The Colorado Fuel and Iron strike of 1997 was a labor dispute between Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) and the United Steel Workers of America (USWA). Oregon Steel Mills had purchased Colorado Fuel and Iron in 1993 and maintained the Pueblo mill’s unionized workforce. When the union contract expired in 1997, negotiations stalled over pension plans, leading to a walkout. The union capitulated after three months, but Oregon Steel refused to rehire the striking workers, leading to years of negotiations and lawsuits until a settlement was reached in 2004.
The 1997 strike was one of many in CF&I’s history, but it was the first in nearly forty years. The second half of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time for CF&I and the American steel industry as a whole. Starting in the 1960s, CF&I and other American steelmakers faced increased competition from foreign steelmakers that were able to produce a large amount of steel with low-cost labor. To combat cheaper foreign steel, CF&I invested in maintaining high-quality steel products in the hope that its steel quality would entice buyers. The company had to modernize its facilities continually in order to maintain a competitive edge. It also had to abide by increasingly strict environmental and safety regulations.
CF&I’s modernization efforts enhanced its production quality, environmental cleanliness, and reputation. Yet they also imposed a substantial financial burden. To stay in business, CF&I had to increase prices on its products. The company also started to expand and contract its workforce depending on demand, laying off and rehiring workers as needed based on union seniority.
CF&I’s workers were members of the USWA. The union protected workers but also imposed a financial burden on CF&I relative to its competitors in places such as China. Recognizing instability in the American steel industry, the USWA agreed to reduce wages and cut the cost of pension plans in the hope that CF&I could recover its financial footing. The union reasoned that if the cuts allowed CF&I to find a path to prosperity, then workers would ultimately benefit from the company’s renewed success.
Yet the company continued its downward spiral. CF&I started to sell off real estate and became a specialty mill, restricting its operations to Pueblo. The company’s fortunes took another blow in 1985, when tubular products, CF&I’s most profitable item, plummeted in demand. More employees were laid off, and the company pressured the union to forgo further benefits and wages. The USWA agreed. These efforts relieved some of the company’s financial stress but were not enough to keep it profitable. In 1990 CF&I filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Oregon Steel Mills bought the company three years later.
Oregon Steel and the 1997 Strike
Facing a steel industry still plagued by fierce competition, Oregon Steel was committed to cutting costs wherever it could, even at the expense of its workers. It had deunionized its own workforce in the 1980s, though it continued to offer competitive pay and benefits. When Oregon Steel purchased CF&I in 1993, the Pueblo workforce remained unionized and still enjoyed the benefits of the USWA, but Oregon Steel was not a supporter of the union. Unionized employees began to notice changes in the work environment, with forced overtime soon becoming a point of contention.
In 1997 the USWA entered negotiations for a new union contract for workers at the Pueblo CF&I mill. Soon Oregon Steel and the USWA reached an impasse over pension plans, forced overtime, and wages. Perhaps most galling to the union was Oregon Steel’s claim that it was not responsible for any of CF&I’s pension liabilities. In response to the stalemate, employees began walking off the job and picketing outside the mill. This was the first CF&I strike since 1959.
The USWA formally called the strike on October 3, 1997. Oregon Steel responded by hiring new workers to replace those out on strike. Tensions between the strikers and Oregon Steel increased, and verbal altercations between strikers and replacement workers were frequent. Oregon Steel alleged that strikers were causing property damage and harassing nonunionized workers, leading District Judge David Cole to issue a restraining order prohibiting such behavior.
After thirteen weeks, the union voted to end the strike unconditionally and return to work without a union contract. However, Oregon Steel refused to reinstate the workers who had gone on strike, forcing many former employees to find new jobs. In response, the USWA filed charges of unfair labor practices and environmental lawsuits against the company. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered the company to reinstate the strikers because it was illegal to hire replacement workers as permanent employees in the event of a strike. Eventually, Oregon Steel slowly began offering strikers their jobs back without a union contract, but some former employees had already moved on to other professions. Others chose to hold out in the hope that an agreement between the company and the union would be reached.
In the meantime, the USWA existed in a state of suspended animation at the Pueblo mill. The workers did not have a union contract, but at the same time, the USWA could not be decertified until the NLRB’s unfair labor practice case was settled. Many steelworkers attempted to sustain and rebuild the union by continuing to pay union dues. Even though there was no contract between Oregon Steel and the USWA, the union still advocated for worker safety and pursued worker grievances.
The USWA continued negotiations with Oregon Steel for the next several years, eventually reaching an agreement in 2004. The new five-year contract allowed for the reinstatement of strikers who wished to return to their old jobs, a new early retirement incentive package, and back pay. In return, the USWA dropped all lawsuits against Oregon Steel.
The CF&I mill in Pueblo is still in operation today but is owned by a different company. In 1998 Oregon Steel changed CF&I’s name to Rocky Mountain Steel Mills, and in 2006 it sold the company to Evraz Corporation. The mill remains a significant employer in the Pueblo area but does not operate at the same capacity it once did nor does it have the same economic impact on the city.