By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer
MANSFIELD, Ohio - Workers returning to the AK Steel mill after a bitter three-year lockout say they are horrified they have to work alongside people the company hired to replace them.
"To actually have to work with them will be the hardest thing I've had to do in my life," said Paul Mills, one of 16 workers recalled last week for training before he returns to the Mansfield Works.
Between the replacement workers and new security procedures established by the company to prevent violence, "It's a hostile environment they are sending us back into," Mills said.
"The only difference between this and being in prison is when you get done with this they let you go home."
Union workers are gradually returning to the mill to take back their jobs from replacement workers hired during the lockout.
AK Steel is recalling the union workers in small groups to ensure an orderly transition with no disruption in production, company spokesman Alan McCoy said.
Another group of 17 workers will begin three weeks of training on Jan. 27. Replacement workers are training the union workers.
Randy Reeder, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 169, said the process is not what they expected.
"First and foremost, it's way too slow. The other thing is we're not real happy about the idea we need to be trained by a scab on jobs we've done all these years," Reeder said.
Clearly, Reeder's view is not an isolated one.
Outside the union hall is a lighted sign naming a replacement worker as "Scab of the Week."
Reeder said he worries that replacement workers, who will soon be out of work, will try to disrupt the return of the union members.
He also questions how much retraining is necessary.
"I can't imagine the technology has changed that dramatically in the last three years," he said. "I think this is just an extension of the their punishment of our members."
McCoy said plenty has changed, including the owner.
"Virtually nothing is the same as it was in August of 1999 when they last worked there," McCoy said.
Bob Muth, 56, who started at the mill when he was 19, said he and other union members thought they would return all at once.
"It's going to be hard to work with them because they took our jobs," Muth said. "That's not their job, it's my job."
McCoy said AK Steel recognizes concerns about the replacement workers and union members working side by side. But he maintains there was nothing in the contract agreement that required the company to bring back the locked-out workers all at once.
"It is our hope and belief there aren't any issues," McCoy said. "We'll be watching that situation closely given the violent nature of the labor dispute."
Initially, the lockout was marred by violence, including a fight between picketing workers and security guards outside the plant. The company also released videotapes of workers yelling slurs at replacement workers.
Union officials have denied that their members were responsible for the violence.
AK Steel also won a $4.3 million judgment on Nov. 1 in U.S. District Court in Cleveland after a jury ruled the union acted to slow production through sabotage and refusing overtime.
The company does not know how many workers would ultimately be called back or how long it will take.
Of the 620 workers locked out, about 110 have retired and several others have died, union leaders said.
The workers were locked out Sept. 1, 1999, by the plant's former owner, Armco Inc., when their contract expired. AK Steel bought Armco and has continued to operate the plant with about 250 temporary replacement workers.