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The United Steelworkers union is now mailing out ballots to U.S. Steel employees, including those at Gary Works, East Chicago Tin and the Midwest Plant in Portage.

Steelworkers will get a week or two to cast their votes to ratify or reject a new contract with the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker, after getting summaries of all the changes from the 2012 contract in the mail. The tentative three-year deal contains no pay raises, but it has more profit-sharing and largely preserves benefits for workers and retirees, District 7 Director Mike Millsap said.

Millsap, who represents steelworkers in Indiana and Illinois, said the union secured the best possible deal after more than six months of difficult negotiations. More than two dozen union locals at U.S. Steel mills across the country still must ratify the deal.

"Look, it's a very difficult time in the steel industry," he said. "Prices are down. Steelmakers are losing money. The markets are shrinking. We did everything we could."

U.S. Steel has declined to comment on specifics until a new labor pact is reached.

Under the proposed contract, there are some minor changes from the 2012 agreement, such as higher co-pays. But Millsap said USW was largely able to preserve health care benefits after U.S. Steel wanted to slash them to where newer workers could have far less coverage and steelworkers could end up paying $6,300 more out of pocket per year, which would have effectively amounted to a big pay cut.

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Steelworkers would not have to pay any monthly premiums under the proposed deal.

"There are minor changes," Millsap said. "But the benefits are preserved."

The USW also secured a concession that U.S. Steel will restore full benefits when it recalls laid-off workers, such as those at Granite City Works in southern Illinois.

Steelworkers will get no salary increases over the next three years, but they will get a 5 percent increase in profit-sharing if U.S. Steel turns itself around and makes a profit. The company lost around $509 million in the first three quarters of 2015.

"When the market comes back, our share in the profit-sharing just got bigger," Millsap said.

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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.