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Laid-off steelworkers are 'ecstatic' as callbacks continue in Granite City

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - The good news continues in Granite City, where about 600 laid-off steelworkers will be back at work by Tuesday as the re-opened U.S. Steel plant continues to ramp up to make steel again.

The mood of the workers is "ecstatic,'' said Dan Simmons, president of Local 1899 of the United Steelworkers that represents the majority of the workers.

U.S. Steel surprised the presidents of union locals last week with its unexpected decision to restart the idled plant, where 1,600 workers were laid off in December, followed by another 400 in February.

Simmons says the company has still not committed to how much of the workforce will eventually return, but that the callbacks will continue in phases. This first phase includes maintenance workers and a limited number of production workers who are readying the plant for production. He estimated that another 200 to 300 production workers would return soon, as steel-making resumes.

Simmons said the workers are taking physicals and training classes -- a process that will continue over the weekend.

"They're trying to process up to 500 workers this week, and then within a couple more weeks there will be another group of the production people in the hot-strip department. That includes our slag yard, slab-handling areas, railroad transportation, all supporting units to supply our hot strips,'' he said.

Simmons said that although it will take about 45 days to ready the plant's blast furnaces, production will be expedited by U.S. Steel's decision to ship in steel slabs from plants in Gary, Ind., and Fairfield, Ala.

About 200 members of Local 1899 attended a union meeting Thursday night.

"The whole room was ecstatic,'' he said. "It was just a great atmosphere as we announced 'welcome back' and everybody applauded. They're all just happy to be back.''

The callback relieves a major burden for workers with less than 10 years' experience who were just days from losing their health insurance as their lay-offs approached six months, Simmons said.

"It's safe to say that anybody in maintenance who had less then 10 years and was facing losing their insurance, they're back in by the skin of their teeth,'' he said. "They have no fear of losing their health care now, and they're going to be re-set with benefits. Even if they turned right around and got laid off again they would have another full six months of benefits.''

But Simmons added that a number of workers who have not yet been called back still face the loss of benefits.

"We're still not out of the hot water,'' he said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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