Steelworkers, fearing they will lose their livelihoods as steel companies file for bankruptcy protection, will hold a rally this afternoon to support legislation in the House designed to protect the industry.
The United Steelworkers of America, which is bringing in national President Leo Gerard for the event, hopes for a show of more than 1,000 this afternoon at the Sparrows Point union hall in Dundalk. They are rallying in support of the "Steel Revitalization Act."
The legislation calls for tighter limits on imported steel, a $10 billion fund to provide loans to help companies upgrade their plants, and a 2 percent surcharge on all steel sold in the United States, with the proceeds going toward health insurance for retired Steelworkers and their spouses.
U.S. steel imports reached an all-time high of 41.5 million tons in 1998. The number dropped to 36 million tons in 1999, but last year went back up to 38 million, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The union and steel companies blame those cheap imports - some of which was found to have been sold for less than the cost of production - for the U.S. industry's worsening state. Seventeen U.S. steel companies have filed for bankruptcy protection since mid-1998, and profits at most companies have plummeted.
Bethlehem Steel Corp., for one, lost $118.4 million on sales of $4.2 billion last year. That compares with a loss of $183.2 million on sales of $4.1 billion in 1999. The company employs nearly 4,000 at its Sparrows Point plant.
"What could happen [if the government doesn't intervene] is shattered dreams," said John Cirri, president of Local 2609, which represents workers at Bethlehem's cold-rolled mill in Baltimore. "Bethlehem Steel would probably end up going Chapter 11 or shutting its doors and then over 3,500 people just in Maryland would be out of a job."
Van Reiner, president of Bethlehem's Sparrows Point division, is to speak at the rally, but the company is not officially supporting the legislation. "We believe the details are less important than the fact that there is a crisis and it has not gone away," Reiner said. "That needs to be addressed."
He said he doesn't know if steel companies could actually pass along the surcharge to their customers - who may balk at paying the extra fee - or if the companies would end up swallowing the cost. Steel makers Nucor Corp. and AK Steel Corp. have said they cannot support the surcharge.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Maryland's members of the House except Republican Reps. Constance A. Morella and Roscoe G. Bartlett. A spokesman for Morella said she is considering the legislation; calls to Bartlett's office were not returned.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said steel is important not only for the impact it has on Steelworkers, but also for technology and defense reasons. "It might be nice for people who use steel to say they can get it cheaper now," he said, "but when we become dependent on foreign imported steel at ridiculous prices, they'll have to pay the piper then."
Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger plans to attend the rally.