6 Months on Picket Line, NLMK Steelworkers Still at Odds over Health Care

FARRELL, Pa. — Nearly six months into a strike, management and organized labor at NLMK Pennsylvania seem to be further apart.

Members of United Steelworkers Local 1016-03 have been picketing outside the plant at 15 Roemer Blvd. since late August 2020. On Aug. 20, the local issued a 48-hour notice of its intent to strike, claiming unfair labor practices and that NLMK was trying to push its workforce into a high-deductible health care plan that the membership has rejected in the past.

On Friday, NLMK, a producer of flat rolled steel, issued a statement. “It has become clear to NLMK that the USW leadership is not interested in bringing its union members back to work anytime soon,” the company said. The union’s continued rejection of what NLMK called its “exceedingly reasonable health care proposal remains the biggest obstacle in reaching an agreement.”

Todd Clary, staff representative of USW District 10, accuses the company of “regressive bargaining,” citing NLMK reducing wage increases in its proposals, and taking an incentive for shipping tonnage bonuses off the table.

The incentive was included in the last proposal offered to the local in November, Clary said. The union put in an information request to better understand the bonus, including how it would be calculated and what the shipping numbers were in the last few years.

NLMK provided the information to the union, but Clary asserts the offer was “pulled off the table” before the local could accept it.

“We didn’t even get an opportunity to really bargain over it,” he continued. “They continue to bargain in bad faith.”

In response, a representative from NLMK says when the shipping tonnage incentive was proposed, the union “didn’t have any enthusiasm around it.” The incentive was taken off the table after waiting a few weeks with no response from the union, he said.

The incentive was offered in light of NLMK’s reduction of proposed annual wage increases by half a percent, the representative explained.

In June, the company’s original plan was to increase wages by 3% the first year of the contract and 2.5% every year thereafter. With the 0.5% reduction, the average wage per hour would rise to $28.80, amounting to about $22,000 in total compensation over the four-year life of the contract, the company reported in August.

“The idea of [the shipping bonus] was to help them find a path back to some of that money,” the company rep explained.

Clary doesn’t see it that way.

“Once again, they were regressive bargaining,” he said. “They put money on the table and they pulled it back off. It’s not us that doesn’t want a contract. It’s the company.”

Under the current offer, it would take 75% to 80% of those wage increases to cover the cost of the current preferred PPO health care plan, which Clary asserts would effectively price workers out of it and force them into the high-deductible plan.

In the past, the membership has overwhelmingly rejected the high-deductible plan. In September, the union reported that just 44 of the company’s 400 union workers opted for the plan rather than the current preferred PPO plan.

NLMK sent its latest contract proposal to union leadership following a Nov. 16 settlement with the federal government, in which the company was refunded “a significant amount” of tariffs it was forced to pay since 2018 to obtain slab products needed at its three U.S. manufacturing plants.

The new contract offer changed out-of-pocket heath care costs by front-loading health savings account contributions made by the company for employees choosing the high-deductible plan, the company reported. The contributions would ensure workers have 100% of their potential health-care costs fully covered for the first year.

The NLMK rep asserts that with zero premiums, the health care plan is “essentially free to enter.” If during the first year, after the company makes its contributions and employees put what they were paying in premiums for the previous PPO plan into the health savings account with the new plan, “They’d be fully covered for the next year, and so on and so forth,” he said.

“The company has sought health care reform for the last couple contracts. It’s time to modernize our health care,” he said.

In its statement Friday, NLMK said its working with the National Labor Relations Board to resolve charges filed by the USW local. Portions of some charges have been withdrawn by the local and the company has agreed to settle other charges, NLMK stated.

“The remainder of the charges that are still open are believed to be frivolous and will be dealt with in working with the NLRB,” the company said. “The only charge that was set for a trial has been indefinitely postponed due to an agreement with the NLRB. As NLMK continues to provide factual information to the NLRB, it is believed these remaining issues will be resolved in time, as well.”

No negotiations are scheduled between NLMK and the union.

The USW’s Clary said he expects negotiations to resume late next week or the week thereafter.

Meanwhile, NLMK continues to operate the plant and is fulfilling customer demand, the company stated.

Pictured: USW Local 1016-03 members on the picket lined outside of NLMK Pennsylvania in August 2020.

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