Lining up kitchen pots on the courtroom floor, lawyer Gerry Spence opened court action Monday in the multimillion-dollar USX workers' rights lawsuit.
Spence, a celebrated attorney from Jackson, Wyo., startled the courtroom with his display of visual aids from the kitchen. He argued before U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins (who is hearing the case without a jury), two sets of lawyers and about 150 onlookers.The audience included many steelworkers, present and retired; management and clerical workers and their spouses. So many crowded into the courtroom for the long-awaited trial that they filled the benches and extra chairs, with some standing along the rear wall.
The issue before the court, Spence said, was whether there was a legitimate business purpose for shutting down Geneva Steel in Utah County prior to 1989. If a motivating factor was to avoid paying benefits and to keep benefits from accruing, "it was an illegal act," he said.
"Sometimes it was so blatant in this case you wondered if they even cared if they got caught," since the worst that could happen to them is that the courts would make them pay what they owed anyway, Spence said.
Attempting to show that USX violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Spence said that in 1986 the company made careful calculations to discover how much in benefits it would have to pay individual employees if it closed the plant at the end of 1989.
Although workers were promised the closure would be at that time, USX had already studied the tax write-off savings if it were closed in 1986 - and that's when it closed. Workers who assumed they would have four years to find another job or earn the seniority for full retirement, were left in the cold.
Spence charged that company officials had a list of individual employees showing their length of employment and prepared a document comparing what it would cost to continue to operate Geneva vs. what the pension costs would be.
And when the company offered its employees early retirement, Spence said, it told the employees that if they didn't take the early retirement, they wouldn't be eligible for post-retirement medical benefits. That, Spence said, was a violation of USX's fiduciary duty as well as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
"Benefits and benefits alone - that's all they were interested in," he said.
The suit, filed by Tony Pickering and other workers, seeks millions of dollars in lost benefits. It claims the federal act was violated when the plant was closed and then sold to Basic Manufacturing and Technology.
The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
During Spence's opening comments, which took up all of Monday's court time for the case, he outlined the value of different types of pensions, which are based on numbers of years at the plant. A worker is vested with full retirement rights after 20 years. Discounting the attendant side benefits, a pension is worth from $1,500 at 10 years employment, to $80,000. A major jump comes between the pensions called a 40-15 and the type called R65.
Spence said 369 employees would have made that jump, if the plant had stayed open as employees were told. Another 299 would have made it to normal retirement, he said.
Pensions become more valuable as workers move along the stream of employment. Pensions, he said, are like boats of different sizes. To illustrate that idea, he produced stainless steel pots of various sizes and a big plastic tub.
Spence lined them on the court's floor, smallest to largest, and stood gesturing before the counsel table, where the attorney's trademark cowboy hat rested upside-down.
"Three hundred and sixty-nine of these little fellas by 1989 are going to turn from little fellas into the big boat," he said, holding up a large bowl.