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.
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.
"The stock has been battered," says John Rogers of D.A. Davidson & Company in Portland. "It's going to be a tough couple of quarters for them." He and other analysts who follow the company say the steelworkers' campaign has definitely damaged Oregon Steel, although they add that a bigger problem is a depressed steel market and the availability of cheap foreign steel.
"Of course the union campaign has had an impact on us," says Vickie Tagliafico, spokeswoman for Oregon Steel. "Anytime someone is out there assaulting your reputation, it has an impact."
The Pachecos don't conceal their glee at the company's troubles, although they're quick to add that they simply want Oregon Steel to take back its former employees so they can end their troublemaking.
Jan Pacheco says the campaign against the company is her way of honoring the three generations of men in her family who have given their lives to the steel industry in Colorado. "When this is all over and my husband and I are asked by our grandkids, 'Grandma and Grandpa, what did you do for the strike of '97?' we can tell them what we did. We left, and we fought the fight."
The story of steel in Colorado is about more than fire and ore -- it's also about blood and the sacrifices one generation made for another.
Many Pueblo families can trace their roots to their immigrant ancestors who began flocking to this town on the Arkansas River in the 1880s to work at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I). The company established the mill to serve the burgeoning railroads and cities of the West and soon developed a southern Colorado industrial empire that included dozens of coal and ore mines that supplied the mill.
To fill these hard and often dangerous jobs, CF&I hired thousands of immigrants who were hungry for work and willing to make the difficult move to Colorado. By 1900, more than half the residents of Pueblo were immigrants or first-generation Americans. The city was a lively melting pot that included Mexicans, Italians, Croatians, Irish, Germans and a dozen other ethnic groups. In 1910, CF&I had 15,000 employees -- one-tenth of the entire workforce in Colorado.
Most of the miners, however, lived in heavily guarded company towns that dotted the foothills south of Pueblo. In many cases, several families were forced to share tiny ramshackle houses provided by the company. The miners were often paid with scrip and forced to shop at CF&I-owned stores, sometimes falling so far into debt to the company that they were little more than indentured servants.
The exploitation of the workforce led to several attempts to organize the miners into unions in the early part of the century, and in 1913, the coal mines north of Trinidad became a center of conflict when anger erupted into the famous strike of 1913-14. At the behest of CF&I, Colorado Governor Elias Ammons sent the state militia into the coalfields to put down the strike, and shooting soon broke out between the militia and the strikers.
Most of the striking miners and their families were living in tent colonies, including 900 people at Ludlow, a train stop eighteen miles north of Trinidad. On April 20, 1914, the soldiers attacked Ludlow and fire swept through the camp. Five miners and one militiaman were killed in the shooting. When the smoke cleared, though, it was discovered that two women and eleven children had suffocated in a cellar dug into the earth beneath one of the tents.
The tragedy sparked national outrage and became a turning point for the labor movement. John D. Rockefeller Jr., at that time the principal owner of CF&I, was embarrassed by the violence at Ludlow and made some effort to improve living conditions for the miners -- while still refusing to recognize the United Mine Workers union.
Many Pueblo steelworkers grew up hearing stories about Ludlow, and Jan Pacheco remembers listening to her grandfather, Charles Martinez -- who died last fall at the age of 94 -- talk about the violence. So does her father, John B. Martinez. "My father was about eight years old during Ludlow, and he said he saw the shooting," he says. "He remembered picking up the shell casings. He said the men were at a meeting, and they came and started shooting at them."
Charles Martinez, who went to work in the mines at age twelve, even remembered meeting the famous labor organizer Mary "Mother Jones" Harris when she came to Trinidad in the midst of the strike.
He credited the union for bringing self-respect to his family. "Before the union, they'd pick people out of a line to work, and it turned out the men they chose were offering the foremen their wives or their daughters," says Howard Pacheco. "Once they were unionized, they could fight for their rights."
Even at age ninety, Charles Martinez drove to Trinidad every month to attend the meeting of the mine workers' local. When he died, the steelworkers' union raised money to help pay for food and flowers at his funeral, and he was buried in an official United Steelworkers coffin. "Grandpa was so union, he even went to his grave union," Jan says. "Our union convictions are a mile deep -- as deep as those mines."
CF&I didn't formally recognize the United Mine Workers until 1933. The steelworkers' local grew out of the mine workers' union nine years later, and for decades, life for the 10,000 CF&I employees and their families in Pueblo revolved around the mill and the union.
Making steel has been a tough business in the United States for the past 25 years. Competition from cheap foreign steel has led to massive layoffs, and steel plants -- most of them in the eastern part of the country -- have had to embrace new technology and develop new products in order to survive.
During the 1980s, the workforce at CF&I was repeatedly downsized, and a lack of investment left the mill saddled with inefficient and aging equipment.
When Oregon Steel bought the bankrupt CF&I seven years ago, the State of Colorado, Pueblo County and Pueblo School District 60 all approved large tax breaks to help the company upgrade the mill. Because it is in a state enterprise zone, it was allowed to accrue more than $4 million in state income-tax credits over the past several years, and the local governments agreed to slash the mill's property taxes: The county gave Oregon Steel a tax break of $864,000 in 1997 alone, and the school district forgives $700,000 in property taxes every year.
In return, the company invested tens of millions of dollars in the plant. The manufacturing operations for the mills' two key products -- pipes for the natural-gas industry and rail for the railroads -- were revamped, and the company was praised for bringing cutting-edge technology into a plant that had been allowed to deteriorate for years.
By 1997, the market for Rocky Mountain Steel Mills's products had turned around, and production there was high. The company began to demand that its employees work overtime, and many steelworkers put in twelve-hour days, seven days a week. "You'd go to work and didn't know if you'd be home that night," says Howard Pacheco. "You might have to work eighteen hours. They worked you so hard you couldn't even get to a phone to call your spouse. We became zombies. You walk around, but you didn't feel alive. Some of the guys were so hungry they'd call their wives and say, 'Honey, please make us a sack of burritos.' She'd pull up to the side of the fence and throw a sack of burritos over."
The mandatory overtime took a toll on the steelworkers' families as well. Employees missed their children's high school graduation ceremonies, weddings, church services and even loved ones' funerals. "With Oregon Steel, we became widows while our husbands were still alive," says Jan Pacheco.
Exhaustion on the part of overworked employees also made accidents inside the mill much more common, especially since workers moving around tons of steel have to depend on each other for their safety. "I've broken damn near every finger, and half of my teeth are missing from being hit with a pipe," says Howard, who was the lead "roller" in the part of the mill that makes carefully calibrated pipes for natural-gas companies. "None of my injuries was my fault."
In 1997, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected the mill and found that it had committed 61 safety-code violations, including not protecting workers from falls, having unsafe electrical components on cranes and failing to maintain fire extinguishers. OSHA proposed a fine of $1.1 million, but that was eventually reduced to $400,000. (Last month, a 42-year-old mill employee was killed while transporting a load of billets; it was the second fatal accident in the plant in the last ten months. OSHA announced it would conduct a "wall-to-wall" inspection of the plant as a result.)
However, it was their pensions -- the security that the employees had counted on to protect themselves and their families in retirement after a life of service to the mill -- that finally sent them over the edge.
After the old CF&I declared bankruptcy in 1990, the pension fund was taken over by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which insures pensions, and those with less than thirty years' service at the mill found their pensions drastically reduced. Someone who qualified for an $800-a-month pension before the bankruptcy might only collect $150 now. During the negotiations for a new contract in 1997, the union asked the company to put more money into the pension fund to bring the benefits up, especially since the mill had returned to profitability.
"We would never have asked for anything if the company still wasn't profitable," insists Ernie Hernandez, president of Local 2102 of the United Steel Workers of America. "The straw that broke the camel's back was when we asked them to bridge the pensions."
But according to Oregon Steel, this demand was "exorbitant" and would have damaged the company's ability to turn a profit. "The immediate cause of the strike was a greatly expanded and costly pension demand that the union put on the table only two days before the contract was due to expire," said Oregon Steel president Joe Corvin in a statement. "The negotiations had been going on for nearly four months before the union made its surprise pension demand."
He estimated the pension package would have cost the company $55 million, plus an additional $18 million per year in ongoing expenses; the union says the proposal would have cost the company only $33 million.
The issue was a sensitive one to the company, since the huge pension obligation of the mill's previous owner, Crane Corporation, had played a large roll in CF&I's bankruptcy. Because of workforce layoffs in the 1980s, Crane only had one active employee for every four retirees by 1990, and the company wasn't putting enough money into the fund to support its obligations. In 1992, the government found that the pension fund was in the hole for $270 million and took control of its assets and liabilities. Those still working for CF&I found their longtime pension plan in tatters, with benefits just a shadow of what they had once been.
In 1997, the company was adamant that it would not take on more of the pension burden.
"Similar pension obligations contributed to the financial collapse of the old company and have played a role in the failure of other steel operations with unmanageable pension obligations," Corvin said. "We were extremely disappointed that the union chose the disruption of a strike over continued negotiations."
Hernandez says the steelworkers were infuriated over the company's dismissal of their pension proposal, since the union had made repeated concessions during past negotiations to keep the steel mill in business. "We gave them concessions going back to 1984," says Hernandez, who estimates the union gave up more than $50 million in wage and pension benefits to save the mill.
On October 3, they walked out the door.
George Chapo grew up in Pueblo and worked at the mill as a welder for 32 years. His father worked in a CF&I coal mine until the mine caved in and severely injured his back. "They gave him a few hundred dollars for his compensation and then threw him out like a dog," he says.
Like many others, the 62-year-old Chapo heard stories about the Ludlow massacre from his father, who preached the importance of being loyal to the union. "He said I could be anything I wanted to be, but if I ever joined the militia he'd kill me. He was serious. The miners hated the militia."
Chapo grew up in one of the neighborhoods on the south side of the mill that was known as Bojon Town. All the fathers in that neighborhood worked at the mill, and Bojon Town was made up of a mix of people from Eastern Europe, including Croatians, Slovenians, Serbs and Slovaks. Chapo's parents were both immigrants from Croatia, and he speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian. "We had two or three Bojon dance halls and our neighborhood bars," says Chapo. "We had Ziggy's and Mugsy's. On Saturday night they'd have big old dances. We even had our own lodge for the Croatians."
While Croatia and Serbia have recently been at war, Chapo remembers playing with young Serbian friends in the shadow of the steel mill. "Over there they've had that fight going on forever -- we grew out of it, but they never did," he says. "My best friend is a Serb."
Because of CF&I, Pueblo became more ethnically diverse than any other city in Colorado. Ethnic boundaries existed both inside and outside the plant gates. Blacks tended to work in the blast furnace, Hispanics in the coke plant and wire mill, and Eastern Europeans and Italians in the rolling mill. Bigger men were needed to roll the hot steel, so Bojons often got those jobs.
There are several stories about the origin of the word "Bojon." One is that Jon was a common Slovenian name, and when the Slovenian men went to apply for a job at the mill, they wore their best Sunday suit along with a bow tie -- hence the nickname. Another story is that when the Slovenians -- who tended to be strapping, blue-eyed and blond -- came over on the boats from Europe, they were nicknamed "beau Jeans," or handsome Johns, by the French sailors. The term "Bojon" then came to be used for several different eastern European groups who clustered in the neighborhoods on the south side of the plant.
Other steelworker neighborhoods had equally colorful traditions. The Italians lived in several areas, including the Grove and Goat Hill. During Prohibition, bootleggers ran a series of tunnels underneath the streets of Goat Hill, moving whiskey and wine between houses and supplying the speakeasys in the Red Light district on Union Avenue. Goat Hill earned its name from a herd of goats that ran up and down the hillside, and one local resident still honors this heritage with a sign that proclaims his home "Bacino's Goat Hillton."
All of the neighborhoods near the mill are made up of modest stucco and frame houses on small lots. For years the steelworkers and their families made ends meet by growing vegetables in the backyard and keeping chickens and livestock. CF&I originally owned this property, which it subdivided and sold the lots to employees. Executives for the company lived in sandstone mansions that still line the streets on a bluff southeast of downtown. Well into the 1960s, you could guess someone's ethnic and class background in Pueblo simply by finding out where they lived. Over the years those ethnic lines blurred, as marriages and schoolyard friendships brought people together.
"In Pueblo you can walk into a Hispanic home, or an Italian or Polish one, or a Bojon home -- they all know how to make green chile," says Howard Pacheco. "We all had to take care of each other."
Pueblo still has a stronger sense of community than probably any other town along the Front Range. Much of this can be traced to the union and the spirit of camaraderie that existed in the mill. Steelworkers credit the union for allowing thousands of families to achieve middle-class status, to send their children to college and to enjoy modest luxuries that their parents could only have dreamed about. The average wage at the mill before the strike was just over $15 per hour.
"The union brought the whole economy up in this town," says Chapo. "If you worked at the steel mill, you could go down and buy a new car."
He remembers walking a picket line during another strike when he was just six years old. He and his friends would gather in the strikers' tent outside the plant gate, cheering on their fathers in their struggle against the company.
"They'd bring us hamburgers because we were helping them on the picket line. We had to stick together, and we took care of our own," he says.
More than fifty years later, he says the workers still have to look out for each other. "All we wanted was a few hundred dollars more for our pension. Our seniority didn't mean nothin' to them. When they threw me out of the well shop, I was the eighth-oldest in the tube mill. That told me they respected us like cockroaches."
The company's decision to immediately replace the striking steelworkers polarized Pueblo. The Pachecos stopped speaking to a young man who lived down the street and had been one of their son's friends in high school after he took a job as a strikebreaker.
"This has pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother," says Howard Pacheco.
The situation got worse after the union called off the strike three months later and more than 900 people were left without jobs. Many steelworkers found employment -- often for less than they were making at the mill -- at one of the industrial companies that have been recruited to Pueblo during the past ten years, while others enrolled in classes at local colleges or left town to find work.
In February 1998, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 25-page complaint against Oregon Steel, alleging the company had committed more than 100 violations of federal labor laws. Specifically, the NLRB found that the company had violated the law by refusing to take back the steelworkers once they'd called off their strike.
A key point was whether or not the strike was over economic issues, since under the law, employers are allowed to replace strikers who walk over money, but not those who strike over non-economic concerns.
Wages were not the issue for the union, insists union leader Hernandez. "It was non-economic issues basically that we went out for. To me, a job is a job, but you have to be treated like a human being. Overtime was one of the big issues. This company didn't empower workers, they gave them ulcers."
If the NLRB decision is upheld, possibly sometime this spring, Oregon Steel could be held liable for up to $1 million per week in back pay to the steelworkers.
Companies are allowed to appeal NLRB decisions, however, and Oregon Steel has made it clear that it will challenge the agency in federal court, a process that could last years. Many companies involved in labor disputes intentionally drag out the proceedings, hoping to wear down the unions through endless legal wrangling. (Oregon Steel has filed its own charges against the union with the NLRB, alleging that union members spit at its employees and threw coffee on them as they crossed picket lines.)
The steelworkers' anger also turned toward many of Pueblo's politicians, several of whom refused to take sides in the strike. When the steelworkers asked for their elected officials' support, they discovered that many of them wanted to dismiss the mill as a part of Pueblo's past, in an attempt to ignore the bitter struggle under way in their own backyard.
The steelworkers decided to wreak vengeance at the polls, and they soon proved that while most working-class Puebloans no longer work at the steel mill, many of them are still there in spirit.
"We went out and became politically active," says Hernandez. "We got two new county commissioners in there, and three city council members."
One of the biggest battles was between former steelworker Matt Peulen and eight-year incumbent county commissioner Kathy Farley in the Democratic primary in 1998. The Pueblo Chieftain -- whose coverage of the strike prompted picketing by the union -- ran shrill editorials accusing Peulen of being a pro-labor extremist. But Peulen upset Farley, taking 6,873 votes to her 6,495.
"We kicked her ass," says Chapo, who volunteered in the Peulen campaign. "We put in some hard hours on that. We put up handmade signs. People found out this is still a working person's town. Without that mill, this town would have been nothing. We kept this town going."
Steelworkers activist Loretta Kennedy also picked up a seat on the county commission, and the union succeeded in defeating former city council president Cathy Garcia and electing three steelworker supporters to the seven-member city council.
Although the council has still resisted playing an active role in trying to settle the strike, Councilman Al Gurule, one of the Pueblo city councilmen who has been a strong supporter of the steelworkers, thinks it should be more vocal. "The majority of the council still feels we should stay out of private enterprise. They don't feel government should interfere in the dispute," he says. "From my perspective, it's a quality-of-life issue that affects the people I represent."
When it became clear the steel mill was in big trouble and the city could no longer count on those jobs, Pueblo's leaders created the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation to attract new employers. With funds from a half-cent sales-tax increase approved by voters, PEDCO successfully recruited dozens of new employers into an industrial park near the airport, offering free land and generous subsidies. One of those firms, Trane Company, which manufactures water-cooling equipment, is now the city's largest private employer, with over 1,200 workers.
Many of the striking steelworkers have taken jobs in the industrial park, but while some of the skilled jobs at firms recruited by PEDCO pay well, many pay as little as $7 or $8 per hour. Many people in Pueblo are angry that the city's leaders didn't try harder to bring in more high-paying jobs. "These companies shut down on the coast and come here because the wages are so low," says Martinez, adding that even some of the people with full-time jobs in the industrial park are paid so little they have to collect food stamps to feed their kids.
"That's why we need a union," says Howard Pacheco.
The steelworkers' most effective crusade has come against their old employer. Once it became clear that Oregon steel had no plans to let workers return to their former jobs, the union faced a choice: It could either give up and disappear, or it could look for new ways to make the company rue the day it turned its back on its own employees.
Thus began what's become known as a "corporate campaign" targeting Oregon Steel. Such campaigns have become an important part of labor's strategy in dealing with union-busting companies. The idea is to pressure a firm to take back its former employees by harassing it in every way possible. The United Steelworkers, in particular, have become known for their adept use of corporate campaigns.
Besides the Pachecos, the union has three "road warriors" fighting Oregon Steel in Los Angeles, six in Portland, two in Minnesota and three in Canada. Light-rail expansion projects in Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis and Denver have all been targeted by the union in an effort to convince transit boards not to buy rail from the Pueblo mill.
"We've gone to every government official in northern California that has something to do with light rail," says Jan Pacheco. "We've raised a lot of safety issues, quality issues and responsible bidder and trustworthiness issues."
In California, the Pachecos have worked closely with several politicians, including San Francisco board of supervisors president Tom Ammiano, to prevent Oregon Steel from winning any new contracts. In December the BART board voted not to buy any more steel from the company, citing its labor and environmental records. (In January the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued the Pueblo mill, alleging it was in violation of the federal Clean Air Act and had ignored compliance orders since 1997. The union had filed notice of intent to sue the company in December over the alleged violations of the clean air law, putting pressure on the health department to take action.)
The steelworkers scored another coup in January, when the Sacramento Regional Transit Board voted unanimously to postpone awarding a $1.6 million contract to Oregon Steel pending an investigation into the charges made by the union. Officials from Sacramento visited the Pueblo mill last month to look into those allegations. They will make a final decision on the contract later this month.
The union's claim that much of the rail coming out of Pueblo is of a lesser quality than that produced before the strike is an especially powerful argument to make in front of public agencies that are about to place multimillion-dollar orders. BART used rail from the Pueblo mill for a $1.5 billion line it is now building to San Francisco International Airport and reportedly had to conduct extra inspections of the rail because of quality problems.
Last week, Representative James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, called for a federal investigation of the quality of the rail produced at the Pueblo mill. Oberstar cited tests conducted on behalf of BART that he said had found several defects in the rail. He raised the possibility that those rails could develop fractures that might cause future derailments. In the Minneapolis area, the Ramsey County and Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority recently asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation not to use Oregon Steel rail for an upcoming light-rail project.
In Denver, the Regional Transportation District said it would conduct additional inspections of the rail it will use in an upcoming expansion into the Central Platte Valley after the Denver Area Labor Federation raised quality concerns. "We agreed to include independent, third-party inspections of the rail at the plant," says RTD spokesman Scott Reed.
Oregon Steel's Tagliafico says the quality issue is bogus and that agencies like BART are simply responding to political pressure by refusing to do business with the company. "BART has been buying the company's rails for over 25 years," she says. "They had no quality issues with the rail; they said it met their specifications. Then they passed this resolution that foreclosed us from the bidding process. They did that because of the steelworkers."
A spokesman for BART says the agency can't comment on the rail-quality question because it could become an issue in the current litigation.
The Oregon Steel lawsuit takes the unusual tack of claiming that BART has violated the firm's civil rights, describing BART's resolution as an illegal attempt by a local agency to enforce federal laws dealing with labor and worker safety. "Believe it or not, companies do have civil rights," says Tagliafico. Oregon Steel has now escalated its rhetoric against the steelworkers, launching what it describes as a "campaign of truth." "We've decided to be more aggressive in our dealings with their constant volley of misinformation and lies," says Tagliafico.
But the campaign against Well Fargo Bank has generated even more heat than the transit effort. Wells Fargo had been Oregon Steel's main banker during the strike, supervising a group of lenders that extended a $125 million line of credit to the company. The steelworkers blamed Wells Fargo for helping the company avoid default when its earnings plunged after the walkout and launched a boycott of the bank.
"If the company hadn't had that financing, they would have been back at the bargaining table a lot faster," says Jason Oringer, a United Steelworkers organizer in San Francisco.
Oringer estimates that several hundred million dollars has been withdrawn from Wells Fargo as a result, much of it by unions and labor-backed pension funds. But the steelworkers have convinced several government agencies to stop doing business with the bank as well. Wells Fargo is now in the process of merging with Norwest Bank, and the boycott has been extended to Norwest. Last year, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb closed his $200,000 re-election campaign account at Norwest in sympathy with the boycott.
The steelworkers also hit upon consumer anger over "double-dipping" ATM fees. "Wells Fargo is the bank with the most ATM machines in San Francisco," says Oringer. "They make $4 million from the fees every year in San Francisco. I think we tapped into a lot of frustration about this."
After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors refused to ban ATM surcharges, the steelworkers and their allies decided to go directly to the voters last November with a ballot initiative. The proposal passed overwhelmingly, and the idea was soon picked up by several other cities in California. (The banks are challenging the San Francisco law in court.)
"I definitely think we got Wells Fargo's attention," says Oringer.
A spokeswoman for the bank in Denver says Wells Fargo has been unfairly targeted by the union. "We hope the steelworkers and Oregon Steel can settle this," says Cristie Drumm. "It's a labor dispute that we're not involved in." As for the ATM issue, she says, "we don't think we should have to provide service to non-customers for free."
When Wells Fargo withdrew as Oregon Steel's primary lender, the company began supervising its own loans from creditors, Tagliafico says. "Now our lenders are kept confidential so they won't be hounded like the old ones."
Tagliafico acknowledges that Oregon Steel is going through a rough period financially, but she says there are many factors involved besides the union campaign. "Practically every steel stock is at a low ebb because of what's been going on in the steel industry. Steel stocks are all languishing." Still, she doesn't deny that the steelworkers' campaign hurt the company. "Anytime they try and put pressure on somebody you do business with, it puts stress on a company. They've made it very clear they don't care if the company gets destroyed in the process." All of this corporate bloodletting may seem like just what the Pachecos wanted when they took to the road two years ago, and they're proud of all the trouble they've helped cause. But they say they'd just as soon be back in Pueblo, working at the mill and taking their small boat out on fishing trips at Lake Pueblo.
Instead, they have a small apartment just outside San Francisco. Howard collects a modest salary from the union that's the equivalent of unemployment benefits, while Jan is unpaid. Their days are spent talking to public officials and looking for allies in their struggle against the company.
For more than a year, their home was the Vagabond Inn in San Francisco. "We were the vagabonds living at the Vagabond," laughs Jan. "We lived on restaurant food for almost two years."
Pueblo is never far from their thoughts, though, even when they're more than a thousand miles away. When they return to the steelworkers' hall in Pueblo, they're surrounded by dozens of former co-workers eager to hear about the corporate campaign against Oregon Steel. "People ask us, 'What's the news from the front?'" Jan says. "They tell us they've seen the reports in the newspaper. A one-hour visit to the union hall can last all day.
"We love this city, and we don't want to move. This is our town. How can a company from Oregon try to take our town away from us?"
But the Pachecos have vowed to stay with the struggle, and Grandpa Charles's admonition to be true to the union cause is always in the back of their minds.
"This is in our blood; we're steelworkers," says Howard. "That's why this fight is so strong."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.