The United Steelworkers of America, instrumental in the history of Baltimore and other industrial cities but shrunken by the rise of technology and global competition, announced yesterday a plan to fortify itself by merging with another union.
The Steelworkers will join the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) to become what the two organizations describe as the dominant union in North America in metals and many other commodities.
Symbolic of the merger, the new union will have a lengthy name - the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied-Industrial and Service Workers International Union. Informally, the entity will be called the USW, provided the two memberships approve the merger in April.
"We'll be the most powerful industrial union in North America and maybe the world," PACE President Boyd Young said, after the boards of both unions agreed to merge. "Workers under our jurisdiction will want to join us."
Unions that represent steelworkers and other laborers have been dealt repeated blows in recent decades as their companies were unable to compete with new technologies and low-cost foreign firms. Many companies were forced to file for bankruptcy protection, reducing union ranks and eliminating benefits to active workers and retirees.
Unions in general represent about 15 million workers, or about 8 percent of the private work force. In the late 1950s, about a third of private-sector workers were unionized.
In recent years, to bolster their ranks, industrial unions have recruited new members whose work is unrelated to their original name and missions. The Steelworkers, for instance, represent workers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, at the Good Humor/Breyers ice cream plant in Hagerstown and at the Louisville Slugger baseball bat plant in Kentucky.
The new union wants a return to what it views as the glory days of power when it had greater influence with management and in political circles.
The merged entity would number about 850,000 active members in the United States and Canada, with about 550,000 coming from the Steelworkers' ranks. The new entity will represent another 400,000 retirees.
It will take years to fully merge the unions, the parties said. Leo W. Gerard, the head of the Steelworkers, would become president of the new union.
The two unions are the product of about 18 smaller mergers over the years. The Steelworkers merged with the United Rubber Workers in 1995. Union leaders say future mergers and alliances are possible.
The Paper Mill Workers, a precursor to one of PACE's unions, is one of the oldest in America, forming in the late 1800s. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, the precursor to the Steelworkers union, formed shortly afterward. The steel industry resisted its organizing efforts, leading to strikes and violence.
A major organizing drive in the 1930s led by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, another early union coalition, bolstered by new federal laws, fostered an era of labor strength. The United Steelworkers of America was created in 1942.
The union grew into one of the largest, representing employees at the nation's steelmaking giants such as Bethlehem Steel Corp., which at its peak employed more than 280,000.
But as U.S. manufacturers slid, pared their work forces and pressed wage and benefit cuts to fend off new technologies and foreign competition, organized labor weakened as well, sometimes riven by historic internal disputes.
Some of the strongest competition stemmed from the invention of the electric arc furnace, which allowed for the making of steel at much lower cost from scrap metal, leading to the creation of minimills that employed largely nonunion workers.
In Baltimore County, Sparrows Point once employed 35,000 workers; today the number has fallen to 1,600 to 2,500.
The plant was bought in October by Netherlands-based Mittal Steel Co. as part of its $4.5 billion acquisition of International Steel Group Inc. The deal is expected to close by the end of the first quarter.
ISG had obtained the plant in 2003 when it purchased the assets of Bethlehem Steel Corp., which had sought bankruptcy protection.
Labor experts question if the new union will be a force within companies that have become global conglomerates, increasingly focused on shareholder value.
Steelworkers once played significant political roles, including in Maryland, said Mark Reutter, business and law editor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might.
Minimills, such as Nucor Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., have resisted Steelworker organizing efforts, he said. In the short term, the merger could give the union the influence it needs in Washington and at the collective bargaining table, he said.