Lake Erie Works of US Steel Canada in Nanticoke.
PORT DOVER – U. S. Steel’s latest offer to end a bitter four-month lockout of Lake Erie Works employees got a cool reception from workers who got their first look at the package Wednesday.
The tentative deal, which the union negotiating committee is not backing with a recommendation, was negotiated in Pittsburgh recently under pressure from the international headquarters of the United Steelworkers.
Union president Bill Ferguson, of Local 8782 of the United Steelworkers, said even though the local leadership doesn’t support the proposal he felt it was necessary to bring it back to the membership.
"There have been some moves by the company," he said. "We don’t recommend this, but we’re taking it to the members because we are not going to make unilateral decisions that affect the lives of 1,000 people."
"This is still a concessionary package," he added. "We’re bringing it to the members because we feel it’s time for them to tell what they feel."
Union members, who have been locked out since late April, have twice rejected company offers by votes of 70 per cent.
Ferguson said the company has made some improvements to previous packages, but changes have not been extensive.
The chief improvements to this offer over previous company packages include adding strong language protecting workers from having their jobs contracted out, restoring a signing bonus to $2,500 after an earlier cut to $2,000, dropping demands for increased co-payments for prescription drugs and adding lump sum payment of $500 for each year of a five-year term.
There is also a profit-sharing plan that would pay workers a maximum of $3,500 if Lake Erie plant profits top $25 million.
On the negative side, the package does not include a base wage hike, it continues to demand changes to the cost of living allowance that trigger payments only when inflation hits 3 per cent and caps vacation entitlements for current and future employees at five weeks. (Workers who already have more than five weeks vacation keep that entitlement.)
Ferguson said getting the job security language members wanted was an important step, but the economic side of the agreement remains a disappointment.
"We still have all the economic issues so it’s still a concessionary contract," he said.
Outside the meeting, workers were not excited by the package and predicted a close vote when it is presented for ratification Friday.
"It’s better than the last one, but I’m going to have to think about it some more," said veteran worker Alan Laufs. "I think it will be a close vote."
"Maybe we can do better, but just don’t know right now."
Many predict a vote divided by age with veterans like Laufs, who is mortgage free and three years from retirement, tempted to hold out for a better deal while the cadre of younger workers with mortgages and growing families voting for a paycheque after four months of $200 a week in strike pay.
"There’s more at stake here than just having a job, but a lockout like this is hard to take," said one worker who refused to give his name. "It takes a long time to recover from something like this."
James Nelles is one of the younger cohort and is strongly opposed to the deal.
"It’s nowhere near good enough," he said. "There are a couple of carrots here for the desperate, but I’m not ready to concede yet.
"This is an improvement from the past offers, but it’s too small an improvement for me."
Rob Weatherston, also from the younger group, wanted to know why workers are being pressed for concessions when U. S. Steel’s executive class continues to enjoy multi-million pay raises and bonuses.
Despite that, he said he’d likely vote for the deal for himself.
"I’d take it for myself because I think we could come back in five years and do better," he said.
Even without a wage increase, there are still the annual lump-sum payments and the chance of overtime to make up the difference. And if things don’t change, he’s still young enough to look for something else.
"I’ve got a five-year plan to get myself in a position to leave if I want to," he said, adding part of that effort is taking night school courses at McMaster University.
The Lake Erie plant workers were locked out for eight months in 2009-2010 as the company backed demands for radical changes in its pension plans. U. S. Steel has said repeatedly it needs further changes in the labour agreement to make the plant "competitive."
The Friday ratification vote will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the union hall in Nanticoke.