Granite City workers in the spotlight as they prepare to make steel again
After a two-year wait for jobs to come back, steelworkers threw an old-fashioned street party on Saturday, just blocks from U.S. Steel’s Granite City plant.
It was a “fire up” party to celebrate 500 people finally going back to work to start up a blast furnace that was idled in December 2015, said Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899.
“We will start being steel producers again,’’ Simmons told about 100 people gathered on the parking lot outside the union’s labor temple on State Street.
The party was also a thank-you to the community, he said.
“It’s not only a celebration for our employees and the members that we represent and their families, but it’s for this whole community that supported us this whole entire time. Two-and-a-half years is too frickin’ long. Right?”
As the muggy afternoon melted into evening, the steelworkers grilled hot dogs and dispensed cold beer, while a singer draped in red, white and blue belted out rock classics.
Ten years after the Great Recession, Granite City’s steelworkers find themselves in the midst of an international brouhaha over steel tariffs.
In March, U.S. Steel credited President Donald Trump’s decision to place a 25-percent tariff on imported steel for its decision to restart blast furnace "B," one of two, at Granite City. The company announced Tuesday that it will restart blast furnace "A" in October, adding 300 new jobs.
The United Steelworkers have pushed for tariffs. Union officials say China and other foreign producers have put American industries at a disadvantage because their steel production is subsidized by their governments.
But the union opposes Trump’s decision to include Canada in the tariffs.
“Our fight ain’t done,” warned Mike Millsap, a district official of the United Steelworkers, when it was his turn at the microphone.
“We’re gonna be calling on you,’’ he said. “We’re gonna continue to make this fight. We’re gonna make this fight until we win.’’
“We can make anything”
For the Granite City Works, it’s been a decade bookended by hard-hitting layoffs:
- In December 2008 — during the nation’s financial meltdown — U.S. Steel idled the century-old mill for the first time in its history, laying off about 2,000 workers. The plant reopened in mid-2009.
- In December 2015, U.S. Steel laid off 1,800 and halted all steel production. In the months that followed, the mill maintained what Simmons describes as a “heartbeat” — small operations that eventually grew to about 700 workers operating its pickle line, cold and finishing lines, as well as its hot strip mill. But the plant was not making its own steel.
The plant is a Metro-East landmark — a behemoth of heavy industry that sprawls across 1,500 acres and looks its age. Pipes and smokestacks wear a coat of grit and rust. Exterior walls sport U.S. Steel’s signature blue paint that is weathered in places and peeling.
But the steelworkers proudly talk about plant updates that can’t be seen from the road. Like the new caster that was installed just as the plant was being idled in 2015. And the huge capacity of Blast Furnace “B,” the one they were preparing to fire up.
The plant can produce 2.8 million net tons of raw steel a year. It serves customers in the construction, container, piping and tubing and automotive industries.
“We can make anything,’’ said Simmons, 58. “And it's like making a cake — whatever the customer orders, we can put this recipe together for the greatest steel they want.’’
Simmons began working at the mill at 18. Now, he’s the Local 1899 president. He works out of an office in the sturdy brick building they call the labor temple, where generations of steelworkers have met for more than a century.
Simmons knows that in manufacturing, production rises and falls with market conditions.
“I've seen the cycles up and down, up and down,’’ he said. “Most of the time they've corrected themselves.’’
But the old rules don’t apply anymore, he said. American steelworkers say tariffs offer a chance to compete against countries — especially China — that are able to produce steel with cheap labor costs.
“People talk about fear that this is going to start a trade war,’’ Simmons said. “I look at them and say, ‘We've been in a trade war for a long time, and we've been losing.' And it's been falling on deaf ears.’’
Steelworkers at Granite City can earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year, or more, depending on their skills and overtime, Simmons said. It’s a good middle-class income — and the region can’t afford to lose those kinds of jobs.
The layoffs in 2008 — even though they came during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression — were not as painful as the 2015 layoffs, he said.
“It just drug on and on and on, and I watched guys lose their homes, cars,’’ Simmons said.
The union set up a food pantry and helped laid-off workers find assistance. Some workers saw their marriages fall apart. Several took their own lives.
“I've had grown men sitting in that chair here crying, and I've got to close the doors and become a counselor for him because I don't have all the answers,’’ Simmons said. “To me, it’s personal. My job is to get these guys back to work.’’
“You do what you can to feed your family”
Douglas Byrum, 53, has been back at work since March. He said no one expected the layoff to last as long as it did.
“It was devastating, ‘’ said Byrum. “You do what you can to try to feed your family.’’
He started at the plant 19 years ago and is a member of United Steelworkers Local 50.
Byrum believes his age hindered his job search. He was eventually hired by a small manufacturing company that paid about $15 an hour, about half of what he makes at Granite City Steel.
“I had bought a truck like a year before we got laid off, not knowing it was coming,’’ he said. “I didn't want to lose it because I'd already paid for that amount of time. So, I even went out to mow grass and things like when I was a kid. And you don't expect to be doing that at 53.’’
In placing the tariffs on steel and aluminum, the Trump administration invoked Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allows federal action if it determines that imports are threatening U.S. security.
Byrum agrees with the rationale that American-made steel should be used to build U.S. military equipment. His son served with the Army in Afghanistan.
“If I could have built his Humvee from our steel, I would have,’’ he said.
There are winners and losers
James Amos, the city’s development director, estimates that he and the mayor have done more than 40 interviews since U.S. Steel announced it was restarting steelmaking in Granite City.
Media from abroad want to know about the steel mill that tariffs called back to work in America’s heartland.
Amos was sitting on a park bench at Wilson Park, some blocks away from the industrial side of Granite City. The 70-acre park was established in the early 1920s.
“We usually refer to Wilson Park as kind of a crown jewel,’’ he said. “It's an urban park, and it's a real joy.’’
The callback of steelworkers has boosted sales at local businesses, Amos said. He notes that the city's economy is more diverse than it once was. Food and beverage processing plants and distribution centers make their home here. And the city is a crossroads for both rail and river transportation.
But Granite City is still Steel City.
“We're not at all ashamed of the fact that we're an industrial town, and that's always been kind of at the heart of who we are,’’ Amos said.
The Granite City Works traces its roots to 1878, when brothers William and Frederick Niedringhaus built a steel factory in St. Louis for their granite kitchenware business. With no room to expand, they moved the plant across the river in 1892 and started their own company town — Granite City.
The mill benefited from tariffs in its early years, according to Jeff Manuel, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Frederick Niedringhaus represented Missouri’s 8th congressional district from 1889 to 1891 and ran for office on the tariff issue. He was a vocal backer of the 1890 McKinley Tariff that doubled the duty on foreign-made tinplate.
“He wanted higher tariffs on imported tin plate to protect his little industry,’’ Manuel said.
There are always winners and losers when it comes to tariffs, he notes. And historians will be watching to see whether the current tariff controversy turns out to be a blip — or whether it signals a deeper shift in American trade policy.
“The United States is still a very important steel producer, but we are not the global leader in that anymore — and that reflects big changes in the economy,’’ Manuel said.
In recent years, the administration of President George W. Bush also cited the Trade Expansion Act’s provisions when it placed tariffs on imported steel in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“These jobs matter’’
Ten years ago this month, Jason Fernandez was hired at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works and joined the United Steelworkers union.
In November, he’ll mark the 10th anniversary of being laid off.
Fernandez and several other new workers, who were too new to receive furlough benefits, were hired by the union to serve as peer counselors. They helped their colleagues with resumes, and finding re-training and emergency financial aid.
“That's what catapulted me to begin my activism,’’ said Fernandez, who was recently elected vice president of Local 1899.
At age 36, Fernandez is a decade or more younger than most of the other leaders of Local 1899. He is also the district coordinator for the union’s Next Generation program, which encourages younger members to become active in labor issues.
Fernandez said he’s learning all he can from veterans like Simmons.
“We're proud of our history here,’’ he said. “And that's part of our Next Generation mission statement. You’ve got to honor the past. You’ve got to respect what's going on in the present. And you have to prepare for what you're going to do in the future.”
Fernandez understands why many of his fellow union members, who tended to support Democrats in the past, have gravitated to Trump. But he will be watching to see how Trump responds to calls to reform Social Security and Medicare and the push toward enacting right-to-work laws, which guarantee that workers can’t be compelled to join or not join a union — or to pay union dues.
Fernandez grew up in Granite City. He’s married now, with two young children. As a union representative, he was able to keep working throughout the 2015 layoff, which he described as “overwhelming” for many union members.
He believes it’s important for people who don’t work in the steel industry to understand what it will take to keep U.S. plants running.
“There was a modest living made at Granite City that I’ve seen from family members and from neighbors and from friends' families that had very honest, decent livings, just from working at the mill,’’ he said. “These are good jobs. These jobs matter.’’
Because the layoff lasted so long, some longtime steelworkers retired or found other jobs and decided not to come back, Simmons said. So the plant has been hiring.
Among the new steelworkers is Myron Mitchell, 27, who’s been at the plant for a month. He grew up in Granite City and has worked industrial jobs since he was 19. But he always wanted to work at the steel mill because the wages were higher and the benefits better than most other manufacturing jobs.
“I grew up right next door. My backyard was the north side gate,'' Mitchell said. "Coming up as a kid, when my school bus passed by I would look over there and think, ‘Oh, I want to work there.’ ‘’
Some former Chrysler workers found refuge at the mill after the automaker closed its Fenton plants during the recession, said Lisa Gibson, 51, who worked at Chrysler for 14 years.
Gibson worked during much of the recent layoff at Granite City. She said it was heartbreaking to see the toll it took on those who weren’t as fortunate. In the back of her mind, she carries a sad memory of Chrysler tearing down its plants and ending an era.
“To get a good job like U.S. Steel, I was truly blessed,’’ she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever make Chrysler-type money again.’’
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @MaryDLeonard
Note: This story has been updated to include U.S. Steel's announcement on Tuesday that it will restart the plant's second blast furnace in October.