Bethlehem Steel, union planning nonstop talks

July 31, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Even though the picket signs were ready to go, union and management officials at Bethlehem Steel Corp. yesterday planned round-the-clock negotiations in the hope of reaching an agreement before a strike deadline of midnight tonight.

"We're prepared just like they are," David Wilson, a district director for the United Steelworkers of America and one of the chief negotiators for the union, said yesterday. "We have an optimistic feeling, but that doesn't translate into an agreement.

"We're going to go all night tonight, no doubt about it."

Such a conflict has been avoided at Eastern Stainless Corp., a stainless steel plant on Rolling Mill Road in Baltimore County. A 2-year contract covering 450 members of the United Steelworkers Locals 1245 and 8020 was ratified yesterday by union members, according to a press release from Armco Inc., the steel company that owns Eastern Stainless.

The company said the contract includes wage increases and a signing bonus. The agreement also called for a managed-care health plan and a severance program for 150 workers who will be affected by the closing of the plant's melting operation on July 22. Other details of the agreement were not released.

A strike at Bethlehem would shut down the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County, which has about 5,500 workers -- including 4,900 union members in locals 2609 and 2610. It would also close the company's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant, with 5,300 workers and a Lackawanna, N.Y., operation with 700 workers, according to Bethlehem spokesman Henry Von Spreckelsen.

It would not close plants in Bethlehem and Steelton, Pa., which are covered by separate contracts.

It would be the first steel strike at Bethlehem in 24 years.

Mr. Von Spreckelsen would not comment on the negotiations.

Mr. Wilson, whose district includes Sparrows Point, said the union is "not inclined" to extend the four-year agreement.

The chief points of dispute are over medical insurance and pensions, he said.

The company is pushing for a managed care plan that would require all workers to seek medical treatment from an approved list of health providers, Mr. Wilson said. If workers go outside this network, they would have to pay for the treatment, he said.

Workers currently have a variety of options, including traditional indemnity insurance, health maintenance organizations and a preferred provider organization.

"Its quality care vs. mediocre care and we're not going to do that to our members," Mr. Wilson said.

Pension benefits are another point of conflict. "We want to increase them, they don't want to do it," Mr. Wilson said.

The issue of wages had not been settled as of yesterday, Mr. Wilson said, but added that that was not a major problem. The average wage for a steel worker is about $17 an hour, he said.

Besides Bethlehem, two other major steel companies have contracts expiring at midnight. Those agreements cover 6,300 workers for National Steel Corp. in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, and 2,500 at an Armco plant in Ashland, Ky., according to the Steelworkers.

Earlier in the week, Bethlehem said it would start the phase down of certain equipment in its plants if it became evident an agreement would not be reached by the deadline. Some equipment, such as blast furnaces, take two or more days to properly shut down.

Trying to accommodate the company, the union has agreed to allow its members to cross picket lines for the sole purpose of shutting down a key blast furnace at Sparrows Point should there be a strike. The blast furnace -- which is the source of iron for the mill -- takes two days and about 300 workers to shut down, Mr. Wilson said. "It's not like turning your car off," he said.

There is a similar agreement for one of the two blast furnaces at Burns Harbor, Mr. Wilson said.

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