The Farrell Steel Strike and Medicare for All

by Tina Shannon, President

PA Steel Valley Chapter, Progressive Democrats of America

Just up the road from me in W PA, workers at a local steel fabrication plant employing almost 500 have gone on strike. The main issue is their healthcare coverage.

But this also happened there. Imagine this.  Your husband dies in a horrible motorcycle accident. You go to his workplace a week later, to fill out the paperwork for his life insurance and other paperwork requirements. The HR person informs you  that the company canceled your family’s health insurance the very day he died with no notification to you, the bereaved spouse. You and your family have been without healthcare coverage this whole time.

The company did this even though Jackie Vezilli’s husband’s paycheck had been deducted for his share of the healthcare coverage. In Jackie  Verzilli’s own words, “This video is happening because of the lack of respect and disregard for my husband, myself, and my family by this company is indeed all true. This video is happening because my husband worked for this company for 13 years, all the way back when it was called Gibraltar. He worked countless hours of overtime. He was in a  really bad work accident for this company and survived.”

Jackie is struggling with the company about this.

This steel mill, now owned by  NLMK, has been in Farrell, PA for a long time. It is a generational workplace for many families in the area. People who work there have social ties from high school and even elementary school. It is an anchor for the community. People in this part of W PA have built good lives around good union jobs there.

Farrell is home to perhaps the last New Deal Club in the country.

In the days before the steel mills were booming, the first-generation immigrants and their children weathered the Great Depression. Because of that, when they were opening a social club for Democrats, to transcend all the ethnic clubs already in existence, they named it for FDR. In the words of Ed  Nicastro, as recorded in an oral history taken by J. Kasich, “he saved the nation from starving. Ever since that time in 1933 this club has still honored his birthday and went by the rules he made a lot of them.  What he did for the workingman and everything and that’s why there is still a Democratic club left in the country”.

Throughout the prosperous years of busy steel mills hiring workers, and the years of flourishing local economies that resulted, Farrell honored FDR.  At one time, this was a place where one income could support a family. Things have been getting increasingly harder though.

Healthcare is an ever-increasing need for the people around me, a need ever more neglected by the forces controlling the economic system we live in. As people lose their jobs due to a worldwide pandemic, they also lose their healthcare coverage, making a bad situation worse.

I live in a part of the country that already has severe disparities. Pittsburgh is known as a healthcare hub. This is confusing. UPMC, the dominant hospital system in Pittsburgh, has been a pioneer in organ transplants. At the same time, a battle between the UPMC insurance plan and the competing Highmark insurance plan has forced patients to switch doctors and plans. This battle compromised the healthcare of my community. It makes everyone more insecure about their healthcare coverage.

Pittsburgh also has high racial disparity, reflected by the Black infant mortality rate, which is six times higher than white infant mortality.

And that all takes place in Pittsburgh, which is more prosperous than my community and most of the communities around me.

Farrell is in neighboring Mercer County in the de-industrialized Rust Belt outside of Pittsburgh. In Farrell, the owners of this steel fabrication plant are paying $150 million for tariffs they claim were unskillfully placed in an off-hand manner. Some 25% tariffs on foreign steel were abruptly instituted by the Trump administration in 2018.

With no national industrial plan to replace the produced steel this plant needs to service its customers, the survival of this small town in Western PA is being threatened by the current Republican administration.

That is the context of the striking workers’ lives in a small town about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, at the  NLMK steel plant in Farrell.

A unionized worker from that plant recently attended our local  Progressive Democrats meeting to tell us about it. In their previous contract, they had a choice of a PPO, that allows patients to freely see doctors within the plan, or a high deductible plan.  The company wanted to eliminate the PPO.The unionized workers prefer having a choice. I think our experience with high deductible plans leaves us all fearing that the deductibles are always going  to become entirely unaffordable. The existing high deductible plans are already unsustainable. The choice left to us is using healthcare or putting food on the table. These high healthcare costs force workers to rely on high levels of overtime, further deteriorating working people’s family life and time for involvement in their communities.

We need to be secure enough to care for each other.  We need to care for our families. We need to participate in community life. Access to healthcare is a piece of that puzzle. While workers are forced to submit to employers out of fear of losing healthcare,  we see all kinds of ripple effects through our community.

It hurts us in many ways. Wages are lower because unionized workers are forced to fight for their healthcare coverage instead of wages. Low wages mean less buying power in our communities, higher student debt because families can’t afford to help, less opportunities for younger children because their parents are always working, just to name a few.

A healthcare system that covered everyone regardless of employment would be a big step forward in solving these problems. The only way we can afford this will be to eliminate the insurance companies that siphon off profit while adding no value to our healthcare. HR 1384, the Improved and Expanded Medicare for All  Bill, would do this. As support for this idea grows throughout the country, as more and more people lose their healthcare coverage during a pandemic, it’s time to enact this Bill.

We’re going to have to make our elected leaders do this with the coming Democratic administration.  An increasing number of elected progressives in Congress will help. If a shift of control happens in the Senate, this could be the historic period to achieve Medicare for All. We should see this as a real possibility. This is the reason we’re in the political struggle: to win what we need. This is a reason to vote Democrat in 2020.

Op-Ed: Trump Failed Beaver County Workers, Families

By Terri Mitko
Special to The Times

When Pennsylvania elected Donald Trump, our commonwealth took a gamble that an unconventional politician could deliver great results in unconventional ways. Communities like Beaver County trusted him to keep his promises, bring jobs back to our region, and get our economy booming again. But here we are four years later and the truth is, we are worse off than before. And today, Mike Pence is coming to town to try and tell Beaver County workers that he and Trump are on our side. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Let’s get right to the point: Our economy is in terrible shape. When Donald Trump was elected, unemployment in Beaver County was 5.5%. Today, on his watch, it sits at nearly 16%. That’s not just because of COVID-19; even before the pandemic, Trump had weakened our economy by forcing us into a losing trade war and enacting anti-worker policies that favor the wealthy and well-connected instead of good union jobs.

First, the trade war. Trump talked a big game about his ability to stand up to China, but he’s losing to them — badly. His tariffs have caused everyday families to lose money while raising the price of goods. They’ve led to huge job losses all across the country, including in Beaver County. In June, hundreds of area workers lost their jobs when ATI Midland shuttered its doors because of Trump’s tariffs.

That’s hundreds of families that lost their means to put food on the table. These are the working families that Trump promised to protect. Instead, he let them down with his failed leadership.

The pandemic has only made things worse. It never had to be this bad, but Trump’s failure to manage this crisis has caused great damage to our economy and our region. Area businesses have closed down, including two local factories that sent 550 of our community’s workers home without a job. This is happening all over the country. Since Trump took office, our nation’s economy has lost 4.7 million jobs. Trump is the worst jobs president in modern history.

He claims that the tax bill is one of his greatest achievements, but it was designed to line the pockets of his wealthy donors and CEOs — not the workers of Beaver County. The majority of Pennsylvania’s share of the benefits from his tax bill went to the top 5% of earners in our commonwealth. It even contained a portion that makes it easier for corporations to ship American jobs overseas. That’s a direct attack on our region’s union workers.

So here’s the choice we face in November: It’s either Trump, who has been bad for Beaver County workers, or Joe Biden, who has a specific plan to build our economy back better and create good union jobs.

Here’s what Joe Biden wants to do. He wants to rebuild American manufacturing with a historic Buy American plan. He’s going to invest $400 billion in American products, update the trade rules for Buy American, and make sure our tax dollars are invested in American products instead of foreign companies.

Joe’s not just focused on the big manufacturers either — he has a plan for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Pennsylvania too. He’s going to provide capital so they can invest and compete, pass a tax credit to help them renovate their recently closed facilities and help them compete for Buy American contracts. Meanwhile, Trump and Pence still don’t have any sort of plan for America’s workers or economy.

So instead of coming to town for self-congratulatory photo ops, let’s tell Mike Pence to go back to Washington and actually start working for Beaver County families. Joe Biden already has — and that’s why we’re going to send him to the White House in November.

Terri Mitko is chair of the Beaver County Democratic Party.

NLMK Union Steelworkers Continue Strike in Farrell After Latest Rejection

Over the past few months, union steelworkers of the Farrell Plant and NLMK have been negotiating over a labor agreement that will cover more than 400 union members

By Chandler Blackmond
WKBN Youngstown

Aug 30, 2020 – FARRELL, Pa. (WKBN) – Over the last two weeks, First News has been following the strike led by United Steelworkers against the NLMK. On Sunday, the union gave the latest on their recent negotiation.

Farrell steelworkers strike against NLMK
“We want what’s fair for us, our family and the community, and that’s not what’s being offered at this time,” said Jim Wells, 1016-03 Union President.

Over the past few months, union steelworkers of the Farrell Plant and NLMK have been negotiating over a labor agreement that will cover more than 400 union members.

“The company came in and rejected our last proposal and said they were standing firm on their last proposal they gave us, which is the one we went out on strike on,” Wells said.

After going on strike and allowing their voices to be heard, the NLMK met with the union this past Friday to make a decision, but Wells says the meeting lasted no longer than a half hour.

“The guys are upset with the fact they don’t want to move, so now guys are starting to look for other jobs and go other places because of that,” Wells said.

NLMK union steelworkers continue strike in Farrell over labor agreement.

“It’s impacting me now because I was the bread winner of my household, and now it’s putting the stress on my wife and myself about what we will do about our income and our child’s healthcare,” said union steelworker Chris Summers.

Although the decision didn’t go in their favor, Wells says they will continue their strike until both parties come to an agreement.

“We are going to be doing a prayer vigil Thursday at 8 p.m.,” Wells said. “We invite the community and families to pray for a quick strike to get this over as soon as possible for the families in the community.”