The steel mill in Granite City dominates the city’s skyline and steel has been produced at the plant since 1895.
But steelworkers fear for the community’s future with the possible loss of nearly 1,000 jobs at the mill as part of a plan announced by United States Steel Corp. to stop making steel at the plant and sell two blast furnaces to SunCoke Energy Inc., a raw materials handling company.
“This mill is this city. You don’t think of Granite City without thinking of steel,” said Nick Kessler, a fifth-generation worker at the plant.
“It makes people scared to want to spend money now because you terrorize them,” Kessler said of the workers who potentially will lose their jobs. “People that worked through the pandemic, you know, were so essential, … why are you throwing us out now?”
Kessler is upset that the union jobs in Granite City would be cut and that U.S. Steel would hire people for non-union jobs in Arkansas. He’s particularly concerned about employees who are close to retiring but may lose their jobs before they can retire.
Kessler, 33, was hoping his 3-year-old son could become the sixth generation of his family to work at the steel mill but if U.S. Steel’s plan is finalized, that won’t happen.
“All the businesses in the area, a lot of them rely on this mill, especially restaurants,” said Kessler, who is an electrician at the plant and a grievance representative with the United Steelworkers Local 1899 union. “It’s not uncommon to order something for lunch, get a group together. It’s a tradition on Thursdays and Fridays in a lot of areas.”
Kessler’s concerns were echoed by other union members.
“You’ve got families in this area, this community and surrounding communities that’s going to take a big hit because these are good jobs, these are good paying jobs and these help provide a life for generations,” said Eddie Lance, a safety representative for Local 1899. “For that to come to halt is just going to cripple this community and surrounding communities as well.”
Lance, 33, is the fourth generation of his family to work at the steel mill. He said it was “mind-blowing and numbing” to hear what U.S. Steel wants to do.
The union members noted that the plant employees have endured hardships before, including mass layoffs and the idling of the plant between 2015 and 2018, and previously have agreed to salary concessions.
“It’s going to be bad, there’s no other way around it,” said Michael DeBruce, owner of the Park Grill restaurant at 2800 E. 23rd St. near the steel mill.
DeBruce said there are workers at the plant who do not live in the city but they still spend money to support businesses such as his.
“So when they do come to work, they’re going to go eat, they’re going to buy gas, they’re going to spend their money here. So I mean the long-term effect of all of that is something that, you know, is not good.”
Proposal to sell furnaces
Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel this week announced a proposal to sell the furnaces to SunCoke, which would repurpose the furnaces to create a “2 million ton granulated pig iron production facility.”
The term “pig iron” comes from a time when the molds for the ingots were laying in sand beds and they looked like a “litter of sucking pigs,” according to the International Iron Metallics Association.
U.S. Steel said if the deal with SunCoke is approved, the permitting and construction process would take two years.
U.S. Steel said it would provide the iron ore to be used to produce the pig iron and that the company would “realize a significant cost advantage” because the iron ore would come from the company’s own mines.
In turn, SunCoke would supply U.S. Steel access to 100% of the pig iron production for the next 10 years, according to a statement by U.S. Steel.
Local 1899 President Dan Simmons released a statement after hearing about U.S. Steel’s plan. He called the move a “betrayal” of the plant’s workers and the community.
The union’s international president, Thomas M. Conway, released a statement criticizing U.S. Steel because the company’s statement “callously failed to mention a word about the massive job loss or impact the decision will have on a skilled and loyal workforce, their families or their community.”
Simmons urged U.S. Steel to invest in the Granite City mill instead of selling assets to SunCoke.
Craig McKey, the vice president of the union, said in an interview with the News-Democrat that the union wants U.S. Steel to “reinvest some of those profits into Granite City Works because it’s a viable part of the company now.”
McKey said the plant has been “very productive and profitable” for U.S. Steel and that the company should abandon plans to sell the furnaces to SunCoke and instead should make the pig iron.
“We feel that they are essentially turning their backs on the folks who helped them get to where they are today,” McKey said.
He also said that for each job lost at the mill, the union believes seven others who work in the area would be affected, including vendors who supply goods for the plant.
Kessler noted U.S. Steel announced on June 16 it expects $1.6 billion in earnings for the quarter before interest, taxes and other costs and that this would be “a new all-time best second quarter performance” for the company.
Area leaders issue statements about steel mill
State Reps. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, and Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea:
“We are incredibly concerned by U.S. Steel’s current proposal to change operations at Granite City Works, and are doing everything we can in partnership with local, state and federal leaders to maintain the plant’s existing operations and workforce. This region, and the committed, skilled and experienced workforce of Granite City Works, are advantageous assets for U.S. Steel that deserve to be invested in.
“Despite significant adversity in recent years, the dedicated employees of Granite City Works have always been ready to step up and deliver. We strongly encourage U.S. Steel to pursue a more positive direction, and choose to invest in Granite City and the working families who call our community home.”
State Rep. Amy Elik, R-Fosterburg:
“The news that Granite City Steel is making plans to leave Madison County and take nearly 1,000 jobs away is devastating. These are good-paying union jobs. We can’t keep losing manufacturing jobs, our state needs to do everything it can to create more jobs in the Metro East. I am fully committed to growing our manufacturing base right here in the Metro East and will continue to support policies that do just that.”
Rosemarie Brown, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Southwestern Madison County:
“Steel manufacturing has been a vital part of this area and has benefited our entire region since 1895. However, we are not blind to the fact that change is inevitable. This Chamber will continue to look at the future with cautious optimism, as we continue to work tirelessly for our business community and our dedicated workforce.”
Nikki Budzinski, the Democratic nominee for the 13th Congressional district which includes Granite City, called U.S. Steel’s plan “misguided and disappointing.”
“My grandfather was a union painter and my grandmother a public school teacher — I come from a union family and spent a decade working in the labor movement for firefighters, meatpackers, and grocery store workers. We must prioritize American steel and bring manufacturing back to Illinois, and I’ll never stop fighting for working families.”