USX-steelworkers standoff drags on. Wage, benefit cuts alone won't keep US steel companies alive

The mood at the Broadway gate seems surprisingly jovial. Two men pitch horse shoes. A game of bid whist grows loud and fun. Cassette music drowns out a half-dozen conversations.

It has been 27 years since a strike shut down once-mighty US Steel (renamed USX). Now, idle steelworkers are again outside the plant gates, looking in.

``I work over there,'' says Roy Samuels, pointing to a distant part of the USX Gary Works plant here in northwestern Indiana. ``Most of the jobs I've had haven't been that bad. . . . It's the only place I knew where I could make more money.''

When Mr. Samuels started working here in 1949, he earned $1.32 an hour -- 42 cents higher than his hourly wages at a silk mill in Altoona, Pa. When contract talks deadlocked last July 31, idling 22,000 USX workers, Samuels was earning an $11.50 hourly base wage.

Alexander Bell started here in 1951.

``That's the first place I got a job,'' he says. ``I said I was going to quit and then go back to school.'' But the good money and a family -- he has four children -- kept him here.

``I hated it with a passion working at US Steel,'' he says. ``I accepted it, but I hated it with a passion.''

It's unclear what to call this company-union standoff. USX calls it a strike. The United Steelworkers of America calls it a lockout.

The distinction is crucial because state unemployment benefits don't go to strikers. Three of the nine states with USX facilities have sided with the company. Four agree with the union. And two -- Indiana and Michigan -- have not yet ruled.

``My solution is retirement,'' says Mr. Bell, who like many here at union Local 1014 is near retirement age. ``If the mill goes down, I could retire with something.''

``I hope it won't be long,'' crane operator Henry Dowdell says of the strike. ``It's long enough for us now.''

In the face of the idleness, Local 1014 maintains an around-the-clock vigil at the various gates of Gary Works. Every six hours, a new shift of workers comes in. If nothing changes by next Saturday, the standoff will have reached the halfway point of the 1959 steel strike, which idled the whole industry for 116 days.

``We're willing to take cuts in certain places,'' says one steelworker, who doesn't give his name. But like almost everyone on this particular 6 a.m.-to-noon shift, he worries about layoffs. ``It wouldn't be so bad if they kept you. [But] it's tough -- tough! -- trying to deal with people who are trying to erase you.''

Among other things, the company wants to cut wages and benefits by more than $3 an hour. Steelworkers are still some of the best-paid industrial workers in the world, USX argues.

The average steelworker last year earned $13.98 an hour, according the American Iron and Steel Institute, which represents the companies. That's one-third higher than the manufacturing average.

The union is not opposed to cuts but says USX has not opened up its books like other steel companies that have gotten concessions. The distrust runs deep.

``The Japanese, they treat operators like they're kings,'' says a strand operator, who earlier this year spent 17 days training on new equipment in Japan. ``It's like a family that's going to knock the socks off the world.''

But the attitude is vastly different at Gary Works, he says, beginning with his foreman. ``He never learned how to get along with people,'' the operator says, and he wears a hat that says `Mad Dog.' ``He's a crazy dude. The supervisor? He just laughs.''

Wage and benefit cuts alone won't keep US steel companies from losing even more of their market to foreign producers, steel analysts say. Work rules, which govern who does what, need to be more flexible, they add. The union workers here at Gary resist that.

``If that car breaks down, could you go under that hood and fix it?'' one steelworker asks. ``You can't learn everybody's job. You can't break yourself in pieces. They want to give you a class of certain jobs and if you can't do that job, they give you a broom and you start sweeping.''

The plant has not been completely quiet during this morning shift. Supervisors drive in and out. A uniformed guard steps out periodically to snap photos of the workers, including W. Wade who marches around carrying a large American flag.

Smoke still pours out of a few smokestacks at the plant, considered the USX flagship. The furnaces need to be kept heated to remain operable. Lonzo Standifer scans the smokestacks that are not in use.

``Look at those furnaces,'' he says to no one in particular. ``All gone. They'll never come back.''

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