As Biden arrives in Pittsburgh to propose investments in American manufacturing, steelworkers are on strike

United Steelworkers members strike outside a metal supplier in Westmoreland County.

United Steelworkers members strike outside a metal supplier in Westmoreland County. (Courtesy of United Steelworkers)

As President Joe Biden arrives in Pittsburgh Wednesday to propose federal investments that could revive domestic manufacturing, 1,300 steel manufacturing workers are on strike. United Steelworkers are picketing against specialty steel manufacturer Allegheny Technologies, Inc.

USW is in the midst of a national “We Supply America” campaign, which advocates for creating American jobs to improve the country’s infrastructure. Picketers at nine ATI facilities are demanding wage increases and better health care offerings. They hope Biden is paying attention.

“That’s what he ran on,” Walter Hill, USW contract coordinator said. “He said he wants to build the industry back and we’re asking for exactly what he’s asking for. We’re asking for the American workers to get paid what they’re worth. We’re skilled at what we do.”

Hill said ATI workers have not seen wage increases in seven years. ATI made a last-minute proposal Monday evening before workers began picketing Tuesday morning. The USW accused the company of unfair labor practices.

The company announced restructuring in December that eliminated hundreds of jobs, including about 200 in the Pittsburgh region, according to Hill.

ATI responded to the strike in a series of tweets Tuesday morning.

“ATI is disappointed the USW elected to strike. Last night, we updated our proposal in hopes of averting a work stoppage. Despite 9% wage increases and premium-free health care at an economically challenging time for ATI, the strike began this morning,” the statement reads.

But the latest proposal doesn’t guarantee premium-free health care plans that mirror those union members have currently. The latest contract, available on ATI’s website, spells out premiums that would take effect in 2024.

Those hired on or after Jan. 1, 2024 will be offered a second medical plan which resembles the one currently offered to non-union workers. That plan would be premium-free.

Hill said union members fear a tiered health care plan would disincentivize union membership. “They’re trying to break the union. That’s what this is all about. They tried it in 2016 and locked us out for seven months.”

USW workers also went on strike during the previous contract negotiation period in 2016.

Hill said negotiators have already made some concessions on wage increases, offering to accept a $4,000 lump sum payment and then increases totaling 11% over the course of the contract. But health care premiums are a sticking point.

“We look at our health care as part of our compensation,” Hill said. “The wages would not even come close to covering the premiums.”

As the strike continues, ATI said it will rely on non-union and temporary replacement workers to carry on operations.

“We will continue negotiating to reach a competitive agreement that rewards our hard-working employees and positions ATI to succeed in the future. We remind our employees to stay focused on working safely throughout this challenging time.”

“We cannot allow the company to use the global pandemic as an excuse to reverse decades of collective bargaining progress,” said USW international vice president David McCall, who chairs the union’s negotiations with ATI.

Union members agreed to a one-year contract extension in 2020 after the pandemic hit the U.S.

“We are willing to meet with management all day, every day, but ATI needs to engage with us to resolve the outstanding issues,” McCall said. “We will continue to bargain in good faith, and we strongly urge ATI to start doing the same.”

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