Raucous rally asks Bush to impose tariffs on steel

Lawmakers, union, industry unite at meeting in Dundalk

February 21, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

More than 1,000 steel workers and retirees joined industry executives, union leaders and lawmakers yesterday in a raucous rally urging President Bush to impose stiff tariffs on imported steel and help save the beleaguered industry.

U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes told the crowd at the United Steelworkers of America union hall in Dundalk that he was with them "all the way until we have a victory." U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she would "fight to the death."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said he was asking "America to stand up for steel and stand up for our country."

Nearly every speech was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause.

Organizers had hoped for a crowd of 500, but company and union officials estimated that more than 1,300 attended the event.

The lawmakers were joined by the head of bankrupt Bethlehem Steel Corp. and union officials, including USWA national President Leo Gerard. They urged support for White House and congressional action that they say is needed to keep the U.S. steel industry alive.

The International Trade Commission ruled in October that the industry had been harmed by imports, and Bush is to decide by March 6 what level of tariffs, if any, he will impose on imported steel as a remedy. Steel prices have fallen sharply in the face of competition from cheap imports, and the domestic industry is campaigning for Bush to impose duties of 40 percent, saying anything less will be useless.

Bethlehem and the union also want to use revenue from those tariffs to pay for retiree health care costs, paving the way for the consolidation they say it is needed to save the industry. If Bethlehem were forced to liquidate, the jobs, pensions and health care of its workers and retirees could be in jeopardy.

"The next three weeks will determine a lot about the steel industry," Mikulski said. "We say, `George [Bush], ya gotta do it.'"

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend also pledged support.

"This is a battle for our very lives," Gerard told the crowd. "Those who do not stand with us, we will never forget, and we will get our justice."

Steel makers in the United States say they are not playing on a level field because overseas companies sometimes sell their steel on U.S. soil for less than it cost to produce. Additionally, many of those companies' governments are responsible for workers' health care, while U.S. firms have to absorb that cost.

More than two dozen U.S. steel makers have filed for bankruptcy protection since 1998, when imports began to surge. Bethlehem has a tentative agreement to be purchased by United States Steel Corp. of Pittsburgh, but only if the government takes over retiree health care costs.

The rally was part of a national campaign by steel workers and industry officials to win support for their cause. Rallies are being held in various steel-making states, and ads urging Bush to act are running in print, on radio stations and on television.

The effort faces stiff competition from steel users, who say tariffs would lead to higher prices and hurt their business. Some steel makers that use nonunion labor - such as Nucor Corp. - support tariffs but oppose a federal takeover of retiree health care costs.

Mikulski said she was fighting not just for the people who worked in the mills, "but the spouses who loved them and supported them when they went to the cold mill and the hot furnace and got calluses and varicose veins and bad backs and now wonder if the support they were promised is going to be there."

After the rally, Bethlehem's chairman and chief executive, Robert S. "Steve" Miller Jr., said he had gotten "wildly different" reports from Washington sources on what Bush planned to do on tariffs.

"I think they are still studying all the potential options," said Miller. He and Gerard met with Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans Tuesday to discuss the issue.

McKinley Evans has worked at Bethlehem's Sparrows Point plant for 24 years. The 46-year-old maintenance technician said that while he's concerned about jobs disappearing, that he is more worried about losing the pension and health care benefits he's worked toward for more than half his life. He's not optimistic that the White House will do enough to help.

"I think they may make a token attempt, but they will not do anything of substance," he said.

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