Union workers hopeful of bailout

Published 10:56 am Thursday, December 11, 2008

With a workforce of almost 700 idled at AK Steel, the nod for the bailout for the U.S. automakers from the U.S. House was welcomed news for Steelworkers president Mike Hewlett.

Hewlett heads up the Ashland-based local 1865, whose 696 members work at the West Works of the Fortune 500 company. Headquartered in Middletown, with major plants and offices in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania, AK Steel is the fifth largest corporation in the Fortune 500’s metals industry category with more than $7 billion in sales. It produces flat-rolled carbon, stainless, electrical steel, carbon and stainless tubular steel for automotive, appliance, construction and manufacturing.

Starting Nov. 22, the first of 654 steelworkers found themselves without a job for at least a month as the Ashland Works was temporarily shutdown. The rest received letters from the company by the end of that month. The reason was a reduction in demand by the auto industry for its product.

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That’s why local steelworkers watched intently to what Congress and the White House were going to do this week as the CEOs of the three big automakers came repeatedly to Washington asking for money.

“I think the bailout is great,” Hewlett said. “But it took too long. They bailed out the people who took showers before they went to work before those who shower after they get through work. I’m not saying banking shouldn’t be bailed out. It was improper the way they handled it.”

Shock waves rushed through the Tri-State when word came down from Middletown that the Ashland plant would be operated on standby only. The steelworkers union claims members from Ohio and West Virginia as well as Kentucky. When independent contractors were counted in, nearly 1,000 were hit by the shutdown.

Union workers will receive sub pay of approximately 60 percent of their regular pay, minus overtime. Sub pay is contingent on years of service, with a minimum paycheck of $250 a week.

One aspect of the auto bailout that has been bandied about is the possibility of a car czar to oversee the disbursing and use of the loan.

“I don’t agree with the car czar,” Hewlett said. “I don’t like the czar. Why put some government control over these facilities if it is a loan.”

The idle of the Ashland plant is expected to last through the middle of January with maintenance crews coming back first, followed by the operations crew. Right now, there are about 50 keeping the plant in basic operations.

“All indications are that they intend to start back in January,” Hewlett said. “We should be notified at the union hall. The procedure should be to have a meeting with them (first). It won’t be all walking through the gate (at one time.) They have showed no other intention, but they intend to start up in the middle of January.”