FARRELL — When union workers at NLMK Pennsylvania’s plant in Farrell went on strike Saturday, salary-earning employees began working on the mill floor.
And company president Bob Miller will soon be right alongside them. Miller said Wednesday that he would train to work on production at the steel coil producer.
About 100 salaried workers, well below the plant’s 415 production and maintenance union workforce, are running the operations.
“They never left the mill from Saturday to Monday,’’ Miller said of salaried workers. “They never left the mill for three days. This is an unbelievably dedicated group of workers.’’
Miller did not provide a production level for the plant during the strike, but he said it was enough to keep up with orders.
Jim Wells — unit president for United Steelworkers Local 1016-03 — said he was aware of an train derailment Tuesday on the factory’s internal line and lines belonging to Norfolk Southern Railroad, which operates the rail system outside the plant. Wells said the accident damaged train tracks for Norfolk Southern and cars for both Norfolk Southern and NLMK.
Miller said he wasn’t aware of any train accident.
But Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern confirmed that a crew from NLMK caused “minor damage” to one of the company’s switches while moving cars. He said Norfolk Southern workers quickly repaired the damage.
But Todd Clary, a USW staff representative for Local 1016-03, said the mishap indicated the need to end the strike as quickly as possible.
“This is why we need to get a fair contract,” Clary said. “To get the union’s trained workers back on their jobs, for the safety of the workers and the community.”
The two sides will return Friday to the negotiation table in an effort to end the strike, now entering its fifth day. But if Wednesday’s activity was any indication, management and labor are still far apart.
In a press release issued Wednesday, Miller said the company was offering a fair four-year contract, including salary increases of 2.5% in the first year and 2% in each of the three remaining years.
Miller said the average employee would earn an hourly wage of $28.80 — equivalent to an annual salary of $59,905 by the contract’s final year.
Clary countered by saying that the union workers had not had base salary increases for five years leading into the current contract negotiations, and that NLMK management had offered a $3,000 signing bonus and pay increases of 3% in the first year and 2.5 percent in the remaining three years prior to the strike.
NLMK’s press release includes no mention of a signing bonus.
Health care insurance costs are a primary source of contention in discussions of a new contract. NLMK said it is offering two options — a preferred provider organization plan, also known as a PPO, or a high-deductible plan — for workers to choose from.
Employees who choose the PPO plan, which provides “basically 100 percent coverage” according to the company, would have a “small monthly increase” in premiums. The current employee premiums is $185 per month for a family.
“The increase that we have proposed would still be well below the mark averages for similar PPO plans with similar coverages,’’ NLMK said in the release. “While the USW leadership has recognized that an increase in an employee’s premium is acceptable, the amount they offered to pay is less than what NLMK is warranted. All current employees would have the option to participate in the plan for the next four years.’’
Clary said increases in future years would raise the premiums significantly.
“They priced it so high that it would be unaffordable,” he said.
Under the high-deductible plan, employees would have no premium payments, but the workers would have to cover high out-of-pocket before insurance would pick up any expenses. NLMK has offered to contribute $2,350 into workers’ healthcare savings accounts for the contract’s first three years of the contract and $1,550 for the fourth year.
With the company’s contribution, employees would have to cover a maximum of $2,150 per year in the contract’s first three years, the company said.
Clary said the high-deductible plan is a non-starter for the union.
“Our members have overwhelmingly shot down the high-deductible plan,” he said.
Union and management are also in disagreement over health-care costs for the families of deceased workers. Circumstances raised that issue last month during contract negotiations when an employee died on July 3.
The union accused NLMK of cutting the employee’s family out of coverage upon the worker’s death.
NLMK took a defiant stance on the issue in its release.
“This subject been a rallying point of the steelworkers and the contention of the USW leadership that NLMK has chosen to ignore a provision in our labor agreement to the detriment of widows and orphans is a blatant lie,’’ the release said. “It is a travesty and a shame for the USW leadership to use the unfortunate passing of a co-worker as a rallying cry during negotiations.’’
NLMK said the family has the opportunity to continue coverage through the COBRA program.
Clary said COBRA provisions are no help at all to a family that has lost an income provider to death. Under the program, the family would have to pay about $2,000 a month — the full premium total. Under the employee health benefits, workers pay only a portion of the premium.
It’s only now, NLMK said Wednesday, that USW leaders are admitting they don’t know anyone who has been treated differently in the past and can’t provide specific examples supporting their accusations.
Even though NLMK’s statement Wednesday accused the union of twisting the truth to tarnish the company’s image, it also promised to make an effort to bridge the gap when negotiations resume Friday.
“NLMK remains available to continue to bargain in good faith in order to reach a collective bargaining agreement,” the company said.
Clary echoed that statement on behalf of the USW.
“The union is going to bargain in good faith,” he said.