Bill on steelworker benefits coolly received

House measure criticized because it would exclude possible Beth Steel deal

April 25, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

A bill introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives to provide health care under certain circumstances to retired steelworkers received a less than enthusiastic welcome from union officials and other steel allies.

The legislation by Rep. Phil English, a Pennsylvania Republican, would provide health care benefits for the retirees of steel companies in the event that a firm was acquired by another domestic steelmaker, or if production capacity were reduced at the acquiring company's operations, or if a U.S. steelmaker closes.

"Everyone agrees that the domestic steel industry needs to consolidate if it hopes to compete in the global market," said English, chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus. "That hasn't happened because legacy costs - huge liabilities for hundreds of thousands of retirees - make it prohibitively expensive for the industry to restructure."

Not everyone agrees that the English bill is the best way to provide relief.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes many steelworkers from bankrupt Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant, said he doesn't think the bill is comprehensive enough.

That's in part because it provides benefits only if a steel company such as Bethlehem closes or is acquired by another U.S. producer. Bethlehem is in talks with a Brazilian steelmaker on forming a joint venture to run the Baltimore plant.

Additionally, Cardin said the plan does not guarantee the level of benefits, which would be left to the discretion of the administration.

Cardin said a bill introduced in the Senate last week by West Virginia Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV and Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter offered more protection.

The English bill "is not as strong as the Rockefeller bill filed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate," Cardin said. "I am strongly in favor of legacy costs being handled by this Congress, and we want it done in a bipartisan way."

The Rockefeller-Specter bill would also provide health care benefits to retirees of troubled steel companies. But that bill, which was co-sponsored by both of Maryland's senators, casts a wider net and would cover Sparrows Point retirees in case of a joint venture with a foreign company.

Cardin said he is considering introducing a bill in the House almost identical to the Senate measure.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose district includes the Sparrows Point plant, said he would like to see the language changed in English's bill to include foreign buyers. Otherwise, he said, he might introduce his own legislation.

A spokeswoman for English said he did not feel that a foreign company should be the recipient of a federal subsidy or U.S. government help.

A United Steelworkers of America spokesman would not comment specifically on English's bill, but he did say that the Steelworkers are working with Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat, on a bill to address steelworkers' benefits. The union strongly supports the Rockefeller bill.

Bethlehem Steel has also supported the Rockefeller legislation - and said it is studying the English bill.

Bethlehem, which employs nearly 3,500 in Baltimore, filed for Chapter 11 protection in October. Its pension fund is short $1.85 billion, and its health care obligation is underfunded by nearly $3 billion.

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