Steel contract talks take aim at work rules

Len Shindel

April 19, 1993|By Len Shindel

NEGOTIATIONS on a new contract in the steel industry are without doubt the most crucial in history because both management and the international leadership of the United Steelworkers of America are seeking a revolution in the way labor is organized at steel plants.

Leadership of the union has announced that it will seek long-term contracts providing for "new work systems," along with guarantees of no layoffs and no concessions. It also wants workers to be "involved in decision-making at all levels of the enterprise."

Right now, apprehension is what pervades the enterprise. At Sparrows Point, workers' worry over contract talks runs as deep as the gash in union ranks over the past 20 years.

Our numbers have shrunk from 17,000 in 1973 to under 5,000. An endless plague of shutdowns (pipe and rod mills and coke ovens) has left squads of high-seniority workers roving around the plant in labor-pool jobs, looking for new positions or pension increases that will allow them to retire in dignity.

Junior workers, meanwhile, live in fear of more shutdowns or of being "bumped" by high-seniority co-workers.

Work rule changes have been a constant source of tension since the emergence of the steel industry. In Big Steel's early days, skilled workers held significant power. Fathers hired their sons, and when they were dissatisfied with management policy, they organized unions and shut down production.

A Bethlehem engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor devised a scheme of "scientific management" to undermine the autonomy of skilled workers. He divided the work process into minute tasks, assigning a worker to each. Worker power was diluted. "Taylorism" survived in the steel industry until it faced increasing competition and began to use advanced electronics.

The aging Sparrows Point plant and the Burns Harbor, Ind., plant, built in 1969, are the bulk of what remains of the colossus that was Bethlehem. Superintendents tell the troops that we have "one year to make a go of this place or else."

The plant is now a mix of state-of-the-art steel production, built with borrowed money, and rusting, obsolete tools of production. Workers fear that the "or else" could mean working for one of Bethlehem's creditors. Among them is a consortium of Japanese banks that lent Bethlehem the capital to install modern equipment at Burns Harbor and Sparrows Point. Many workers contend that working for the Japanese would put jobs and working conditions in even greater peril.

But we need to focus our attention closer to home. "New work systems" would bring changes as sweeping as Japan's, but they might not be to the benefit of workers. At National Steel, which our international union cites as a model, job classifications have been combined, and while thousands of out-of-work steelworkers crowd the union halls, some workers at the plant earn thousands of dollars a year in overtime.

The new "hot dip galvanize line" at Sparrows Point has some features of the new system. On the old lines, built in the 1950s but still in use, workers are organized on the Taylor model. When one worker needs a break, others cover for him. On the "new work system" line, people work alone. They often don't have time to eat or go to the bathroom without risking a major line failure. Job stress is intense.

Sometimes the place looks like a Chaplin movie as workers run from control room to production floor and back. Taylorism has been replaced by a work system that appears just as ruthless.

Our leaders say the new systems must "give the union equal control over the establishment and development of programs." That sounds good, but it takes organization, strategy and union leaders who work in partnership with members. Thus far, the international union has not included its dues-paying members in discussions about restructuring the workplace.

Contracts at Bethlehem Steel, National Steel and Inland Steel expire July 31. The United Steelworkers at first sought to open the current round of talks with USX (formerly U.S. Steel), where the contract will not expire until Jan. 31, 1994, but talks broke off in late March.

One thing is certain. The final contracts will have a monumental impact on the quality of our work lives, the shape of our union and the U.S. steel industry.

Len Shindel, who works at Sparrows Point, is an officer of the Strong Union Network, a group within Local 2609 of the United Steelworkers.

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