Locked out! -- 7,000 protest in Warren, Ohio steel showdown

By Rick Nagin, in People's Weekly World,
9 September, 1995.

WARREN, Ohio -- This city exploded with anger Labor Day as 1,700 locked out steelworkers, their families and supporters marched on the scab and goon-ridden WCI plant and held a spirited rally in front of the Trumbull County Courthouse.

The size of the crowd, which police estimated at over 7,000, amazed officials of the United Steelworkers Local 1375 who organized the action on three days' notice after contract negotiations broke down Aug. 31. The company sent second shift workers home and refused to let those reporting for the third shift enter the plant.

At the same time the company bussed in hundreds of scabs and hired goons, together with makeshift sleeping and eating facilities -- actions that recalled the 1937 Little Steel Strike at the plant, which at the time was owned by Republic Steel. In fact, the lockout marked the first time since then that anyone has attempted to run an integrated steel mill in the United States with scabs.

Led by the Chalker High School Marching Band, the marchers stepped off from a downtown parking lot wearing union caps, T-shirts and badges reading "Stop Scabs" and carrying homemade signs, some with a new interpretation of Warren Consolidated Industries' initials, such as "Workers Canned Involuntarily," and "Workers Considered Insignificant."

Many marchers were members of other unions, including workers at the big Packard Electric and GM Lordstown plants, as well as contingents of steel workers on strike at Concord and Calex Steel companies. Clergy, public officials and community groups took part. The Rev. Rick Judy led a group with a sign reading "Peace Action Council of Youngstown Supports Local 1375."

"There's a lot of history here," said Darrel Parker, an African American with 28 years experience running a crane. "This is a community. It's not just about a union or a job, it's our lives."

Many marchers carried American flags. Ronnie Hill, a millwright with 16 years at the plant, carried a Finnish flag. It was tribute, he said, to the many Finns who pioneered in early union battles in Warren and to Gus Hall, the Finnish American chairman of the Communist Party USA, who led the 1937 strike. Hall spoke to the June 20 meeting of the local about that historic event which broke the last anti-union bastion in the formation of the United Steelworkers of America.

Like other marchers, Hill said that Hall's speech had helped prepare the union for the fight with WCI. "He set the tone for this fight," said Mark Kujala, an electrician with 20 years at the plant.

"He's a labor hero to the people down here. He's a living legend. He outlasted all the scabs and other phonies," Kujala said. "The struggle goes on without end. You can never lay down. As long as there is capital there will be a struggle. You can take that to the bank."

As the marchers approached the plant on Pine Street they began changing "Union Yes, Scabs No!" Voicing the universal disgust for anyone who would steal another person's livelihood, Jim Case, a caster worker with 26 years in the plant, said, "Selling drugs is more honorable than being a scab."

Hanging on the building housing the company's industrial relations office was a large banner reading "ISO 9000 -- Thanks to our Employees," referring to a highly-coveted industry award WCI received in May for high quality product.

"Thanks to our union employees, that is", said Dennis Brubaker, the local's president. "All they are making in there now is scrap". He described reports the union had gotten from inside the mill of ladles and furnaces damaged by the untrained scabs and supervisors. "They're even putting hard hats and steel-toed boots on office secretaries and sending them in there."

"They can't run the plant," Brubaker said. "The scabs are being hurt. The ambulance has been in and out of there almost every day. One scab was gassed in the blast furnace and another fell down a flight of stairs. Even if you know what you are doing, it is very dangerous in there" I

n front of the main gate stood a line of hired goons, feet astride, wearing jackboots, dark blue uniforms, sunglasses and caps, trying to look as menacing as possible. Some carried video cameras. On the sidewalk and behind a flatbed truck parked as a barrier, a long line of pickets led the marchers in chanting "Scabs gotta go! Scabs gotta go!"

"We've had nothing but trouble from the goons," said Brubaker. "They march right up to the picket line with their cameras. They give us the finger and shout at us. It's a tactic to provoke us so the company can get an injunction limiting pickets"

But, he said, the union members have been trained and are well informed about company tactics. "This union has a history behind it. There are fourth generation steelworkers in this march. The membership is ready and very intelligent."

Brubaker said, "The spirit is high. We had two meetings at Packard Music Hall. Eleven hundred of our 1,700 members attended." He said the last three union meetings have been so large they had to set up outside speakers.

"We are getting the support of every union and the entire community. The scabs gotta go. This is a union town," Brubaker said.

"I really never expected Ira to do this," he said, referring to Ira Rennert, head of the Renco Group which owns WCI and maintains headquarters in New York's Rockefeller Center. "We made every sacrifice for this company. In '86 we lost 400 jobs and gave up $3 in concessions. We gave up pension gains in '87. We signed a four-year contract which had only one 25-cent raise.

"We worked with Ira to get tax abatements and state development loans. We did follow through and built a new caster and relined the blast furnace, but he also made record profits -- $114 million since 1988."

WCI was the second most profitable company in the steel industry in the second quarter of this year. This one plant made more profits than all of LTV. "It's not like the company is in trouble," Brubaker said. "We are still two years behind the industry in wages and our pensions haven't improved since 1980. He makes record profits and then refuses to pattern bargain. We put him on Wall Street and now he's putting us out on the street."

Negotiations over local issues went well, Brubaker said, but when the union made its proposals for "top table" issues Aug. 24, the response of the company was negative.

"Pensions are a fundamental issue. Half of our members are over 50. We must have good, secure pensions for them -- $1300 to $2000 -- which is standard in the industry," Brubaker said.

"The other issue is successorship. Ira wants to eliminate the guarantee that if he sells the company the new owner must continue the union contract. We are accustomed to sign changes out front. There have been three different owners in 15 years. This is our only guarantee that we will have a union and won't have to start organizing all over again."

Brubaker said the union is seeking to have the dispute declared a lockout so that members will be eligible for unemployment benefits, but, he said, "we're prepared for however long it takes."

Returning from the plant, the marchers rallied in front of the county courthouse. Local and central labor body officials, including state AFL-CIO President Bill Burga, pledged all-out support, as did city, county and state officials.

"Big changes are now under way in the AFL-CIO" Burga said. "A rebirth, a renaissance of the labor movement is taking place throughout the United States."

"No steel company has ever seen anything like this," USWA General Counsel Bernie Kleiman, told the cheering crowd. "A rally like this organized in less than 72 hours and this is just the start. There is no way the company can stand up to this kind of unity."

Barbara Post, chair of the Local's Women's Committee, invited all employees' wives and women steelworkers to attend the first meeting of a Women's Support Group for Locals 1375 and 6824, the plant clerical union, also locked out.

Brubaker said that a food bank has been set up and donations, resolutions and messages of support can be sent to USWA Local 1375, 746 Elm Road, Warren, Ohio 44483.

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