Merged steel local forges new hope

Local 9477: The newly created local is expected to reduce expenses as it looks after the needs of steelworkers, active and retired.

June 03, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Six decades after they were created, Baltimore's two major United Steelworkers locals have merged in a move that members say makes sense but will take getting used to.

With their ranks decreasing as the number of employees at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant dwindles, United Steelworkers of America Locals 2609 and 2610 have joined to create Local 9477.

"It's sad, and I'm sure it's the same for 2609; everybody misses it," said Ron Allowatt, who stepped down as president of 2610 to become a safety coordinator after the merger. "I just hope everybody can get together for a common goal here and try to make things right for ourselves and for the company.

"We have got to worry about the future - the workers, the retirees and their health care - and we've got a lot of things to worry about other than ourselves politically."

United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard came to Baltimore on May 22 --- 60 years to the day after the formation of the union, including both locals - to swear in the new officials. John Cirri, who was president of 2609, was named interim president. An election will be held in April.

The union was originally formed to give workers a stronger voice on working conditions, hours, benefits and wages. Local 2610 represented workers on the steel-making side of the plant, and 2609 represented those on the finishing side.

The two locals had a combined 32,000 members at their peak during World War II, but membership has fallen to about 3,000 as automation and production cuts have reduced Sparrows Point's work force.

"I think it should have been done long ago," said Fred Crenshaw, a retired steelworker who belonged to 2609 for nearly 43 years. "There are a lot of expenses with two unions."

Along with the former 2609 and 2610, the new union includes several smaller unions within Sparrows Point: 9084, which represented workers in the fuel department; 4727, whose members are in the fire department; and the office and clerical workers of Local 9116.

Union officials say the new, combined local will save on administrative expenses because there will be fewer officers. Additionally, 2609 and 2610 had their own union halls next door to each another on Dundalk Avenue. Now everything will be housed in what was once 2610's hall.

The smaller building at 550 Dundalk Ave., which was home to 2609, "will more than likely be sold," said Frank Rossi, international staff representative for the United Steelworkers union's District 8, which includes Baltimore. "But that's a decision the local has to make."

Cirri, who plans to run for the presidency next year, said there are no plans to sell either hall. He said the former home of 2609 is still used for meetings and is rented out for receptions and banquets.

"It would be self-sustaining to keep it," he said.

The locals are combining as the U.S. steel industry faces huge losses and an extraordinary number of bankruptcies - 32 since 1998, including Bethlehem's Chapter 11 filing in October.

Companies are struggling in part because of the huge health care and pension obligations that have built up over the years and in part because prices began falling after steel imports reached an all-time high four years ago.

"This [merging of locals] has been under discussion internally for the last two to three years," said Jim Strong, Baltimore's sub-district director for the United Steelworkers union. "This was not done as a result of the steel crisis."

Strong said that along with saving on administrative expenses, the new local will have a stronger voice with 3,000 members. That will be particularly important to members as the state gets ready to elect a new governor and vote in U.S. House races.

The union is backing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, for governor, Strong said.

The combined local might have a stronger voice, but the change will still be emotional for many members, Rossi said.

"You can't just exist for 60 years like that and not have a certain amount of pride in what you're doing and who you are," he said. "You identify with your local."

In addition to Cirri as president, the new officers of 9477 are Jerry DiClementi, vice president; John Barr, recording secretary; Jeffrey Mikula, financial secretary; David Boyd, treasurer; Loretta Smith, guide; Jack Lawson and Joseph Marshall, guards; Carol Lucas, Emanuel Jones and Calvin Smith, trustees; Tyrone Lewis, grievance chairman; and Len Shindel, grievance secretary.

"I would say that everyone has accepted it," Cirri said. "Some more than others, but for the greater good, they accepted it."

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