Hundreds of Steelworkers, retirees and allies gathered in Virginia, Minn., earlier this month to rally for a fair contract for workers at U.S. Steel properties on the Iron Range.
Members of Locals 2660 (Keetac) and 1938 (Minntac) have been working without a contract since the previous one expired on Sept. 1. Steelworkers at Cleveland Cliffs properties reached an agreement with the employer last month, and the union is pushing hard for a comparable offer from U.S. Steel.
Speakers at the rally included Labor-endorsed State Representatives Julie Sandstede (DFL-7A) and Dave Lislegard (DFL-7B), himself a former Steelworker, among other Labor-endorsed candidates and politicians.
Chris Johnson, president of USW Local 2705 (Hibtac), expressed solidarity to the local at U.S. Steel properties. “We’re here for you, we stand with you. You’re all essential workers and kept them going. People don’t think labor unions are necessary? That’s bullshit.”
“We’re in a battle,” said Bobby Zgonc, trustee of USW Local 1938. “It’s great to see everybody here willing to stand up for Steelworkers.”
The chant of “FDB! FDB!” — referring to U.S. Steel CEO Dave Burritt — rang out between speakers.
Steelworkers at U.S. Steel properties say its proposal fails to meet the standard set by the contract with Cleveland-Cliffs. The Cliffs agreement included wage increases of 8 percent, and then three years of 4 percent each, while the USS proposal was 3 percent the first year, 3 percent for the next two years and 4 percent for the fourth year.
The Cliffs agreement adds Juneteenth as a holiday; U.S. Steel rejected this suggestion, as well as pension increases and vacation changes. The company is insisting on “significant” health care changes as well.
“The cap on insurance means if you hit the threshold, you don’t even know how much you’re out of pocket,” said Tawnya Gustafson, vice president of Local 2660 and a trainer in the Keetac plant. She said the proposal to take major local healthcare providers (Mayo and Essentia) out of network was devastating as well. “These are the fights where if we don’t get a fair contract, it will affect the whole community,” she said.
As negotiations drag on, Gustafson said people have dialed back purchasing decisions. “No one is buying anything, their lives are on hold. During these times, that’s the hardest.”
Dave Smith, a millwright with Local 2660 said it was disheartening that the Cleveland Cliffs negotiations went so smoothly and the current negotiations with U.S. Steel are so difficult. “It’s like U.S. Steel doesn’t value us,” he said. After the difficulties of keeping work going during the pandemic and the toll working in the mines takes on their bodies, Smith said it’s frustrating that cutting health insurance is a priority for U.S. Steel.
“These mining companies are having a hard enough time bringing new employees into the facilities, and when you have issues with healthcare and wages, the younger generation is going to be looking elsewhere for job opportunities,” said Dan Pierce, a diesel mechanic with 2660 and the grievance chair for the local. “The only way to keep them is to pay them.”
Emil Ramirez, director of USW District 11, said that while both sides are a long ways apart, he’s confident they’ll get to a deal. He highlighted how U.S. Steel made record profits during the pandemic while thousands of employees got covid and seven USW members died.
“We know what Dave Burritt did at Caterpillar,” Ramirez said, referring to the deep cuts and anti-union actions at the company. “It’s the same thing here. He’s running from the union.”
Ramirez was referring to an action Steelworkers took several days before the rally, when Burritt was in Keewatin to tout a $150 million investment in the facility so it can produce direct-reduced pellets (“DR grade”). Union leaders acknowledged the importance of the investment, while also massing along Burritt’s planned route to the facility to highlight their demand for a fair contract, forcing him to take a different route.
In Virginia, signs in almost every business window express support for Steelworkers and urge U.S. Steel to come to the table for a fair contract. “We had people here from Pittsburgh (during negotiations with Cliffs), and they saw how unionized our community is,” said Jaime Winger, president of USW Local 6860 (UTac/Fairlane). “Even if the mom’n’pop stores aren’t union, they support the union, because they know how a strong contract puts spending power in the community.”