Steel industry health coverage still in the works

Mikulski and Rockefeller to offer amendment

May 11, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Steel industry supporters said yesterday that they will make another attempt to add an industry health-coverage provision to the trade bill making its way through Congress.

Senate and White House negotiators agreed Thursday to abandon language in the trade bill that would have provided one year of health insurance to steel workers and retirees who had lost their coverage.

Amid rising imports that helped lower prices, more than 30 U.S. steel companies have filed for bankruptcy protection since late 1997 and more than 125,000 retirees have lost their health coverage.

Bethlehem Steel Corp., which has about 3,500 employees at its Sparrows Point plant in Baltimore County, filed for Chapter 11 protection in October. It is in talks to form a joint venture at Sparrows Point with a Brazilian steelmaker.

In a win for the domestic industry, President Bush imposed tariffs of up to 30 percent on certain types of imported steel in March.

But the White House said in a policy statement this week that it opposes using the trade bill to provide assistance to steel workers and that the matter should be addressed in a "different forum."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and fellow Democrat Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who has been the leading champion of the steel industry, will introduce an amendment to the trade bill next week that would create the one-year health insurance plan, Mikulski's office said yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, has said he will support the measure.

Bethlehem's tentative deal to sell most of its Sparrows Point assets to Brazil's Companhia Siderurgica Nacional (CSN) is not contingent on government help in paying for retiree pensions or health-care costs. Those obligations were major factors in Bethlehem's bankruptcy.

The deal is dependent on a new labor contract between the United Steelworkers union and CSN. The Brazilian company wants a more flexible contract that would allow a worker to do more than one job and that would base a large portion of wages on productivity.

A negotiator for the union, which is in preliminary talks with CSN, said resolving the issue of government aid would speed the process.

"That is the big thing sitting in the middle of the table for everybody," said Tom Conway, head of the hourly work force's negotiating committee. "It has everybody somewhat stalled."

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