U.S. Steel tables offer to USW Local 1005 workers

U.S. Steel tabled an offer to United Steelworkers Local 1005 on Tuesday as the two sides met for the first time since steelworkers were locked out 10 months ago.

Rolf Gerstenberger, president of Local 1005, said the union is crafting a comprehensive response to the offer.

Trevor Harris, U.S. Steel spokesperson, said it’s expected the two sides will meet next week to discuss that response.

The site of the talks  was not made public and neither side would comment on the negotiations.Earlier this month, U.S. Steel arranged for a provincial mediator, Simon Clark, to be present at the talks. The key issue is pensions.The future of Hamilton Works and hundreds of families hangs in the balance. Soon, unemployment insurance will expire for many workers who will be facing a $200 weekly paycheque, the amount the union offers in strike pay.

But some say the future of the Canadian steel industry is also at stake, including David Livingstone, principal researcher at WALL, a project of the Centre for the Study of Education and Work in Toronto and coauthor of Manufacturing Meltdown: Reshaping Steel Work, published this past February.

Livingstone and his coauthor, Warren Smith, former president of Local 1005, said one of the key problems facing the industry is the foreign ownership of Canada’s steel plants. In his book, he suggests a number of options possible to help diversify and strengthen the industry, but before any of those are viable, talks must resume between U.S. Steel and the union.

“At this stage, there needs to be a meeting of the minds so that steel can be made again at Hamilton Works. The longer this lasts, the more difficult it will be to start that plant up again in a meaningful way,” he said.

Livingstone said U.S. Steel is also wasting a vital skilled workforce as Local 1005 members offer experience and knowledge that’s important to keep active for the industry to survive.

“The basic concern is that this is a Canadian steel industry that’s becoming a rump on the broader steel industry. You still have a significant core of steelworkers available. There are 900 … steelworkers who can run that plant efficiently.”

There are other pressures building.

On Monday, city councillors questioned company officials and representatives from Local 1005 about progress on the long-delayed wastewater treatment facility, which is needed to treat wastewater contaminated with toxic phenols. Council decided to delay a decision on whether or not to extend a construction deadline to U.S. Steel pending the labour talks.

Local 1005’s contract with the company expired in July 2010. Union leaders refused to call a vote on the offer. On Nov. 2, 2010, the company declared it would lock out 900 employees until a vote was held on that final offer.

The dispute centres on worker pensions. U.S. Steel would like to move to a new defined contribution pension plan for new hires, close indexed pensioning for current retirees and close its defined benefits pension program.

U.S. Steel and industry analysts argue defined contribution plans are necessary for the company to remain profitable. The union is arguing against those changes.