CLEVELAND - Support for 4,500 embattled Wheeling-Pittsburgh steelworkers is pouring into the Ohio Valley and is the decisive factor in the militancy and unity of the strike now entering its sixth month.
Leaders of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) told the World that cars, pickups, buses and vans are bringing money, food, clothing and hundreds of supporters from throughout the Midwest every weekend to union halls and picket lines to bolster what is fast becoming the longest walkout in the history of the industry. On the iron range of Minnesota, Local 1938 alone raised $3,000 at a plant gate collection.
"Every steelworker has a big stake in this fight," Dennis Brubaker, president of USWA Local 1375 in Warren, Ohio said. "Wheeling-Pitt's new CEO is John Scheesele, the same man who tried to break our union at WCI."
Brubaker said Scheesele "tried to run our plant with scabs. It didn't work. We won a scab labor strike. The Wheeling- Pitt locals have to win a barrel-burning strike," he said, referring to the traditional corporate method of trying to starve workers out with a long strike.
Mark Shaw, a USWA representative assigned to Ohio District 1, said the 200 local unions in the basic steel industry are meeting a commitment to raise $1 per week for each of their 75,000 members.
"They said it would be impossible but we're right on schedule," a jubilant Shaw said. "In the first four weeks we raised over $300,000. Our members realize that if the company succeeds at Wheeling-Pitt, they will be next."
Shaw said that support for the strike increased dramatically after a January meeting of the USWA's Basic Steel Industry Conference on the Wheeling-Pittsburgh battle At that time the union announced it would add $1 million to its Strike and Defense Fund especially earmarked for Wheeling-Pitt. The 200 union presidents in attendance voted to raise $1 per member per week.
Plans were also set forth for support caravans and speaking tours by strike representatives. Caravans are now arriving from each of the subdistricts on a weekly basis.
"It's good for our people on the bus as well as for the strikers," said Shaw, who was on a Feb. 22 trip bringing 50 steelworkers from Cleveland to Local 1190 in Steubenville. The workers came from five LTV Steel plants and one owned by Goodyear Rubber.
Shaw said that after eating a lunch of rigatoni, the Clevelanders went to the picket lines. "There were four or five pickets at each gate and you should have seen how happy they were when 40 or 50 of us arrived," he said.
Shaw said there were TV cameras at some of the gates "We gave interviews and held rallies. We chanted, 'No contract, no peace' and 'One day longer' and sang 'Solidarity Forever.'"
Shaw said the Cleveland contingent was joined by a busload of workers from Ravenswood Aluminum in West Virginia, who brought a huge quantity of canned goods. Another bus brought steelworkers from Chicago. The following day another bus brought steelworkers from Canton and rubber workers from Wooster.
"It's our fight and we have to be there," said Wendell Addington, a member of Local 1299 at Great Lakes Steel in Detroit. Addington said USWA District 2 in Michigan is planning to take a motorcade of pickups, cars and vans carrying clothing and food to Steubenville March 15.
"A bus leaves here every Friday," District 7 Director Jack Parton said proudly. "We've set up a rotating schedule from locations in Chicago, northwest Indiana, Indianapolis and western Indiana that runs through July 4. But if the strike isn't settled by then, we'll work out a longer one"
Parton said, "Wheeling-Pitt is trying to shift health care to the employees and put their pensions in the hands of stock market speculators. This is the opening round of the 1999 negotiations with the other integrated mills."
Bill Nugent, a member of USWA District 8 staff, said the union had won several hard-fought battles and "can't afford to lose its first one." District 8 covers West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia. "Right now stewards are collecting a dollar a week from the members in basic steel, but if we have to, we'll go to the rest of the union as well."
Brubaker said when his members heard about Scheesele, "we had a gate collection and raised a record $6,800. We had already brought in over $7,000 from earlier collections."
So far most of the material aid has come from within the steelworkers union, but the potential for even greater solidarity was made evident at a massive rally in Steubenville during the Christmas holidays when AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and the presidents of the Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania state AFL-CIO federations urged all-out support for the striking steelworkers.
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