AMERICAN WELDING & amp; MANUFACTURING Possible benefit cuts worry retirees

ne former union president said he's been getting calls from worried retirees living as far away as Florida.
WARREN -- Attorneys for the United Steelworkers of America will fight a Pennsylvania company's plan to terminate or reduce life and health insurance benefits to retirees of Warren's former American Welding & amp; Manufacturing Co.
Gary Steinbeck, a USW official based in Youngstown, said Freedom Forge of Burnham, Pa., is asking a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Wilmington, Del., to allow it to reduce its costs by cutting benefits to several hundred area retirees.
Steinbeck said USW learned about the benefits-reduction plan earlier this week and must file a motion objecting to the proposal by Friday.
"That's ample time for us to put something together," he said. "We'll do what we can to protect our retirees."
Freedom Forge is a holding company, now operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which bought American Welding and Manufacturing in Warren in 1990 and closed it in 1993. The company also operates Standard Steel in Latrobe, Pa., and Burnham, Pa., and Valdunes, a forged wheel and axle maker with operations in France and Belgium.
Hearing planned: A hearing on the proposal to terminate or modify retirees' health insurance and life insurance benefits is set for 8:30 a.m. Sept. 10 in the Wilmington bankruptcy court.
Steinbeck said the company has not asked the court for permission to modify the American Welding & amp; Manufacturing retirees' pensions. Freedom Forge assumed pension responsibility when it bought the company.
Ray Piontkowsky, an American Welding retiree and former president of USWA Local 1574, said the company notified retirees by mail of its plan to get the court's permission to terminate or cut the life and health insurance benefits. He notified USWA officials immediately when his letter arrived Monday.
Since then Piontkowsky has received many calls from worried retirees, some as far away as Florida. "These people are very upset. How many people are they going to send to the grave with those letters?" he asked.
Forced to retire: Piontkowsky, 60, a 27-year American Welding veteran, said he was one of many employees who were forced to retire early when Freedom Forge closed the plant, idling 287 workers. He found other employment and can get health benefits, if he needs them, he said, but others are not so lucky.
The health-care plan retirees receive has been reduced several times since the plant closing, he said, but it still provides some assistance with prescription payments and medical bills. The life insurance provides a $15,000 policy to age 62, then drops to $2,500.
American Welding & amp; Manufacturing, once one of the area's largest defense plants, manufactured seamless and welded rings used primarily for jet engines. Freedom Forge blamed a severely depressed aerospace industry for the shutdown.

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