Sparrows Point steelworkers and a reporter were turned away yesterday at the door of the United Steelworkers (USW) office in White Marsh, where the International was holding a hearing on the union’s recent decision to dissolve Local 9477, change the locks on its offices and remove all but one of its local officials.
“I was a dues-paying member for 35 years and all of a sudden they don’t want to talk to me anymore?” said a livid James Blankenship, standing in the falling snow outside the union’s subdistrict office at 7939 Honeygo Blvd.
Blankenship, a zone committeeman, and four other steelworkers who tried to enter were told to leave the premises, where Jim Strong, sub-district Maryland director of the USW was meeting with treasurer Eddie Bartee and recording secretary Sandy Wright as well as the one employee the union retained, financial secretary Mike Lewis.
(The local’s president Joe Rosel Jr., escorted from the main hall last Thursday by police, and former vice president Chris MacLarion did not attend this after-the-fact hearing on placing the local in “administratorship.”)
“This is how they treat you? I can’t get in the door!?” said Bill Schuab, a former mechanic in the hot mill and one of about 2,000 union members who lost their jobs at the steel plant and at satellite facilities last fall, when Sparrows Point shut down.
A “Kangaroo Court”?
With the local now de-activated by Pittsburgh-based union leaders, and all but a single non-clerical employee, Lewis, staffing the union hall on Dundalk Avenue, workers with questions about their pensions, benefits, retraining and other issues are supposed to take them to the subdistrict office.
But as Schuab pointed out, they wouldn’t have gotten much help yesterday – the office door was locked. This reporter wasn’t getting too far either.
“Get out. I want you out of here! I am calling the police,” said a secretary who refused to give her name and then grabbed my arm, pushing me toward the door.
Blankenship and the others branded the closed-door proceedings “a kangaroo court.”
USW staff representative Denny Longwell, who conducted the hearing, came outside briefly beforehand and apologized to the unemployed steelworkers for keeping them out.
The meeting, Longwell said, was required by federal labor law “to determine if everything was done properly.” Asked if the union leaders’ conduct had been in question, he said, “There’s no question of that. This is just a routine hearing.”
Asked what number members should call if they have questions now that their local has been taken over, Longwell said he didn’t know it and referred a reporter to “Stacy” (the person who threatened to call the police.)
Violation of Labor Laws?
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor has not yet responded to the Brew’s request for clarification about the legality of the closed-door meeting and the shut-down of 9477. (Strong also has not responded to the Brew’s request for comment on the administratorship.)
The Steelworkers Constitution appears to give the International wide latitude under a vaguely-worded “emergency” clause. Reasons for the takeover of a local union are specified in Article IX as corruption, failure to follow a collective bargaining agreement or violation of democratic procedures.
But “in case of emergency,” the International President is permitted to establish an administratorship if it is deemed in the “best interests” of the union. In such cases, a hearing must be conducted within 60 days of his action, followed by a meeting of the International’s executive board.
There is no mention of how the hearing is to be conducted, though there is a provision that says that members of the local union have the right to appear before the executive board to plead their case, and the board “may affirm, reverse or modify the action of the International President.”
“They Are My Family”
Coming out of yesterday’s hearing, former 9477 recording secretary Wright said she delivered some harsh judgment of her own to Strong and Longwell.
“We realized that at a time when the union wouldn’t have enough money to pay five officers they might need to take action, but certainly the president [Rosel] ought to stay,” she said.
“There was not a better person for that job, there was not a more intelligent person.”
“For them to come along and give him the boot is just disgraceful,” she added, her voice shaking. “The way they changed the locks on my office is disgraceful.”
She and Blankenship said they have been offering needed help to members with pressing questions about often-confusing matters involving unemployment, health care, pensions, retraining, etc. as they struggle with life after decades of mill employment.
“I told them, ‘I come here today to speak for the people who can’t pay their medical bills . . . who can’t pay their rent, who decide to end their life because they can’t deal with the difficulties,’” Wright said.
She said she offered to come into the office and work for free, but was told that “because of liability issues,” she can’t go inside the 9477 hall.
Bartee emerged at this point from the subdistrict office, joining Blankenship, Wright and Schuab in the parking lot.
“I tried to get Sandy back in the hall. This ‘liability’ thing is bullshit,” he said. He and the others all said they will continue to assist any member who calls them.
“You can take my job. You can take my office and my telephone,” Bartee said. “But you can’t take away what I feel for these people. They are my family.”
Local’s Assets to go to International
Among the questions that rankled the men turned away at the door was what happens to the local’s assets – including over $400,000 in cash (mostly from union dues) as well as the value of its two buildings and acreage on Dundalk Avenue, assessed at $2.1 million.
The two halls and surrounding land were financed by Sparrows Point workers in the 1950s, when the mill was the largest steel facility in the world.
Several said they found the idea of the cash and property reverting to the International hard to swallow, in part because they believe officials did little to prevent the collapse of steelmaking at the mill.
“It seemed like we didn’t have much input from the International, they didn’t really do much,” said Francis Seman Sr., who worked there for 48 years. “We asked [USW President)] Leo Gerard to come out here for meetings and he never did.”
Meanwhile the hall is being rented out for parties and other functions, according to Blankenship, who asked, “Where is the revenue from that going?”
He also questioned why Strong relieved the local’s elected officers but retained “two full-time secretaries, getting salaries, vacations days, sick days and health benefits.”
(One of the secretaries is married to International staff representative Frank Rossi Jr.)
On the money issue, the USW’s Constitution is not ambiguous. In cases when administratorship ends with the disbanding of the local – as is the intention for Local 9477 – all of the local union’s assets and property “shall be delivered and turned over to the International Union.”
But many said nothing prevents USW leadership from throwing some of it back to dues-paying members.
“Drive around Dundalk and Edgemere. Look at all the Out of Business signs,” Seman said. “These people, who paid their union dues for years, are hurting now.”
– Mark Reutter contributed to this story.