Labor pact set for vote

Mailed ballots going to work forces at Bethlehem, U.S. Steel

Steel industry

July 09, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Steel workers at Bethlehem Steel Corp. and USX Corp.'s U.S. Steel Group will begin voting within several days on new five-year labor contracts that would grant wage increases and boost pension payouts.

Paper ballots should be mailed in the next day or so, according to the United Steelworkers of America union.

Once they receive their ballots, union members will have 21 days to vote on the tentative contracts. The goal is to ratify the pacts before they expire at midnight July 31.

The agreements -- which differ only in minor details -- include annual pay raises and significant increases in pension benefits, though officials with both companies and the union have declined to comment.

Bethlehem Steel would say only that "both sides have negotiated very responsibly and have reached a contract that we believe is fair and competitive and that is in the best interests of our employees, customers, stockholders and Bethlehem."

The Bethlehem contract would cover 10,000 of the company's hourly workers, including about 3,800 at its Sparrows Point Division. A similar agreement with U.S. Steel would cover about 15,000 of the company's workers in four states, the Pittsburgh-based company said.

Union and company officials have agreed to keep details of the agreements private until the membership has voted.

Published reports say workers will get wage increases of $2 an hour over the contract's life, with hourly wage increases of 50 cents on Feb. 1 and Aug. 1, 2000, Aug. 1, 2001, and on a fourth date to be determined.

Sources said the pact would offer substantial increases in pension benefits.

For instance, one report said U.S. Steel union workers with 30 years of experience would get minimum monthly payments of $1,687.50 by August 2002, more than double the $817.50 they get now, according to the trade journal American Metal Market. Workers with Bethlehem also would receive sizable increases, the sources said.

The union, in a strategy known as "pattern bargaining," intends to use the Bethelehm-U.S. Steel agreements as models in their coming talks with other U.S. steel companies, including National Steel Corp., LTV Corp. and Ipsat Inland Inc.

The companies, by getting the pacts approved now, would be able to avoid potentially ruinous work stoppages or strikes. That's critical at a time when the U.S. steel industry needs to show unity in a battle against what it claims is a damaging flood of "dumped" foreign steel, a practice that violates U.S. trade laws.

For Bethlehem, the stakes are perhaps higher. The company is attempting to rejuvenate its Sparrows Point unit here with investments by it and partners that will exceed $600 million over the next several years.

Its only blast furnace is undergoing an overhaul expected to keep it out of operation until Aug. 1. The 54 1/2-day, $100 million project, which Sparrows Point has been planning for by stockpiling raw steel slabs for about a year, dovetails with the construction of a $300 million cold-rolling mill that is expected to start operating next year.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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