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LTV Steel workers, retirees ask court for time to protect jobs, benefits

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 5, 2001) >. In yesterday's story about efforts by retired LTV Steel workers to persuade a federal bankruptcy judge to protect their health-care benefits, we misspelled the last name of one of those retirees, Albert Pindel.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Sam Polis figures 43 years working for LTV Steel in Aliquippa should have bought him a worry-free retirement. Instead, he spent yesterday outside the federal courthouse here fretting about his future.

Tony Perry, 81, retired from LTV Steel in 1983 after 34 1/2 years of service. He now receives $240 less in monthly pension benefits than he did when he retired, due to cuts. (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

"My whole retirement is at stake," said Polis, 63, as he stood smack in the middle of several hundred retirees and laid-off workers who converged on this old Ohio steel town to protest LTV's decision to shut down and sell its steel assets.

As retirees hoisted placards and chanted "Let's make steel" and other slogans on a barricaded street outside the courthouse, attorneys for LTV tried to persuade U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William Bodoh that the steelmaker was running out of borrowed money and could no longer afford to operate. Testimony continues today.

Thomas Garrett, LTV's chief financial officer, told the bankruptcy court that all of the company's customers went elsewhere after it filed a motion two weeks ago proposing that it shut down.

LTV sought approval to shut down plants in Cleveland; Hennipin, Ill.; and East Chicago, Ind., idling 7,500 workers and jeopardizing benefits for 56,000 retirees or spouses, including some 12,000 in Western Pennsylvania.

Anthony Pavinato, a retiree from Hennipin, is not yet Medicare eligible and worried that his health benefits would be dropped or reduced while he's in the middle of treatment for bladder cancer.

"I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. No one else will want to insure me," said Pavinato, who traveled all night on a bus with other Illinois retirees. "I worked 32 years and four months, and you feel as if you've thrown it all in the street. I think I deserve decent health benefits."

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insures defined benefit pension plans up to certain legal limits, which generally means a reduction for retirees whose plans are assumed by the quasi-government agency. It does not insure health-care benefits.

Since seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last December, LTV has relied on an $882 million loan that expires in June. In September, the company applied for a federal loan guarantee that would cover most of $250 million in new borrowing, but the loan guarantee board has questioned the company's ability to repay.

The United Steelworkers, which has twice in recent months revamped its contract to save LTV money, sought a delay from the judge to give the union time to lobby in Washington, D.C., for the loan guarantee.

"The judge has got to give us time. We've earned it," David McCall, the union's lead negotiator with LTV, told the crowd before the hearing began. "We'll put political pressure on the loan board in Washington. That will allow us to keep our jobs, our retirement and our retiree health care."

The impact on retirees will vary depending on their age and when they retired. Some are eligible for Medicare and risk losing supplemental health-care insurance. Some who are not old enough for Medicare rely entirely on company plans.

"Our younger people are going to get crushed once they have to pick up their own hospitalization," said Pat Carnevale, a retired steelworker and union officer from LTV's defunct coke plant in Hazelwood. "Some people are going to have to go back to work."

Charlie Kotuba, 59, retired when the Hazelwood plant was closed two years ago. He fears government insurance would cover perhaps half of his $2,700 monthly pension, which includes an uninsured early-retirement supplement.

Albert Pindel, retired 21 years from LTV's Pittsburgh Works on the South Side, said he and his wife would be wiped out if they lose prescription drug benefits and the insurance that supplements Medicare.

"If it wasn't for Social Security, I'd be dead for sure," he said.

Bud Diley, 78, retired from Aliquippa after a plant shut down in the mid 1980s, could end up paying roughly half of his $1,266 monthly pension benefit for health-care coverage. "It's going to hurt. I don't know how bad but plenty bad enough," he said.

Wallace Davis, 77, also of Aliquippa, gets a monthly pension check of $525 and joked among his friends yesterday that he could end up spending it all or more for health-care coverage. "I couldn't do it," he said. "You can't get blood out of a turnip."

Battered by competition from cheaper foreign and nonunion mills, 27 U.S. steelmakers are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, including LTV and Bethlehem Steel Corp. All or most of them are looking for union concessions.

"If only people would step back and look at the repercussions," said Dennis Henry, president of USW Local 1011 at LTV's Indiana Harbor works, in East Chicago, Ind. "What's at stake are our plants, our jobs, our way of living and our communities."

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