Changes at plant worry workers

Many are concerned that having fewer workers will make their jobs difficult.
WARREN -- Some workers filing out of WCI Steel's plant Thursday afternoon carried a United Steelworkers of America flier that described in positive terms the agreement reached in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
The workers, however, seemed less than pleased with everything they had heard.
"My concern is for the plant itself. I'm not much of a fan of creditors," said Paul Thompson, 56, of Youngstown, a 31-year employee. "Creditors are only concerned with the bottom line."
David McCall, USW District 1 director, said in the union letter that the agreement allows the company to move forward as a strong, stable employer while protecting the wages and benefits that active and retired USW members earned through years of hard work and sacrifice.
Roman Dann of Cortland, who said he has nearly 30 years with the company, expressed concern for how the plant can operate if it loses 250 workers to a buyout.
"All that work is going to be picked up by guys working now," he said. "Guys won't be able to have any time off with their families."
Losing many of the more experienced workers through buyout will also take its toll, he said.
"They can't eliminate jobs. Everybody's jobs are necessary," agreed Nick Petrella of Youngstown as he left the plant.
In bankruptcy court Wednesday, it was learned that WCI's creditors will receive nearly all of the stock in a new company that will be created to operate the Warren steel mill. A court hearing is scheduled for March 28 to approve the deal.
Renco Group, which now owns WCI, agreed that it would be responsible for the current pension fund, but the creditors will create a pension fund for the new company.
Thompson said he feels a sense of gratitude toward the current owner, Ira Rennert of New York, who stood by the plant during bad times.
"When everybody else was shutting down, Ira kept us working. He stuck by us," Thompson said. "When we're losing money, are the creditors going to back us?"
Thompson said he sometimes wonders how come WCI stayed open while mills such as Copperweld were shutting down.
WCI entered bankruptcy court in September 2003. The union has a tentative labor deal with the creditors that calls for up to 250 workers to agree to leave the company with a $50,000 payment. Workers are to receive full pension benefits, and retirees also are to continue receiving paid medical insurance under the plan.
Bob Chudik of Struthers said he believes the Steelworkers union has flip-flopped on whether the creditors are good or bad for the plant. He said union officials told workers to accept the last contract or else the creditors might take over the company, which would be bad. Now the union backs the creditors, he said.
Selling is a concern
Another worker who wouldn't give his name said he thinks the creditors are already in negotiations to sell the plant to Cleveland-based International Steel Group, which owns several steel mills in the region.
In the Steelworkers' last contract in 2004, the company said it was hoping to reach an agreement similar to ones in place with ISG because such contracts save money by reducing operating costs and improving efficiencies, generally featuring a leaner work force, fewer work rules and more incentives for employees.
Patrick Tatom, WCI president and chief executive, said this week that he expects productivity of the new company to be 40 percent higher than it was 10 years ago.
The number of work hours needed to produce a ton of steel will fall dramatically because of the proposed labor deal, he said. Not only would there be fewer workers because of the buyout, but the number of job classifications is being cut from 32 to five, he said.
By allowing workers to handle various duties, the mill can become more efficient, he said. The mill has 1,250 hourly workers.
Dennis Brubaker, a staff representative for the United Steelworkers of America, said the tentative contract will provide raises for all workers. Some will receive significant raises because the reduction in job classifications will push them into a higher-paid classification, he said.
Two men in their 40s or 50s who didn't want to be identified said they were pleased with Wednesday's news. "Being that they are saying pensions will be maintained, that's good," one said.

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