Riding Scab Rails to the Airport
by David Bacon
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (8/6/99) -- Gary Allison was one of a thousand steelworkers at the Rocky Mountain Steel Mill in Pueblo, Colorado, who walked out on strike and were permanently replaced in the fall of 1997. Allison might have been happy, therefore, when last year he was called back to work. Instead, he died in an accident inside the mill.
According to the Colorado Labor Advocate, 218 industrial accidents were registered in the struck mill in 1998 alone. They included crushed legs, hands, feet and fingers, burned arms, hands, necks and faces, and fractured ribs, elbows, teeth and fingers.
Citing its record of industrial strife and carnage, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted last week to support a boycott of the mill's products, especially steel rails. Noting that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently found the company guilty of 61 willful and serious health and safety violations, fining it $400,000, the board voted to call on the Bay Area Rapid Transit District to "refrain from purchasing rail for track replacement and repair from Rocky Mountain Steel Mills until the labor dispute has been resolved."
In spite of the resolution, however, when BART passengers finally take their first ride to the San Francisco airport on the extension now under construction, they will ride over 18 miles of track delivered from the struck mill. And if the quality of the track reflects the struck company's safety record, they could be in for a rough ride.
"Internal Rocky Mountain Steel Mill documents and sources inside the company reveal its rail mill, which has been staffed by hastily trained and inexperienced replacement workers for the last 18 months, is encountering serious quality problems," the supervisors' resolution declares.
According to John Garcia, a striker who worked at the mill for 30 years, BART is well aware of potential problems. In May or early June this year, rail supplied by the mill failed crucial tests performed by a district contract engineer. In undergoing tensile strength tests, the rail broke prematurely, according to Garcia, who got his information from friends working in the struck mill. He says the probable cause for this kind of failure is chemical impurity in the steel itself, including hydrogen flakes, voids or dust.
A company manager then flew to the Bay Area, and returned to Pueblo with BART officials. On June 17 the tests were performed again. This time, Garcia says his friends told him, the rails failed a different, elongation test. Furthermore, results for a hardness test didn't match paperwork from previous trials. The rails were then tested again the following day, and passed the requirements.
"We would not accept any rail that was flawed," BART spokesperson Mike Healy stated. "We're satisfied with the final results of the test."
Oregon Steel, which owns the Pueblo plant, did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story.
Garcia questions the company's testing procedures overall since the strike started. "It's a finicky process making steel," he explains. "Before the strike started, on the average, we had two test failures in a week, and in a bad week we might have had six. Since the strike started, the company's only recorded one failure."
Garcia isn't the only one with questions about the quality of rail coming from the struck mill. Norfolk Southern railroad, which used to be the plant's sixth-largest customer, stopped deliveries after the strike started. The Egyptian government cancelled a large order, according to the United Steel Workers, because of quality problems, and the CSX rail system has had similar concerns.
"I just don't believe you can take people off the street, and in 20 months have them rolling out quality steel," says striker Nick Mikatich. "We had an average of 20 years in the plant, and we turned out a world-class product, but it was not easy."
The rail being ordered by BART is a very specialized product. Rail sections are welded together in the plant into quarter-mile long units, so long they require a special train to transport them to the Bay Area. Chemical defects could produce cracks in the long strands. Under the constant pounding of heavy BART cars, stress on defects could lead to breakages, and possible accidents.
Oregon Steel bought the Pueblo mill in 1993. The company also owns a pipe mill in Napa, and other mills in Portland and Alberta, Canada.
Workers in Pueblo say they struck the mill after its new owners put unbearable production demands on them. "I was scheduled for 12-hour days every day for months," Mikatich recalls. "I'd go out to the parking lot at the end of my shift, and I couldn't remember where I'd parked. And if we tried to take a day off, they'd give us an occurrence [written warning.]"
The union proposed restrictions on overtime, along with pension improvements and protections on job rights. The company demanded the elimination of seniority and other concessions. When it looked like the union and management were headed for confrontation, managers began pressuring workers, the union says. "The bosses kept saying they'd sell the plant if we went on strike," recalls striker Jim Sandusky. "They gave us their final offer, and then told us we had no right to strike."
Despite the company's safety and quality record, it has had powerful backers helping it weather the conflict. One of them is Wells Fargo Bank. The bank says it has a 20-year history of providing financing to Oregon Steel. But in December of 1997, three months after the strike started, the bank gave it an additional $15 million credit line. Two months later, it renegotiated its loans again to help the company avoid default under the strike's pressure.
Wells Fargo Kathy Shilcrest said the boank had been willing to extend Oregon Steel's credit line and renegotiate the loan because of the long-standing relationship between the company and First Interstate Bancorp, which merged with Wells Fargo in 1996. Oregon Steel never used the extended credit, she added.
Key to the bank's generosity was Paul Watson, an executive vice-president and head of commercial banking since 1993. Although he is based in Los Angeles, Watson is well-known in San Francisco, and where he once chaired Mayor Brown's Fiscal Advisory Committee. Watson was not available for comment.
The United Steel Workers has answered the bank's support for Oregon Steel with a boycott campaign, leading to the withdrawal of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year.
"We don't have a place between the company and the union," Shilcrest responded. "Ending a customer relationship simply because another party requests it is not the way the bank does business."
Seeking support for the boycott and strike, steel workers like Sandusky and Mikatich have fanned out across the country, and call themselves road warriors. "When we went to Oregon Steel's shareholders meeting, they wouldn't talk to us," Sandusky says. "The company tried to turn our own town against us. They ran full-page ads for strikebreakers across the country, bringing in people from out of state to take our jobs. This company has made me very bitter towards them."
Supervisot Tom Ammiano called the matter a public safety issue. BART is "taking a big risk to save a buck," he said. "Why are people contracting with strikebreakers in the first place?"
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