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USW locks out rank and file, media

At issue: Can the international shut out officers and workers of Local 9477 from a hearing that will determine the local's fate?

steelworkers Jim Blankenship Jerry Cirri

Moments after being barred at the door, steelworkers Jim Blankenship (l) and Jerry Cirri display an email from the USW International seeking support for workers in Hawaii.

Photo by: Fern Shen

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.

Unemployed steelworkers were let into the USW office briefly, only to be told they must leave the premises. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Members were let into the USW subdistrict office briefly, only to be told they must leave the premises. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“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.

Blankenship and Schuab waiting outside the Sub-district office for the hearing to conclude. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Blankenship and Schuab waiting outside the subdistrict office for the hearing to conclude. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“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.”

The USW's White Marsh office at 7939 Honeygo Blvd., where the door yesterday was locked. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The USW’s White Marsh office at 7939 Honeygo Blvd., where the door yesterday was locked. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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.

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  • BillatSP

    Im hearing that sparrows point is up for sell, all of s.p.,its land and everything that goes with it. Big Change. This could be good news…:)

  • IronworkerSP

    Tom I guess Walt meant that when the Union was credible and we had an owner as big as Beth Steel all standing up for Sparrows Point there was no stopping us, but after all the rats on both sides jumped ship the few remaining union diehards and company lackeys were left all by themselves without a pot to piss in. When the rug was pulled out from under them their heads lined up on the chopping block but no one was even left to chop their stinking heads off. We all bought way too long into their private meetings with strategic steel cartels and other Bull. Most of us are getting back on our feet and have no desire or regrets about seeing the Point chopped up and shipped overseas as feed stock. The sooner they level the Point the better, I can not even look over at it when going over the bridge. It already seems like its been a hundred years since I last clocked out.

  • IronworkerSP

    Tom I guess Walt meant that when the Union was credible and we had an owner as big as Beth Steel all standing up for Sparrows Point there was no stopping us, but after all the rats on both sides jumped ship the few remaining union diehards and company lackeys were left all by themselves without a pot to piss in. When the rug was pulled out from under them their heads lined up on the chopping block but no one was even left to chop their stinking heads off. We all bought way too long into their private meetings with strategic steel cartels and other Bull. Most of us are getting back on our feet and have no desire or regrets about seeing the Point chopped up and shipped overseas as feed stock. The sooner they level the Point the better, I can not even look over at it when going over the bridge. It already seems like its been a hundred years since I last clocked out.

  • Dr. Raymond Boothe

    Can anybody give me an idea what is going on at the Point? The newslines are quiet and so are my sources. Are try still actively scrapping the plant? What is the railroad situation?, or has everything stopped. I would appreciate it.
    Dr. Boothe

    • IronworkerSP

      Dr. Boothe, check out http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/ – just put in Baltimore as the port and you can see bulk cargo ships coming in to Sparrows Point to take skulls and shredded scrap out. The amount and dollar value of the scrap is staggering, at today’s prices for the top rate clean scrap coming out of Sparrows has to be hundreds of millions. Sparrows is worth more dead than alive!

      Bill is correct about the For Sale signs. They have a big For Sale sign on the new cold mill for anyone to see going down the 695 interstate. Another big sign at the warehouses across the pond from Air Products. We heard that they removed some of the equipment from the NCM, so they are probably looking to sell or lease the buildings because there is a shortage of big warehouses needed by the shipping companies using the local marine terminals. The Port is the only business around Baltimore that is growing and getting stronger, everything else is just squeaking by.

      Dr. Boothe we also read in the local papers that Hilco and ELT are not rolling over and being bullied by the Port over Coke Point. The property belongs to them and the Port had it’s chance to bid on the property and did not. So Hilco and ELT are in the driver’s seat and the locals are on their side of this issue. Even some of the older politicians are coming around that everyone needs to think out of the box on this once in a lifetime opportunity to turn the old mill property into what they call the next “Gold Coast” like they did in Canton, Fell Point, and Harbor View Inner Harbor. We all have good vibes about ELT that they will make something we can all be proud of and come out of this mess better then before they arrived.

    • OxygenMaskedMan

      Dr. Boothe the other day they cut down a section of the conveyor taking materials over to the Sinter Plant. Severing the conveyors to the L Furnace is going to be an historic event too. You and Mark may want to take photos because when its gone Sparrows Point is only going to live in our memories!

  • George

    Other than Sparrows Point is back on the chopping block with all of those FOR SALE or LEASE signs plastered on the buildings not much news is coming out. The good news is none of the outside vendors have packed up. Our friends at DTE and Maryland Pig have not packed up and are staying put! The ladles that were shipped out the other day did not come from the BOF, I think that they were old spares from the foundry that Beth Steel closed down years ago. I too saw the signs on the NCM, it looks like they are still trying to find someone to start it back up? Why else would they have For Sale signs on it?

    Dr. Boothe should be pleased to learn that the PBRR is doing fine, All the railroad crews are working and the trains are still running to service the scrap dealers and possibly help transport goods coming into the SP piers. I am not ruling out a start-up in some fashion because too much of the core assets are still in mothballs and appear to be off limits to the shredder..

  • George

    Other than Sparrows Point is back on the chopping block with all of those FOR SALE or LEASE signs plastered on the buildings not much news is coming out. The good news is none of the outside vendors have packed up. Our friends at DTE and Maryland Pig have not packed up and are staying put! The ladles that were shipped out the other day did not come from the BOF, I think that they were old spares from the foundry that Beth Steel closed down years ago. I too saw the signs on the NCM, it looks like they are still trying to find someone to start it back up? Why else would they have For Sale signs on it?

    Dr. Boothe should be pleased to learn that the PBRR is doing fine, All the railroad crews are working and the trains are still running to service the scrap dealers and possibly help transport goods coming into the SP piers. I am not ruling out a start-up in some fashion because too much of the core assets are still in mothballs and appear to be off limits to the shredder..

  • unioncaught

    The union reps of 9477 made nearly $1000 a week to sit on their hands while the membership lost their jobs and benefits. Now these same union officials are working at high paying state government jobs with no experience.

    • FormerBethSteelEmp

      unioncaught, elected union officials rarely did work. This has been the situation for decades. When Beth Steel owned the plant, elected union officials were paid by the company but were not scheduled to work at jobs in the mills. Many of the union reps became union reps so they could collect a paycheck without working in production jobs. I am not certain why you would think a group of guys who made careers out of sitting on their hands would behave any differently today.

  • unioncaught

    Is Joe Rosel working for the Steelworkers international union as a lobbyist in dc.

  • IronworkerSP

    Hey Boys, they are starting to take down the core iron making assets at the Point. No return now, they should just sell off Dundalk Ave and divide the profits from the sale of the Halls between everyone.

    Yesterday they took down the conveyor transfer house supplying the Sintering Plant. The Sinter plant itself cannot be too far behind the cutting torch, then as soon as the last of the asbestos is removed from the giant L Furnace it is coming down. Hilco is more efficient than we could imagine, surgical precision to say the least, these guys are good at what they do and at the rate they are going most of Sparrows Point is going to be leveled by the end of the year! Amazing at how organized they are and as an old ironworker I impressed with Hilco and ELT, too bad that Beth Steel management was not as efficient as Hilco’s crews or we would still be in business!

  • IronworkerSP

    Hey Boys, they are starting to take down the core iron making assets at the Point. No return now, they should just sell off Dundalk Ave and divide the profits from the sale of the Halls between everyone.

    Yesterday they took down the conveyor transfer house supplying the Sintering Plant. The Sinter plant itself cannot be too far behind the cutting torch, then as soon as the last of the asbestos is removed from the giant L Furnace it is coming down. Hilco is more efficient than we could imagine, surgical precision to say the least, these guys are good at what they do and at the rate they are going most of Sparrows Point is going to be leveled by the end of the year! Amazing at how organized they are and as an old ironworker I impressed with Hilco and ELT, too bad that Beth Steel management was not as efficient as Hilco’s crews or we would still be in business!

  • Walter

    It is the Stock House that they took down. A sad day for Sparrows Point steel making. The Stock House is where we sorted and blended raw materials and sent them out via the conveyor systems to Sinter Plant and L furnace.

  • doyoutrustrg

    I bet Jim strong is moving his family to New Port so he has secure employment! Is this the best the International can do to appease the Local Union employees from 9477 after they shafted us and how many others in our community ? Let me be the first to say ” job well done ” I’m so gratefull ! Leo has been saying it for a long time ” ‘Global Economy ” Great for Canada ( their economy is doing well ) not so good for Americans.

  • doyoutrustrg

    I bet Jim strong is moving his family to New Port so he has secure employment! Is this the best the International can do to appease the Local Union employees from 9477 after they shafted us and how many others in our community ? Let me be the first to say ” job well done ” I’m so gratefull ! Leo has been saying it for a long time ” ‘Global Economy ” Great for Canada ( their economy is doing well ) not so good for Americans.

    • FormerBethSteelEmp

      The USW did not want Sparrows Point to succeed.
      CSN tried to buy the plant for more than one billion when Mittal was forced to sell. This would have been a marriage made in heaven. CSN, owner of the highest quality iron ore in the western hemisphere would have owned one of the largest blast furnaces in the western hemisphere and the largest with direct waterfront access. The USW refused to support CSN and instead supported a bid from the Bouchard brothers. The Bouchard brothers owned no iron ore and didn’t have enough money to buy the plant. The USW knew they would be very weak owners and that the plant would struggle to survive but they supported the bid anyway. After more than a year, the bid fell through. CSN again tried to buy but were turned away by the USW. Severstal bought the plant and had pledged to modernize but the USW refused to recommend a labor contract. The USW stonewalled Severstal for more than a year until Severstal gave up on negotiations and put the plant up for sale. Dave McCall recommended a contract almost immediately with Ira Rennert’s RG Steel even though the contract paid workers less than the contract offer from Severstal. The USW knew that Rennert had bought WCI ( Warren ) years earlier, leveraged it, took some of the borrowed money for himself, left WCI to struggle with about 400 million in debt and eventually took the plant into bankruptcy. Rennert had no iron ore, no committment to the steel business and no problem running a plant into bankruptcy. This was the owner that the USW embraced. Sparrows Point moved from the strong hands of a steel operator into the weak hands of a private equity owner.

      Rennert borrowed money under the business entity RG Steel.

      USW district officer Dave McCall’s old friend John Goodwin was brought in to manage the steel business. He burned through money at the rate of a million dollars a day and eventually took the plant into bankruptcy. This should have been no surprise to anyone.
      Both CSN and Altos Hormos, the Mexican operator showed up again to buy the plant. Court filings show that their bids were turned down by RG Steel management. Goodwin was content to allow the plant to go to the scrapper instead of selling it to CSN. Years of work by the USW succeeded in destroying the plant. Give the USW credit. This was their goal and they finally succeeded.

      USW embraced

      immediately with Ira Rennert even thoughtthe contract paid the workers at Sparrows Point less than the Severstal offer.

  • Walter

    I drove by Air Products the other day and all of the lights are out and some of the pressure vessels have been cut up into little pieces. No oxygen plant means the end of the BOF. Looks like they want to level Sparrows Point and make it the next Port of Savanna or Rotterdam? They will be good high paying jobs, but how many years is it going to take before we see Container and Cruise Ships and all of those clean white logistic buildings like the ones at the old Baltimore GM plant? Rotterdam uses robots to move the cargo and store it – lots of jobs for robots, but what about jobs for our children?

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