstra said the fight was bigger than just a three-year contract. Any reduction in pay or benefits would have a ripple effect.

"It trickles down," he said. "It affects youth and seniors and everybody working. If one big company like this starts taking, taking, taking, your company will take from you."

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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.