Company Town

In Pueblo, the iron will of a union has proved tougher than steel.

For years, Jan Pacheco led a quiet life as a Pueblo homemaker, raising two sons and counting on her husband Howard's job in the huge steel mill that looms over the south side of town to pay the family's bills. The Pachecos enjoyed their comfortable home near City Park and looked forward to occasional fishing trips at Lake Pueblo and to the green-chile plate at the Mill Stop, their favorite Mexican restaurant. With a family that stretched back for generations in Pueblo, they felt rooted in a community they loved.

Then, on October 3, 1997, the 1,000 employees of Rocky Mountain Steel Mills, including Howard, walked out on strike, angry over forced overtime, their pension plan and a hardcore management attitude that the employees blamed for making their lives miserable. The lives of the Pachecos, and those of thousands of other people in Pueblo, were transformed in a way they never could have predicted.

The company vowed to keep the mill open and immediately began replacing the striking steelworkers. At the end of December the union gave up, calling off the strike and making an unconditional offer to return to work, but the company said it had openings for only 27 people.

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Brett Amole
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Road warrior: Howard Pacheco spends most of his time in California fighting his former employer.
Brett Amole
Road warrior: Howard Pacheco spends most of his time in California fighting his former employer.

For a community that for decades had drawn its whole identity from the steel mill, the strike was deeply traumatic, forcing people to take sides and even ending lifelong friendships.

Many believed the company had succeeded in busting the union, bringing the once-mighty United Steelworkers to its knees and turning the page on Pueblo's long history as a union town. Free of its labor problems, financial analysts assumed the mill's owner, Oregon Steel Mills, would be able to cut costs and earn record profits out of its Pueblo mill.

But the analysts didn't count on the steel will of Pueblo's working families, a group whose roots go back more than a hundred years to an era when the mill had ten times as many employees. Things haven't gone as the experts predicted, and the Pachecos are part of the reason why.

Two years ago, when it became clear the company had no intention of taking back its employees, union representatives asked the Pachecos, who were vocal strikers, to become "road warriors" as part of a union campaign to harass Oregon Steel and force the company back to the bargaining table.

"Howard and I were approached one day and told they were going to be starting up a team of road warriors," recalls Jan Pacheco. "Being totally committed to the fight, we said, 'Where are you going to send us?'"

The steelworkers' union decided to boycott Wells Fargo Bank, since it had been Oregon Steel's prime lender during the strike and had allowed the company to renegotiate the terms of its loan several times after the walkout. The Pachecos found themselves driving around Arizona, trying to convince people to pull their money out of Wells Fargo.

"It was the experience of a lifetime, being able to stand next to my husband in front of union locals and churches, in front of government officials, letting them know our story and what was going on in Pueblo, Colorado," Jan says.

A few months later, the Pachecos were asked to take their campaign to San Francisco, Wells Fargo's corporate headquarters, and the couple was soon in the thick of California politics. They lobbied "the two Browns" -- San Francisco Mayor Willie and Oakland Mayor (and former California governor) Jerry, and succeeded in getting the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART), a longtime customer of the Pueblo mill, to boycott the company. They're now in the midst of trying to convince the Sacramento Regional Transit District to do the same thing.

The steelworkers' biggest coup against Wells Fargo in California, though, has been a campaign to halt "double dipping," a practice whereby consumers are charged two fees when they use an ATM not owned by their bank. A steelworker-sponsored referendum against ATM fees in San Francisco passed with 66 percent of the vote last fall, and the push to limit the fees spread to Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Berkeley, causing a lot of grief for Wells Fargo.

The bank eventually withdrew as Oregon Steel's lead banker last July, and several other banks that had lending agreements with the steel-maker dropped them. This, combined with the BART boycott, had a dramatic impact on Oregon Steel, which is now in financial trouble. Last month it sued BART, alleging that the boycott was a violation of its civil rights. In the lawsuit, the firm described itself as "the victim of an unlawful and orchestrated union campaign of propaganda and coercion designed to cripple and destroy Rocky Mountain Steel Mills."

"The little old steelworkers from Pueblo have done all this," says Howard Pacheco proudly.

The company's anger is undoubtedly fueled by a steep decline in its stock price. When the strike began, Oregon Steel was trading at more than $25 a share; it is now worth just over $4, and several financial analysts believe it could become a takeover target in the next few months because of this. Oregon Steel, which paid $108 million for CF&I in 1993 (the company changed the mill's name to Rocky Mountain Steel Mills in 1998) and owns a major plant in Portland and several smaller facilities, could itself now be bought out for as little as $105 million.

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