U.S. Steel wants to cut health coverage for retirees

This spring U.S. Steel slowed taconite production and furloughed more than 800 workers.

This spring U.S. Steel slowed taconite production and furloughed more than 800 workers.

John Arbogast has punched the clock at one of Minnesota’s largest taconite operations for the last 20 years. The veteran Minntac worker hopes to stroll in Sept. 1 ready for business as usual. But right now there are no guarantees.

The United Steel Workers union is locked in contract negotiations with U.S. Steel, which owns Minntac, and Iron Range player ArcelorMittal. Their current deals expire at the end of the month.

“Nobody wants a work stoppage — the union, the company, nobody,” says Arbogast, VP of the Local 1938.

Nevertheless, the work-boot brigade ain’t happy with what’s currently on the table. While U.S. Steel declined to comment on the negotiations, Arbogast says that healthcare is the biggest hang up. U.S. Steel allegedly wants to wipe out its health plan for retirees and make active employees chip in on their premiums. More than 30,000 workers across the country will be affected.

“We all fought for the last 60 years to get these healthcare benefits,” Arbogast says. “We’re not going to go backwards. We’re not going to sacrifice our retirees, the active employees or the future employees when it comes to healthcare.”

Last Thursday the blue collars rallied in Virginia, Minn. Arbogast says between 2,000 and 2,500 people showed, though other reports measure the crowd in “hundreds.” Either way, there was plenty of DFL firepower with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and others showing their support.

With cheap steel from overseas flooding the U.S., taconite prices dipped during the last year. This spring, several Iron Range operations including U.S. Steel laid off or furloughed employees. U.S. steel cut more than 800 jobs between Minntac and its idled Keewatin plant, although the company started recalling Minntac workers last month.

Despite the taconite game’s rough patch, the union man says they won’t budge on their admittedly “pretty good” health plans.

“It’s a cyclical industry,” he says. “Steel and iron ore, it goes up and down. It always has it always will. What the company’s trying to do is take advantage of this cyclical downturn and that’s what the problem is. If they need to save money we can look at other ways to save money instead of taking away benefits that we’ve earned over the last hundred years.”