WEIRTON - Hourly workers and retirees from ArcelorMittal took to the streets Wednesday in Weirton to protest retiree health care and pensions being used as bargaining chips at slow-moving contract talks.
Dozens of sign-wielding United Steelworkers union members took part in the hastily organized rally, staged in front of the company's No. 4 gate on state Route 2. The march, repeated at ArcelorMittal plant sites across the country, began and ended outside USW Local 2911 in Weirton.
"It's a shame, we worked all these years for (for retiree benefits)," said Floyd Moore, who works in diesel locomotive repair at the plant. "Not getting raises in a bad economy, I understand that - everybody does. If the economy's bad you don't expect as much. But when they're making a big profit and then they turn around and say they want to cut wages and cut benefits, that's hard to accept."
The USW's contract expired at midnight Saturday, but its workers remain on the job while negotiations continue. While union leaders have refused to say exactly what is holding up the talks, member updates published on the USW website have cited retiree health care, pension enhancement payments and the company's refusal to "commit to continue funding the former Inland defined benefit pension plan to a minimum of 80 percent" as major stumbling blocks.
Moore said he's been on the job for 46 years already, but "it might be longer" if retiree benefits are reduced. Retirement isn't going to be an option "without benefits, without insurance," he said. "That's the big thing."
Charlie Sharrow, a 44-year employee, said health care is a top priority for Weirton's graying work force.
"The majority of us are that age," he said. "I think our average age now is around 57. (Health coverage) is absolutely No. 1 for us."
Ed Chiarenza, a Weirton resident and 43-year employee, said it's what brought him to the rally.
"That's what I'm looking for, to see what they're going to do with the retiree health care. It's a big concern, that and pensions. Nobody should have to retire and pay a humungous amount for health coverage."
Steven B. Jones of Mingo Junction, a 45-year employee, said how those retiree issues shake out in the new contract will have a big impact on his future plans.
"I'm thinking about retiring in the next few months, so it's very important," said Jones, who said he'd already lost his military benefits because the government now counts spousal income toward eligibility. "Now they're trying to take these away."
Walter Danna, coordinator for Local 2911 retirees, said it's a time for solidarity, not divisiveness.
"We're all in this together," he said. "It affects everyone, from active workers to retirees. ... We don't want to go backwards."
The USW represents some 14,000 ArcelorMittal workers nationwide.