Via The Toronto Star
December 10, 2010
Mark and Miranda Afrasiabim with their children Hailey, 18 months, Brody (red shirt), 3, and Dylan, 5. These past years have been a roller coaster for Mark, who’s been laid off, called back and, finally, locked out by U.S. Steel.
KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR
HAMILTON—It’s a dark and dismal day, even for December. A handful of locked-out steelworkers huddle around a barrel fire, their clothes reeking of charcoal and faces as leaden as the sky. A wind blowing from the northwest cuts to the bone and, in the early twilight outside the steel plant on Burlington St., the temperature plunges fast.
Soon it will be Christmas, but this year, these men figure it’s going to be a crummy holiday season. They’re among 900 steelworkers who were locked out of their Hamilton plant on Nov. 7 by U.S. Steel Canada. Slouched over and taking deep drags on cigarettes, they could easily pass for figures in a photo from the Dirty ’30s.
These Hamilton workers are receiving $200 a week from their union, Local 1005, “Proud Canadian Steelworkers,” and are struggling to feed families, hold onto homes and pay for heat, light, gas and other essentials. In some cases, credit card bills are over the moon and they’re scared.
“Well, yeah, everybody is pretty worried,” drawls Mike Murphy, 30, stoking the fire with a blackened plank. “You think you’ve got a future, and it all falls apart on you. Man, it’s discouraging. You know, it doesn’t look it but historically this used to be a great place to live and work.”
Murphy is talking about Hamilton. Steeltown, Lunchbucket City, the Hammer and Hammertown.
All nicknames for a city that is proud of its big-shouldered working stiffs who rely on making a living through their own sweat and grit and partner with (for the most part) women who can, as Peggy Lee belted out, “feed the baby, grease the car and powder my face at the same time.”
Sure, Hamilton boasts the diversity of a world-class university, medical research facilities and — to name just one more employer — the busiest port on the Great Lakes, but it’s hard to imagine the city without the familiar stacks that have long defined the horizon.
Murphy is a young man with an old face. His wife, Gail, is expecting a girl, Trinity, in March, to join two boys, Jonah 4, and Gabriel, 2. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage,” he says. He left the flagging drywall industry to enrol in a work/school program that would give him time at the plant, while earning an operating engineer’s licence. His future’s uncertain and he sometimes feels he can’t win for losing.
Beside him, Gary Journeay, 43, with 21 years in production, frets over buying gifts for his wife, Natalie, and daughter, Limei, who turns 7 just before Christmas. After paying his gas bill, he says he has $15 left over from his union paycheque.
U.S. Steel Canada closed its deal to buy its former employer, Stelco, for $1.9 billion in cash on Oct. 31, 2007, assuming another $800 million in debt. The Pittsburgh-based company, founded at the turn of the 20th century by, among others, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, is legendary for its role in industrializing the new America.
The Canadian chapter has been bleaker.
The union believes the U.S. parent is sending Canadian jobs south of the border to American plants, but they can’t prove it. Under previous Stelco ownership, says Local 1005 president Rolf Gerstenberger, the union would have had better information, but U.S. Steel seems to be a cipher to the union.
U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone in Pittsburgh advised the Star to refer questions to media representative Trevor Harris in Canada. He didn’t return several phone calls.
Shortly after John Surma, CEO of U.S. Steel Corporation, was appointed to President Barack Obama’s advisory committee for trade policy last September, the Canadian subsidiary closed down the blast furnace in Hamilton. The union saw that as a step to what eventually happened — a lockout.
Gerstenberger argues shutting down Hamilton potentially means another $2 million in steel exports to Canada. “How’s that for increasing American exports? You know, you just push that ‘easy’ button. That’s what really grates us — that they can shut us down and supply the steel from the U.S.”
(The Steelworkers international president Leo Gerard, a Canadian based in Pittsburgh, is also on Obama’s committee.)
Union officials say they understand the North American steel industry has been in a slump, with demand vanishing. However, Canadian workers argue they should have the same percentage of work as their American counterparts.
Meanwhile, federal Industry Minister Tony Clement has taken U.S. Steel to Federal Court, charging the company with failing to comply with employment and production commitments agreed to under the Investment Canada Act.
By March, 2009, jobs losses totalled 2,190 at the former Stelco facilities of Hamilton, west of Toronto, and the Lake Erie plant at Nanticoke. Since then, employment figures have bounced up and down.
Although Clement’s office failed to return phone calls in recent days, the minister told the Star in 2009: “I remain of the view that U.S. Steel is not complying with its undertakings, and I am not satisfied by its explanations for non-complianace.”
He also told reporters that Ottawa can’t just “roll over” and let potential foreign investors think they can make and break promises.
Still, the court case drags on, with the company facing hefty fines if it loses.
Gerstenberger says the executive didn’t take the company’s “final” offer to the membership before the lockout because it would have taken away indexing for 9,000 pensioners at the Hamilton plant, as well as creating a two-tiered pension system without defined pension benefits for new hires. (1,350 steelworkers at the company’s Lake Erie plant in Nanticoke accepted the deal in April 2010 after an eight-month lockout.)
“We believe Canadians, and not just our workers, should have pensions and the right to retire with security and dignity” says Gerstenberger. “Companies are going after the private sector now, but it will be the public sector next.’’
He says company management tells the union, “Oh, it’s not like that in the States. There are no indexed pensions there.” So they want to strip away what it’s taken us 50 years to build in Canada and offer us what they have in, in some cases, former slave states.
“If we were to agree,” he adds, “this would be the end of the union . . . Moreover, everybody knows the company would be a real jewel in anybody’s crown if it didn’t have to pay 9,000 pensioners.”
He argues the poorest pensioners would be the hardest hit with any change to the pension system. Of 9,000 pensioners (from the Hamilton operation), the bottom 3,000 earn between $300 and $1,000 monthly with indexing. Some 78 per cent of these recipients are widows.
The union knows steel companies face a rough time in North America, with red ink spilling over the books. What they ask, however, is the same percentage of work in Canada as their American counterparts.
They have support. Hamilton City Council recently passed a resolution calling on the company to “restart the blast furnace immediately.”
Gerstenberger and others met recently with Premier Dalton McGuinty. “The premier approached them so he could hear about the issues from them first-hand,” a McGuinty spokesperson told the Star.
“He reiterated that the best settlements are those negotiated and the premier made it clear that the provincial government has mediators available to help reach a negotiated settlement.”
Last week, locked-out workers handed out flyers downtown. “We clearly said (to the company) we wanted to work,” they said of the days preceding the lockout. “This foreign monopoly is using the blackmail of being locked out for months, especially in the winter cold, to extort concessions.”
Along a wooden wall by the locked plant, a sign reads: “Steel, not Steal,” and flags representing other unions flap in the wind. At union headquarters, there’s another placard: “Yankee, Go Home.”
Managers, bused in once a week, are keeping the coke ovens going, but the blast furnace is down. That means this lockout will drag on until at least the spring because there’s danger of explosion if the furnace is lit during the winter months.
At a little house in the northeast end, Dylan, 5, Brody, 3 and Hailey, 18 months, are noisily unaware of the problems facing their parents, Mark and Miranda Afrasiabim, 27 and 25 respectively. A couple of dogs bound through the house, while cats snooze upstairs or stare at goldfish.
Miranda hides her worries over bills she juggles and Mark counts on getting odd jobs, including snow removal. These past years have been a roller coaster of working and not working, as he’s been laid off, called back and, finally, locked out. They don’t understand why, in a lockout, they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance.
“I thought the government would back us more,” he says. “We grew up with good morals and the idea that if you worked hard, you would be okay. But this is worse than we ever expected, and it’s not just us that’s hurting.” –The government works for the Capitalists, expect no help from it. International solidarity is the only aid workers need. –WG