WARREN, Ohio - "James R. Scheesele, who took over as president and CEO of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation on March 1 is the same man who tried to break our union at WCI in 1995," said Dennis Brubaker.
Brubaker is president of Steelworkers Local 1375 at Warren Consolidated Industries here. "It took a 54-day battle but we beat him and so can our brothers and sisters at Wheeling-Pitt."
Most observers see Scheesele's takeover as an escalation of the company's effort to break the strike by the USWA that began on Oct. 1 when the company walked out of contract negotiations.
Brubaker said the issues in the two strikes were about the same. "In 1986 and 1987 we gave concessions to LTV to help keep the plant open. When LTV sold the plant in 1988 we took more cuts. We saved the mill and our jobs, but concession bargaining forces you to fall behind and we did, especially in pensions - just like what's happened at Wheeling-Pitt."
Brubaker said demands by Wheeling-Pitt are the same in other areas as well: "Contracting out jobs, elimination of seniority and craft protections - these were demands of WCI and now at Wheeling-Pitt." Wheeling-Pitt's demand to allow supervisors to perform bargaining unit work and to eliminate non-steelmaking jobs "are even worse" than what Local 1375 faced, he said.
Brubaker made another comparison: "Like Wheeling-Pitt, our plant had become highly profitable and our members were in a 'catch-up mood,' especially on pensions. We had built up the second most profitable mill in the industry," he said, "and it was pay-back time for our members to win a respectable pension and other demands."
Scheesele, whom Brubaker called a Wall Street speculator, had other ideas. "He turned on us and imported a trainload of scabs to run the plant with hired goons to protect them."
The union's response was to mobilize the community to support the strike. "And we succeeded," Brubaker said. Consider:
* A demonstration of 7,000 steelworkers, their families and supporters at the plant gate three days after the lockout began.
* Two weeks later, 3,000 women and children marched on the plant led by a "baby buggy brigade."
* And two weeks after that 5,000 trade unionists from throughout northeast Ohio packed the town's Courthouse Square with union leaders from a dozen unions declaring, "your fight is our fight."
Brubaker said they organized all these activities because "there's nothing so boring - or ineffective - as a picketline where there's nothing to do but put more wood on the fire."
It was at the Courthouse Square demonstration that USWA President George Becker denounced WCI as "a corporate outlaw" willing to spend millions to break the union. He said the USWA would commit "whatever it took" to help Warren remain a union town and WCI a union company with respectable pensions and one that met the "just and reasonable demands" of union members.
Brubaker remembers it well: "City and county political leaders, hundreds of small businessmen, religious leaders - even a pretty good press - and the entire community coming together and demanding that WCI settle the strike. They all understood that decent respectable pension is not an issue that helps just retirees.
The retirees support themselves, their pension dollars contribute to the local economy, helping to create jobs and support local business. Increased job opportunities open up as younger workers move up to replace retirees and new names are added to the payroll. "This is already happening at WCI because we hung tough and won decent pensions."
Brubaker said that despite Scheesele's best efforts, "We saved our union and won a new contract. We won because all 1,700 members of Local 1375 stood together as one. That unity gave the negotiating committee the power to negotiate with real authority, confident that not one member would cross the line no matter how long it took."
Brubaker said winning the strike built a new sense of unity and strength in the membership of Local 1375 and between the membership and the elected leadership of the local and international union. "Respect, trust and confidence in each other and respect from the community are rewards that we earned by winning our strike."
Brubaker said he would like to say one thing to his embattled brothers and sisters at Wheeling-Pitt: "Keep the faith. We're all in this together. See you on the picket line."
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