Steelworkers union could block sale of Granite City mill

Union president says the sale can’t go forward without the union’s consent

Illinois Correspondent

A PROPOSED SALE of the Granite City steel mill would eliminate at least 1,000 union jobs. But Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899, says the deal can’t go forward without the union’s consent. – Whitney Curtis/Wall Street Journal photo

The proposed sale of the Granite City steel mill could eliminate at least 1,000 jobs – but not without the union’s consent.

Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899, said that without the union’s approval, the deal to sell the two blast furnaces to SunCoke can’t go forward. That’s because there’s a clause in the union’s contract that gives them a seat at the negotiating table, and Simmons believes they can block the sale.

U.S. Steel, which owns the Granite City plant, announced last summer that it intends to sell two blast furnaces to SunCoke Energy Inc. SunCoke would then alter the furnaces to produce pig iron, a crude material for making steel. U.S. Steel would still supply raw materials and then would buy back 100 percent of the product, but SunCoke would handle the production facility – with one-third of the work force.

“We want U.S. Steel to make this investment, not a third party,” Simmons said. “It’s not a done deal and it’s a live issue.”

The negotiations were delayed a bit while the national union contract was negotiated in the fall. The contract was settled December 2022 and runs to September 2026, with 92 percent of U.S. Steel’s employees voting in favor. The contract includes a 21 percent raise over four years and maintains health care and pensions, which Simmons said was the best contract he’d ever been associated with bargaining.

But as to the sale, the negotiation sessions have been less progressive. Each meeting has ended with no resolution or solid explanation as to why U.S. Steel is bringing in SunCoke, Simmons said – though he has his own theories that by dividing the production chain with SunCoke, U.S. Steel can give the impression of lowering its carbon footprint, but the company has denied that they are “greenwashing” their operations.

U.S. Steel is in solid condition lately, with stock prices up 35 percent over the last three months, according to Forbes. But negotiations on the deal have not progressed.

“There’s no status, we are no further than we were,” Simmons said. “We kind of kicked that can down the road… Everybody wants to know definitive answers, and we don’t have that.”

Simmons said he has met with U.S. Steel and SunCoke, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other legislators, and will meet with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and new U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski in coming weeks.

Ultimately, the sale and restructuring of the plant will have to be approved by the steelworkers, Simmons said. “It’s not a done deal, it’s up in the air, and my goal is to try to get U.S. Steel to make this investment with the least impact to the employees and the community,” he said.

But workers are disheartened, and the rumor mill is running wild.

“Sometimes we make more rumors than we do steel,” Simmons said. “The morale is terrible and it’s causing people to leave here prematurely, looking for other work.”

U.S. Steel purchased the Granite City plant from National Steel following the latter’s bankruptcy in 2003. The mill has been in operation since 1878, making sheet iron and switching to steel in 1895.

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