Today's News & Commentary — December 21, 2015
The Wall Street Journal reports that contract talks between three of the biggest U.S. steel companies and their main union, the United Steelworkers union, have stalled over the issue of health care. The manufacturers’ determination to prune the premium-free health-care packages they have traditionally offered employees has led to contentious talks dragging on for months after their summer deadlines. While the companies say that cutting labor costs is necessary to survive the present weak market in steel and competition from imports, the union has promised to fight to keep “one of the last big perks awarded by the top tier of American manufacturers.” After the contract deadline passed last summer, one of the three manufacturers, Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), locked out 2,200 workers at twelve plants, and is currently running some of the plants with replacement workers, contractors, and white-collar staff. Meanwhile, steelworkers at ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel are still at work, on a temporary basis, under their previous contracts. According to the Journal, the manufacturers’ greater leverage in the down market makes them more likely to ultimately prevail in these negotiations; union officials, acknowledging this risk, fear that the result “could set a precedent and lead to workers bearing the brunt of health-care cost inflation.”
Fifty-four years after the Department of Justice first sued Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers for refusing to admit minority workers, the union agreed to pay an estimated $12.7 million in partial settlement of the race bias lawsuit. Even after Local 28 no longer barred nonwhites from membership, a federal court had found, the local union has consistently denied work opportunities to black and Hispanic members, a “more subtle and complex” bias. Now, reports the New York Times, settlement checks — representing back pay owed to hundreds of black and Hispanic members — have started to be distributed. According to Nathan Mays, who in 2013 became the first African-American elected a full-time official with the Sheet Metal Workers union, “the tide is turning.” The Times surveys the history of the Local 28 case, which “provides a rare, detailed view of discrimination’s cost and toll on black workers [and] an insular world in which union officials and contractors have wielded considerable influence” in which union members get work.
According to Politico, the Department of Labor plans to send its long-delayed final silica rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget next week. The rule would drastically lower the permissible level at which workers may be exposed to crystalline silica, which is associated with silicosis, lung cancer, and other diseases. The final rule is expected to be released as soon as February 2016.