Independent Steel Union
‘Takes Back Control’
Bringing a rank-and-file message of solidarity: Bill
Callahan of Local 751, Bob Smith and Randy Justice of Local 712 encouraged the
Progressive Steelworkers to strengthen their union through affiliation.
Progressive Steelworkers leaders and UE friends in their
Hammond, Ind. office. First row, from left, UE Local 712 Vice Pres. Randy
Justice, Pres. Zed Rixie, Joe O’Brien, steward, Pat Nairn and Vice Pres.
Alan Pearson; second row, Bill Black, Dennis McNeiley, Joe Serbentas, UE Local
751 Pres. Bill Callahan, UE Local 712 Pres. Bob Smith, Ken Lindsay and Randy
Declaring "it’s time to take back control," the
Progressive Steelworkers union decided to strengthen their organization
through affiliation with UE. Members of the independent union voted 83 to 32
on June 25 in a secret-ballot election to affiliate.
The Progressive Steelworkers union represents the
approximately 220 employees of the Niagara LaSalle steel mill here. The
long-established union enjoyed a good relationship with management, until
LaSalle was acquired by the Niagara Corp. three years ago.
With a series of acquisitions since its organization in 1993,
Niagara has become the largest independent producer of cold drawn steel in the
United States. With the purchase of the steel bar business of Glynwood Steels
in June 1999, Niagara became the largest independent steel bar producer in the
Niagara’s chairman and CEO, Michael J. Scharf,
established a different style of labor relations at LaSalle. The Progressive
Steelworkers voted 184-59 to strike in June 1998 in response to a company
final offer imposing a two-tier system. Union members fought for nine weeks.
But as the company placed ever-worsening proposals on the table, and with
replacement workers in the plant, the Progressive Steelworkers voted to
The contract imposed a two-tier wage system, shrunk the number
of job classifications from 21 to five, reduced the maximum vacation time from
five to four weeks and handed out $500 payments in lieu of wage increases the
second and third year of the contract.
So when UE Intl. Rep. Carol Lambiase made a phone call
to the Progressive Steelworkers’ office last December, followed by a visit
with UE District 11 Pres. Carl Rosen a month later, the union’s
officers were interested — interested enough to ask Lambiase to come back
and give a presentation on independent unionism.
What they heard made sense to them: with UE, they would
maintain their local autonomy and democratic control, while enjoying the
resources and strength of a national union.
"By affiliating we still retain our autonomy as far as
representing the people goes, however, we will have much more access to
resources," said Joe Serbentas, union treasurer. "And
naturally, with more resources we will have a better chance to negotiate a
fair contract for all."
Next came a meeting with the Progressive Steelworkers
stewards, whose concern was dealing effectively with Scharf’s management
from a position of strength. They liked what UE had to say, too.
Pres. Zed Rixie and his brother officers decided that
affiliation was the way to go."I think it’s time that we take a serious
look at an affiliation with a strong union and I think the UE would represent
us well," said Rixie. "We have lost control over the years and it is
time to take it back."
In addition to their own statements, the Progressive
Steelworkers officers also distributed a ringing endorsement of affiliation
from a union leader who had faced a similar decision seven years earlier. Duane
Yaindl, president of UE Local 111, stated emphatically that his
independent union’s 1993 affiliation with UE helped secure better contracts
and the means to enforce them.
The Progressive Steelworkers’ leadership scheduled a
membership meeting for May 21, where their rank and file got a look at the UE
rank and file. Randy Justice and Bob Smith of Local 712 at
Kenyon College proudly described the success a small local can enjoy with UE
backing, while Bill Callahan, Local 751, talked about UE’s dealings
with the world’s most powerful corporation, General Electric. UE Intl. Rep. Tim
Curtin also attended that meeting.
The union membership voted to schedule an affiliation vote.
Meanwhile, an AFL-CIO union launched an aggressive campaign
for a "no" vote. The Progressive Steelworkers were unmoved. They
understood clearly that with UE they would retain their local democracy while
enjoying the resources and support needed for a stronger, more effective
"The reason I like the UE is it gives us the chance to
get unified, offers us a lot of resources we currently don’t have, and it
will give us a chance to better enforce the contract," said Vice Pres. Al
Pearson. "We do need help. Now is the time to get it. I honestly feel
UE is the way to go."
Dennis McNeiley, the union’s secretary, agreed. "We
need a helping hand in dealing with the problems we have and the future ones.
That’s why I think it makes sense to affiliate with UE."
The overwhelming majority of those voting on June 25 thought
Intl. Rep. Dennis Painter has already begun meeting
with the leadership of the new UE local, and participating in meetings with
management. Negotiations will take place next spring.
UE News - 07/00