U.S. Steel’s CEO is Playing a Dangerous Game of Chicken with the Markets, Steelworkers and America

Richard Cucarese

Richard Cucarese Rapid Response Coordinator, USW Local 4889

With the dog days of summer upon us, many people spent their Labor Day cooling off in pools, heading to the beaches, or just relaxing in the shade without any thoughts of work entering their minds. 

But for approximately 16,000 members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union employed at the mills of the U.S. Steel Corp., the holiday took on a brand new meaning as they prepared themselves for the possibility of the largest work stoppage in the domestic steel industry since 1986. This was in response to U.S. Steel coming to the bargaining table that weekend with a contract proposal nearly as regressive and damaging than ones offered just weeks earlier.

Just three years ago, U.S. Steel was on the verge of bankruptcy, a situation caused by a mixture of bad business decisions, poorly timed austerity measures and illegally subsidized, underpriced Chinese steel dumped onto world markets.

 It was at this time that the Steelworkers agreed to freeze wages over three years and give up the guarantee of a 40-hour work week, reducing it to 32, in the hopes that when the company rebounded, it would reward the work force in the next round of contract talks.

In the ensuing years, U.S. Steel did flourish. This was due to the labor of its dedicated and skilled workers, as well as tariffs imposed by Presidents Obama and Trump.

U.S. Steel also received a large tax break this year from Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, aiding the company’s ability to invest. Shareholders revived their faith in the industry, moving U.S. Steel’s stock from lowly single digits back to respectability.

Over the past few months, with their labor contract set to end, USW members felt confident their hard-fought efforts to help restore the corporation to its best financial position in a decade would be rewarded.

But CEO David Burritt had other plans, approaching the contract negotiations with an insulting offer of minimal pay raises that would immediately be wiped out by astronomical increases in what workers would have to pay for health insurance over a proposed six-year period. 

Burritt wanted to eliminate overtime rules, give the corporation the ability to shorten work weeks with no notice, change health plans with no notice and institute a plethora of other injustices that would wipe out 70 years of USW collectively bargained improvements for workers.

With their backs against the wall, the USW contract committee authorized strike votes for the week of Labor Day.

David Burritt is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the American people. With tariffs in place, and the possibility of Congress passing an infrastructure bill, projections are for the steel business to boom.  

Burritt also is playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with his shareholders, who may abandon ship, feeling a work stoppage at this critical juncture would injure the company, plunging U.S. Steel back into single digits and poor bond ratings and preventing needed investments in the mills from ever taking place.

Lastly, Burritt is playing a dangerous game with the Steelworkers. Burritt and his upper echelon executives lavishly have rewarded themselves with over $40 million dollars in compensation since 2015. In addition, they gave shift managers $10,000 to $30,000 annual bonuses. Meanwhile, Steelworkers scraped by without raises for years and thousands at the Granite City, Ill., mill remained idled, wondering if they’d ever work again.

America’s workers, not its fat-cat CEOs like Burritt, are the drivers of the capitalist machine. If a strike occurs, it will be because of Burritt’s refusal to allow workers a just portion of the profits their labor created.

Writing of the Little Steel strike in 1937, Upton Sinclair put it perfectly: “The purpose of the strike is to teach you what capitalism is; to free you from the accepted falsehoods of your class.”

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You can contact Richard on Twitter @stlwrkr4889.

Posted In: Union Matters

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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