Striking ATI Steelworkers hold the line for no-premium health insurance

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Across the country, metallurgists at nine Allegheny Technologies, Inc. factories have been on strike for 11 weeks.

They want increases; stop subcontracting; ensure full funding of their retirement benefits; and push back management’s efforts to introduce health insurance premiums and a second level of coverage for young workers.

The United Steelworkers (USW) accuses ATI of unfair labor practices, including bad faith negotiations, and of taking retiree benefits hostage for contract concessions.

ATI, headquartered in Pittsburgh, manufactures steel used in aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processes, and power generation.

Five years ago, ATI locked its workers for seven months, demanding major concessions on wages, pensions and health insurance. Workers pushed back the bulk of those demands, though the company was able to shed future pension liability by replacing it with a 401 (k) for anyone hired after 2015 – a huge change in cost for them. workers who retire decently at 65. unlikely for new recruits.

There were 2,200 workers at 12 unionized sites at the time. There are 1,300 at nine sites this time around.

Most of the stores are located in areas still reeling from the deindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s. Five are in western Pennsylvania: Canton Township, Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights and Vandergrift. The others are in Louisville, Ohio; Lockport, New York; East Hartford, Connecticut; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 60 members are on strike.

MANUFACTURING DESCENT

One of the few remaining union manufacturers in Southeast Massachusetts, ATI has long been seen as a place to earn a living wage and a respectable retirement.

As a young organizer of the United Electrical Workers (EU) in the 1980s and early 1990s, I spent many mornings and afternoons handing out leaflets at the ATI factory in New Bedford – then called Rodney Metals, before it was finally bought out by ATI – and other stores in the region, encouraging workers to organize. (I like to think that we helped lay the groundwork for USW’s eventual success in the mid-90s.)

At the time, there were thousands and thousands of decently paid union workers in the manufacturing sector, and these union shops applied the tariffs and standards of the region. The ripple effect was real. Non-union employers like Rodney Metals have been “forced” to pay similar rates and terms in order to compete for workers.

Those days are over. Like many places across the country, Southeast Massachusetts lost thousands of manufacturing jobs – unionized and non-unionized – during the Reagan Era of greed, union busting and the displacement of jobs to locations. low-paid non-union members (sometimes abroad, but not always). The EU has lost nearly 2,000 members in southeastern Massachusetts in less than a decade.

Some of the most innovative and activist strategies to combat factory closures have been developed from the struggles of these workers to defend and preserve manufacturing jobs in hard-hit industrial New England.

Now with the pension replaced by a 401 (k) and after seven years of wage freeze, working at ATI – or in industry in general – is not so great anymore. Factory work in the region is now virtually entirely non-unionized, and most places pay less and offer fewer benefits than 20 years ago.

Plus, anyone who has worked in a factory knows the impact of work on your body and soul. The camaraderie can be great, but the brutal pace of working in an unhealthy environment is relentless. Your body slowly falls apart and crumbles.

RINSE WITH SILVER

Now, ATI is demanding to further reduce the benefits of current and future workers, which will further erode the region’s standard of living. To sell its offers, the company relies on salary increases and lump sum payments, but, as the union pointed out, these are all based on savings generated by other concession proposals.

Meanwhile, the company has nearly “a billion dollars in cash and more than half a billion dollars on hand,” according to a union strike bulletin. The three senior executives earned $ 22 million last year in salaries and an additional $ 17 million in bonuses.

The average hourly rate for production workers is only around $ 20 an hour, with the lowest paid labor being around $ 22. Many maintenance work has been subcontracted, especially since the last contract. Currently, to outsource work, the company simply needs to notify the union and initiate a discussion; if not, the company pays a penalty to a local charity.

These “notification” requirements did little to prevent the company from decimating the maintenance department. But even this weak arrangement is not enough for ATI. He doesn’t want any responsibility or discussion with the union about keeping the maintenance work in-house, and he continues to suggest eliminating arbitration even on the minimum requirement to give notice.

A PREMIUM ON HEALTH INSURANCE

This strike mainly concerns health insurance. In a sea of ​​unorganized workplaces with unaffordable health plans, workers at ATI are striking to keep their plan affordable for members.

Right now, the company pays full health insurance premiums – workers were able to push back ATI’s efforts to force them to pay premiums during the 2015-16 lockout. Workers have an initial deductible of 10% of coverage on the first dollar, up to $ 300 for an individual and $ 600 for a family per year. If you go out of the network, it’s double those numbers.

ATI now wants workers to pay 5 percent of the premium and increase the deductible to $ 500 for an individual and $ 1,000 for a family. What the company is really looking for, however, are new hires: the company wants them to pay 10 percent of their bonuses. It is the typical and divisive two-tier system that unions know all too well.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches and publishes data on national health insurance and conducts annual surveys of employer-provided health insurance, reports that in 1999 the average annual premium was $ 2,196 for individual plans and $ 5,791 for family plans. Twenty years later, those numbers have jumped 240% and 269%, respectively, to $ 7,470 for individuals and $ 21,342 for families.

Employers still contribute the majority, but workers now pay an average of $ 5,588 in premiums just for family coverage (up from $ 1,543 in 1999), not to mention the increased share of other medical costs they assume. Wages over the same period have increased, on average, only by 77 percent.

A REFERENCE FOR ALL

Until the 1980s, when the health insurance industry and employers began to impose premiums, deductibles, copayments and other plans to gobble up more of our paychecks, the Health insurance fully paid for by the employer was not uncommon at all.

Unionized workplaces that have been successful in upholding this standard help all of us, not just their members. They set a benchmark for the wages and benefits that other employers in the same industry or geographic area must provide to remain “competitive”. They influence what workers and the local community expect from a job.

When a benefit is allowed to erode over time, so does the standard. Seeing these ATI workers fighting to defend premium free health insurance, something most unions have lost, is inspiring.

“I’m proud of my brothers and sisters online,” said John Camarao, Bedford ATI employee, grievance chair for Steelworkers Local 1357. that we are fighting for is not just for our future, but for the future of new hires and the benefits of our retirees.

“Their demands are meant to divide us, but instead they have united us, and our determination is to see it through. “

Peter Knowlton is the retired General Chairman of the United Electrical Workers (EU).


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