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United Steelworkers chief flexes new muscle
Mon May 2, 2005
By Steve James

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Now that he's in charge of North America's largest industrial union, Leo Gerard wants to use the extra clout to press one issue he says is paramount for steel, chemical and energy industry workers -- health care.

He also sees the domestic steel industry facing continued attack from Chinese and other foreign imports and feels the Bush administration is out to break the labor movement.

In a telephone interview with Reuters from Pittsburgh, Gerard spoke as president of the newly formed United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied-Industrial and Service Workers International Union. It was formed last month when the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) merged with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA)

The new union -- called the United Steelworkers for short -- has 850,000 members, surpassing the United Auto Workers' 710,000 members.

"What it means is that we have tremendous strength through diversity," Gerard said. "No single employer now could ever break the union.

"We are in the most volatile political environment in 100 years and the Republicans want to destroy labor unions. Their trade agenda is bringing economic chaos to industrial America.

"We (organized labor) have lost 3 million members since (George W.) Bush was appointed president (in 2000)," he said.

Asked about major issues facing his members, Gerard singled out health care.

"Clearly we can't let our eye off the ball and we need to fight for health care," he said. "The auto industry has been devastated (by health-care costs). We are the only industrial economy in the world were health-care costs have gone through the roof. We have to take on the issue in concert with management."

He said the union, which will shortly start a new round of contract negotiations with steel companies such as AK Steel Holding Corp., was already discussing health care, trade and pensions with the likes of U.S. Steel Corp. and Mittal Steel through an industry committee called "Stand Up For Steel."

"A national health-care system is part of our challenge as a new union," said Gerard, who led the USWA for four years.

Chinese industrial growth, currently driving a resurgence of steel and other metals industries, could become a negative if Beijing changed from steel importer to exporter, he said.

"Steel continues to be strong, but if we lose our industrial base to China, then there go the steel industry customers.

"China has an economic agenda to become the manufacturing platform of the world. We need to aggressively enforce trade laws against 30 years of unfair imports of steel.

"If the economic direction of the country does not change by voluntary political means, then we will be facing involuntary financial collapse," said Gerard.

There was good news for the union out of Washington however, last month, when a U.S. trade panel voted to continue duties and other restrictions imposed five years ago on imports of hot-rolled steel from Brazil, Japan and Russia.

The U.S. International Trade Commission said there was a significant threat that lifting the measures could damage U.S. steel companies by exposing them to unfairly low prices.

Reuters 2005. All rights reserved.

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