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LACKAWANNA COKE OVENS TO CLOSE AS BUYER BACKS OUT

The owner of Tonawanda Coke Corp. will not buy Bethlehem Steel's Lackawanna coke ovens, leaving the plant on schedule to halt production Friday and eliminate 340 jobs.

"We were not able to come to terms with Tonawanda Coke," said Robert Bilheimer, a Bethlehem Steel spokesman.

Tonawanda Coke's owner, J.D. Crane, had negotiated a purchase of the plant from Bethlehem Steel, contingent on his ability to make a deal with the United Steelworkers of America. Bethlehem two months ago announced its intention to shut the plant at the end of this month.

Crane previously said the acquisition would occur only if the Steelworkers union agreed to the same basic contract terms as workers at Tonawanda Coke Corp. He could not be reached to comment.

Steelworkers leaders criticized Crane, saying he was unwilling to negotiate with the union and presented them only with a one-year, "take-it-or-leave-it" offer.

Crane asked the Steelworkers to drop a successor clause in their contract with Bethlehem Steel, which would have required the new owner to negotiate a deal with the union before taking ownership of the plant. Union officials said waiving that clause would be a breach of their responsibility to their members.

Coke oven workers interviewed said that the concessions Crane sought were too far-reaching to accept -- even with a shutdown as the alternative.

"They don't want to work in this dangerous environment for $4 or $5 an hour less," said Gerry Hays. "It's a lot to put up with even for the wages we're making."

"Our union's fought hard to get us the things we have," said Kenneth Green, who's worked at the coke ovens for three years. "I don't think we should just throw that away."

"If he was really serious, he should have come to the union sooner," Green said.

"Surge" Ahmed, a 31-year old millwright who lives in Lackawanna, said laboring in the coke ovens is a physically demanding, dangerous job that deserves high pay.

Ahmed said he has a wife and four children and couldn't continue working at the plant for pay that he estimates would fall to $11 an hour, without benefits, for him. He's been hired full-time by Ford Motor Co.

Ralph Salazar, a grievance committee member, said the union was willing to "meet in the middle" on pay cuts for the Bethlehem Steel workers to keep the plant going, but that Crane wouldn't negotiate.

Salazar said his pay would have dropped to $13 an hour from the $19 an hour that he currently makes. The basic wage offered at the plant would have fallen to $9 or $10 an hour, he said.

Salazar said that aside from wages, he was equally concerned about the safety protections the workers would have had under the new ownership. He said Bethlehem's contract contained safety language that was far more extensive and specific than Tonawanda Coke's.

Salazar said he talked to younger workers at the coke ovens about the prospect of losing their jobs rather than taking the concessions to keep the plant running. "They said, 'We don't want to work here unless we can make a decent wage and work safely,' " he said.

The plant is scheduled to halt production Friday afternoon, marking a further reduction in Bethlehem's presence in Lackawanna. The company at one time employed thousands of workers in the city. The coke ovens are the last remaining parts of the Bethlehem Steel operation on the lakeshore side of Route 5.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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