Vancouver steel workers strike




Steel workers picketed outside Vancouver Iron & Steel Inc. on Monday as their union entered its third day on strike.

At issue are health benefits the company says it can no longer afford after losing its line of credit following the Bank of Clark County’s failure.

Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers International Union Local 139 on Friday rejected a new four-year contract that would have given approximately 65 union workers a 2.5 percent pay increase next year and a bigger pension but cut some benefits, including health insurance for all new workers.

“Some of us wouldn’t be affected (by the new terms) but as a union we have to look at who’s coming behind us,” said Ron Bauman, a journeyman molder who’s spent almost 30 years at Vancouver Iron & Steel. “It’s like a brotherhood.”

This is the first time in more than three decades that the company’s Vancouver workers have gone on strike, Bauman said. Vancouver Iron & Steel, formerly Vericast, has operated in Vancouver under various owners since the 1920s and currently employs about 80 workers.

Battered by the economy in recent years, the company closed its Portland foundry and laid off about 18 workers from its Vancouver facility, said company Vice President Ray Anderson. The company, which makes steel parts for the trucking industry, was hit especially hard by the Bank of Clark County failure in January 2009, he said. The bank was the company’s only operating line of credit.

“We’ve been in dire straits for a year,” Anderson said. “We were hoping by now things would pick up and they have not.”

President and owner Dan Swartz worked his way up through the company’s management before buying it out from bankruptcy in 2004.

Swartz planned a large expansion of the Vancouver foundry before the recession hit in 2007, Anderson said. The company hopes to revive those plans as the economy recovers, he said.

Until then, Vancouver Iron & Steel needs to keep its operating costs low.

“All of the management here has taken pay cuts,” Anderson said. “We’re giving them (the workers) everything we can.”

After the union’s previous four-year contract expired last year, the workers agreed to extend the contract one more year without changes to help the company save money and preserve jobs. As a result, the workers haven’t seen a pay raise since October 2007.

The workers are willing to extend their contract another year without changes but they won’t agree to further cuts, said Lloyd Martin, a journeyman molder and head shop steward for Local 139. They think it’s unfair for existing employees to lose benefits as the company recovers from the recession.

“We’ve helped the company in the past, and we’re willing to help them again,” Martin said. “We understand it’s a different world out there. We’re just trying to hang on.”