U.S. Steel idles Granite City blast furnace

Tries to blame Autoworkers’ strike for decision

Illinois Correspondent

U.S. STEEL announced last week that it would temporarily idle its last operating blast furnace at the Granite City Works plant, which employs 1,460 workers.

Granite City, IL – U.S. Steel announced last week that it would temporarily idle its last operating blast furnace at the Granite City Works plant here, blaming the United Auto Workers strike for the decision.

Many, including U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), have criticized that explanation, noting at the time of the announcement the auto workers had only been on strike for a few days.

Duckworth said she was deeply disappointed by the “awful decision” and expressed sympathy for the working families impacted by what she called a “heartless” choice.

“I am troubled by what seems like the company’s disingenuous reasoning for doing so,” Duckworth said. “American steel is literally the backbone of the American economy, and – working alongside Sen. (Dick) Durbin (D-Ill.), Rep. (Nikki) Budzinski (D-Ill.) and (Granite City) Mayor (Mike) Parkinson – I will do everything in my power to ensure U.S. Steel sticks to its word that this is a temporary idling, help these hardworking Illinoisans keep their jobs and reopen blast furnace B as quickly as possible so this community can get back to work.”

Blast furnace B is the only remaining blast furnace operating at the Granite City steel mill, which has been under pressure for more than a year after the company suggested selling off part of the mill. U.S. Steel announced plans to sell two blast furnaces to SunCoke Energy Inc. last year, saying SunCoke would alter the furnaces to produce pig iron, a crude material for making steel. U.S. Steel would still supply raw materials and then buy back 100 percent of the product, but SunCoke’s production would use only about one-third of the of  the plant’s 1,460-person workforce.

United Steelworkers Local 1899 resisted the sale, and under its contract the union had a say in whether or not the plant was sold.

Following U.S. Steel’s announcement, Local 1899 President Dan Simmons issued a statement about the decision to temporarily idle the primary operation of the steel mill. “The company is claiming this decision is due to a combination of order book softening throughout the corporation, specifically in the auto industry,” he said.

Simmons said union representatives would meet with the company to put together a layoff minimization plan per the contract.

Simmons told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about one-third of the union employees at the plant work in the areas that will be affected, where the plant converts ore and pellets into metal slabs.

The other two-thirds of employees work in areas that turn those slabs into the steel coils that are shipped out to customers on trucks and trains, Simmons said.

U.S. Steel said temporary layoffs will begin in phases as equipment is idled.

Even in the portion of the plant that is idled, a certain number of workers will be needed to maintain the equipment and machinery, Simmons said.

Simmons said he’ll attempt to find other assignments within the plant for the remaining workers, but he still expects some will be temporarily laid off.

“We’ll argue for more people, and they’ll argue for less,” he said.

U.S. Steel’s decision also met with immediate response from U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-Ill.), in whose district the plant resides, calling it an “outrage.”

“This effort to blame this announcement on the United Auto Workers strike is a shameful attempt to pit working people against one another,” Budzinski said. “We must hold them accountable. No company should be allowed to hand a pink slip to workers without notice and without recourse.”

Budzinski said she was in contact with U.S. Steel, United Steelworkers and Mayor Parkinson. “I believe in the working men and women of Granite City and the importance of their careers to the future of our local and national economy,” Budzinski said. “I will never stop fighting to protect their jobs and their livelihoods.”

Nick Raftopoulos, a candidate for state House District 111, which includes Granite City, called the decision “corporate greed at its worst” and encouraged residents to contact their elected officials in support of the steelworkers.

“The utter ignorance and disrespect to not only our brothers and sisters in USW but in UAW is astounding,” he posted. “With record profits for both U.S. Steel and the auto industry, their big solution is to cut employees and not raise wages.”

Mayor Parkinson told EdGlen Today that the decision clearly had a reason, but not the one stated by U.S. Steel.

“This is a way they can idle employees without notice,” he said. “It is deplorable, and I question the fact that they are doing it because of the auto industry strike. This is not a way to treat American workers.”

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