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RIFT BETWEEN UNION, BUYER OF COKE PLANT DOOMS PROJECT

The owner of Tonawanda Coke Corp. said he's prepared to buy Bethlehem Steel's coke ovens and keep the plant running.

But the United Steelworkers of America officials say J.D. Crane's proposal calls for significant concessions in areas such as wages and benefits that the workers cannot accept.

Bethlehem plans to shut the ovens Friday and eliminate 340 jobs. With that deadline looming, the rift between the potential new owner and the union casts doubt on the plant's future. Crane, Tonawanda Coke's owner, confirmed in a statement Tuesday that he had negotiated the purchase of the plant, which he would operate as Lackawanna Coke Corp., from Bethlehem Steel. But he cited a key contingency.

"The last remaining hurdle to conclude the purchase is for the United Steelworkers of America to accept the same basic contract terms that the Steelworkers employed at Tonawanda Coke Corp. have agreed to for the same type of work," he said.

Crane said that if the Steelworkers insist on enforcing the successor clause in their contract with Bethlehem Steel, the new operation "could not survive" and "there will be no takeover of the facility."

Neither Crane nor Robert Bloom, the president of Tonawanda Coke Corp., could be reached to comment. It's not known how many people Crane planned to employ at the Lackawanna plant.

The successor clause obligates a buyer of the coke ovens to negotiate a deal with the union before taking ownership. Louis Thomas, district director of the United Steelworkers of America, faulted Crane for what he described as a "take-it-or-leave-it" approach to dealing with the union.

Thomas said Crane refused to negotiate, and instead proposed a one-year deal that called for "significant" wage and benefit cuts, among other changes in the contract, that Thomas said the workers could not accept.

Thomas said the union had an obligation to its workers to enforce the successor clause. "He can exercise his right as a businessman. We're exercising our right to represent our workers," he said.

The union did not insist that Crane offer the workers the same contract terms that they had with Bethlehem Steel, Thomas said. "We were willing to continue negotiating. It's a shame. We wanted to keep those jobs in the worst possible way."

Richard Corcoran, a United Steelworkers of America official, said the dollar value of the concessions sought by Crane from the Lackawanna workers varied by job classification and included areas such as incentives, beyond just wages and benefits.

If the coke ovens are closed as planned Friday, there wouldn't be much time for a new owner to step in and take over. Once the coke ovens are turned off and allowed to cool for a period of time, they would essentially need to be rebuilt to be used again -- a costly prospect.

Thomas said the work performed at the Bethlehem plant is different from and more complicated than the work performed at the Tonawanda Coke plant. He said the Lackawanna workers therefore shouldn't be asked to accept the same contract terms as those at the Tonawanda plant.

The Lackawanna coke ovens bake bituminous coal to make coke, which is used in blast furnaces to make iron. The ovens have produced coke for other companies since Bethlehem halted basic steelmaking operations in Lackawanna in 1983.

Tonawanda Coke, which has operated since 1978, makes foundry coke. It comes in smaller pieces and is used in the production of cast-iron products such as engine blocks. The plant supplies foundry coke used in Ford Motor Co.'s Windsor casting plant in Windsor, Ont.

Bethlehem Steel officials could not be reached to comment.

Lackawanna Mayor John Kuryak wasn't involved in the proposed purchase, but he acknowledged it was a difficult choice for the workers to make between accepting the proposed concessions and facing the loss of their jobs.

"It's a tough decision," he said.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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