Steelworkers protest loss of jobs, benefits
JACOB TIERNEY | Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, 12:06 a.m.
MICHAEL SWENSEN | FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Members of United Steelworkers and community supporters gather for candlelight vigil outside the Akers
Union Electric Steel facility in Avonmore, PA in protest of the company’s plans to lay off dozens of workers
and cut healthcare for hundreds of retirees. Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2016
Steelworkers huddled beneath umbrellas, protecting lit candles from a steady downpour as they held a vigil to protest layoffs and benefit cuts at the Akers National Roll plant in Avonmore.
“It’s just very unfair. I’ve got 27 years down there, my dad had 45,” said machine operator Jimmy Stine, standing with more than 100 people in the field outside the plant.
Union Electric Steel Corp. announced in October it would temporarily shut down the plant, which makes cast steel rolls, as it restructures to cut costs.
The facility will be closed by April 21 if the situation continues as it is, but it is possible a deal could be struck with United Steelworkers to keep it open, according to Union Electric Steel spokeswoman Melanie Sprowson.
USW accused the company of using the looming closure to threaten the union into accepting dozens of job cuts.
“It helps nobody for the plant to be closed,” said Lou Bonnoni, president of United Steel Workers District 10, Local Union 1138.
Sprowson said the company could not comment on layoffs or employee benefits.
“It’s a private matter between the corporation and the union, and we’re hoping our talks with the union are going to continue,” she said.
Union Electric Steel, a subsidiary of Ampco-Pittsburgh, bought the plant from investment firm Altor Equity Partners in March.
It quickly started eliminating positions, according to Bonnoni.
The plant had 198 union workers at the start of 2016. It now has 160, and wants to cut most of those, he said.
“I don’t know how you can run a plant with only 50 people. It’s ludicrous, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
Sprowson said she could not discuss staffing numbers.
The company also cut health benefits for retired employees, Bonnoni said.
Bob Dobrosky worked as a heavy equipment operator at the plant for more than 24 years. When he retired in 2014, he expected he and his wife would remain fully covered under the company’s health care package until he was eligible for Medicare, the same as all retirees from the plant.
He found out in October that he would have to find his own health insurance, although Union Electric Steel would continue to contribute $500 a month for him and $200 a month for his wife.
“So many things in America happen this way, and it’s a shame,” Dobrosky said. “People work all their lives, and they just turn around and stick a knife in your back after it’s done.”
Bonnoni said USW is planning to file a lawsuit against Union Electric over the cuts to retiree health benefits, which the union contends is a violation of its labor agreement with the company.
“You’re talking about people who worked their whole life, and all of a sudden they had their health care ripped out from under them,” he said.
He said he hopes the candlelight vigil will be a show of community support that might convince Union Electric Steel to change its terms. He’s reached out to politicians at every level, including a letter to President-elect Donald Trump.
At the vigil, USW officials and plant employees urged Union Electric Steel to forestall its planned cuts.
Avonmore Mayor Paula Jones, a lifelong resident of the borough, cried as she recalled how much the plant has meant to the community.
Stine said he expects the plant will go idle, at least for a while.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of people. It’s going to hurt this town.”
Bonnoni said USW is willing to negotiate, but not to accept Union Electric Steel’s terms that include mass layoffs and cuts to retiree health insurance.
“We have no problem giving our shirt, but you’re not taking our pants too,” he said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at (724) 836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org