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Independent Steel Union
‘Takes Back Control’
With UE Affiliation


Callahan, Smith and Justice
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.
Justice, Rixie, O’Brien, steward, Nairn and Pearson; second row, Black, McNeiley, Serbentas, Callahan, Smith, Lindsay and Strickland
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 Strickland.

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 United Kingdom.


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 settle.

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 union.

"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 so, too.

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

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