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No Talks Set In Day Four

July 23, 1985

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ With talks stalemated in day four of the nation’s first major steel strike in a quarter century, federal mediators were expected to call Wheeling- Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and the United Steelworkers back to the bargaining table soon.

Union leaders told 8,200 strikers in three states not to expect a quick settlement and to ignore warnings from management and Wall Street that a prolonged shutdown could scuttle the debt-strapped company, now being reorganized in bankruptcy court.

″We have got to have the strength and the character to hold out for as long as necessary to achieve what we believe is right. It is not going to be easy. But we will win,″ USW negotiator Paul Rusen said in letters being received Tuesday by union members.

Federal mediators Robert Housholder and Carmon Newell left Saturday’s failed negotiations declaring both sides to be ″pretty much hard-nosed.″ They said they would convene a meeting within several days if neither side requested one.

Union and company bargainers were silent Tuesday, and appeared no closer to resolving their dispute over how much money in wages and benefits should be sacrificed by the union to help the nation’s seventh-largest steelmaker emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization.

Picketing began at the nine plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the moment Wheeling-Pittsburgh said it would impose an 18-percent pay cut. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Warren W. Bentz on Wednesday had granted the company authority to void the one year remaining on its labor agreement.

Neither side has responded to a proposal by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D- W.Va., that wages rise or fall with Wheeling-Pittsburgh’s financial condition. The company rejected a similar proposal by the union shortly before the walkout.

The strike is the first against a major U.S. steelmaker since USW members idled 90 percent of the nation’s steelmaking capacity for 116 days in 1959.

The strike 26 years ago centered on the union’s demands for bigger paychecks from a growing industry. The Wheeling-Pittsburgh dispute finds the USW fighting against shrinking paychecks and fewer jobs in an industry diminished by a tide of cheap imported steel and depressed demand for the metal.

Wheeling-Pittsburgh Chairman Dennis J. Carney told Bentz his company could not survive without slashing total labor costs - the sum of wages, employment taxes, pensions and other benefits - by nearly 30 percent from an hourly average of $21.40 under the voided contract to $15.20. Minutes after Bentz authorized dissolving the contract, the company said it would compromise on the figure and pay $17.50 per hour for six months.

The change would drop average wages from $11.12 to $9.10 per hour, Wheeling-Pittsburgh said.

Union leaders say USW members had already given up about $120 million in earlier contract give-backs, while the company’s lenders were not asked for comparable sacrifices on the nearly $530 million they are owed.

″Dennis Carney owes the banks and insurance companies more than $500 million,″ Rusen’s letter said. ″Where does he want to get that money? From your children’s dinner table, from their education, from your house payments, from everything that you have worked so hard for.″

The union also told the strikers to ignore warnings from Carney and industry analysts that the strike would eventually choke off income from sales and push Wheeling-Pittsburgh out of Chapter 11 reorganization into Chapter 7 liquidation.

Rusen, who is being advised by Lazard Freres & Co. of New York, said the company has $60 million in cash on hand, ″enough to pay the current wages and benefits for another five months even if the company didn’t sell one pound of steel in all that time.″

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