Steel talks begin Monday

Bethlehem, U.S. Steel and union all hoping for early agreement

Labor

May 08, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Bethlehem Steel Corp. and U.S. Steel Group will be the first of the nation's steel companies at the bargaining table this round when they begin talks Monday with the United Steelworkers of America in hopes of reaching an early labor settlement.

Both the industry and the union are hoping to reach a deal quickly -- as early as May 28, according to some sources -- because they want to present a united front to government trade officials who are expected to rule in June on allegations that foreign steel companies violated U.S. trade laws by "dumping" cheap steel on the U.S. market.

The two sides have been working side-by-side on a campaign to stem the low-priced imports, which grabbed huge chunks of market share last year from U.S. steel companies.

"We believe that the efforts to reach an early agreement are supportive of the efforts of Bethlehem and the USWA through the `Stand Up for Steel' campaign to increase public awareness of the serious injury being caused to the domestic steel industry and its employees by the unprecedented levels of unfairly traded foreign steel," said Curtis H. "Hank" Barnette, Bethlehem Steel's chairman and chief executive officer.

Current contracts expire at the end of July.

To get to the table before the other companies, Bethlehem and U.S. Steel agreed to "neutrality" -- a side agreement by the two firms not to interfere if the Steelworkers try to bring eligible nonunion Bethlehem or U.S. Steel employees into the bargaining unit.

Most observers thought the companies would oppose that union demand, which could have held up the broader talks.

With the two companies combining negotiations, the talks are expected to take less time.

"Bethlehem seems really sincere about getting a contract done early," said Waldo T. Best, a steel industry analyst for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in New York City, who visited with Bethlehem Steel's management this week.

Contracts at Bethlehem Steel units cover 10,000 union workers -- including about 3,600 at Sparrows Point in Baltimore County -- while those at U.S. Steel cover roughly 15,000 union workers, officials from the two companies said.

Key issues locally are expected to be wage and pension increases, and a continuation of the job-security clauses written into the current contract, which, for local Bethlehem workers, covered six years.

Bargaining talks are getting under way later than usual, precisely because the companies and the union have been working so closely together on the "Stand Up for Steel" campaign, industry sources say.

Some Wall Streeters are worried that the two sides do not have enough time to wrap up an agreement, which could lead to strikes, disastrous drops in supply, a spike in steel prices and plunging profits for steel users.

However, union insiders say they are glad for the late start and are confident of a fast resolution. Had the talks opened earlier, union officials feel, they might have been at a disadvantage because steel prices -- and therefore steel company profits and stock prices -- were low because of the flood of imports.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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