ATI, Steelworkers continue talks as extended contract's end nears

Brian C. Rittmeyer, The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—A one-year contract extension for Allegheny Technologies Inc.'s 1,300 United Steelworkers members expires Sunday, but there has been no talk of a strike or lockout, according to the union local president representing workers at ATI's Brackenridge facility in Harrison.

"We all want to get this wrapped up," said Todd Barbiaux, president of United Steelworkers Local 1196.

But he added, "We're not willing to give up a bunch of our jobs. We want a ratified contract. We want a fair contract. It's time that the hands-on steel people are rewarded for their work."

The last contract covering the more than 1,300 United Steelworkers members at nine ATI locations expired on Feb. 29, 2020. Citing the impact of the pandemic, the company and union agreed to a one-year contract extension last March.

The extension came shortly after the company paused negotiations, citing a lack of progress.

ATI spokeswoman Natalie Gillespie said Tuesday that company and union negotiators "continue to meet in good faith in an effort to reach agreement. We are working to transform our business and emerge strong from this challenging environment."

She added: "ATI's priority is reaching a competitive agreement that provides stability for everyone — our company as we operate during this unprecedented aerospace downturn; our employees, who rely on these well-paying jobs; and our customers, who rely on ATI to deliver the quality materials they need."

Gillespie said a number of things can happen if an agreement is not reached by the contract's expiration, including working under the terms of the current agreement as talks continue.

"We do not want a lockout," she said.

The union and company both said that workers have not had a pay increase since 2014.

"Hourly workers have waited more than seven years for a wage increase, yet management regularly rewards itself," the union stated in a recent update on negotiations to its members.

"Our wage proposals have been consistent with gains within the manufacturing sector, and considering the wage freeze in 2016, we are clearly justified in our demand," the union said.

While ATI acknowledged that employees may be frustrated by not having an increase in their base rate of pay since 2014, she said they have received additional earnings in lump-sum payments, profit sharing and additional spending to cover rising health care costs.

Gillespie said the company wants a contract that gives employees pay increases by controlling costs elsewhere, such as through health care and work-rule flexibility.

The union claims ATI is proposing to have workers begin paying a portion of health care costs, by paying for increases over 3.5% per year while estimating costs will increase by at least 7% per year. New hires would be forced into the salary, nonrepresented health plan.

The union said it is "not going backwards on health care" and "we are certainly not going to pay premiums."

The company said its health care proposal maintains its current plan with no changes or premiums for all current participants for at least the first two years of the contract, with the company absorbing half of future cost increases.

"We're asking the USW to partner with us, so that together we can keep those increases as low as possible," the company said.

The union said ATI can afford an agreement meeting the needs of its members in part because the company has more than $650 million in cash and will make substantial profits over the next several years, and market and industry forecasts are positive.

While the company said it is seeing early signs of stability, it is still expecting market recovery to take several years, with the aerospace industry not returning to 2019 levels until about 2024.

"We conserved cash in 2020 and anticipate depleting cash in 2021, based on disruption in our key markets," the company stated. "We anticipate needing a lot of cash in 2021 as demand begins to pick up but we're still not profitable. Our goal is to always have enough cash that we can continue operations and protect ATI when times are bad and be sure we're rebuilding for the upcycle."

While ATI denies seeking a concessionary contract, United Steelworkers claims the company is seeking many concessions, including restricting an employee's right to transfer, requiring employees to work 12-hour shifts without daily overtime, and scheduling them five and six days a week.

The union said the company has proposed contracting out certain maintenance and specialty maintenance work and all vacuum truck work, machine shop work, railroad operations and locomotive maintenance work, while assigning management employees to research and testing work.

The union said management also is refusing to recognize the need for a shutdown agreement for impacted employees at #3 Finishing in Brackenridge, Louisville and Waterbury, who the union said are entitled to receive shutdown pensions.

The company disputed that and said it is following the provisions of its existing labor agreement related to the announcement of shutdowns.

"An acceleration of shutdown-related benefits is one of many items that we are continuing to discuss with the USW representatives," the company said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, or via Twitter .