American Steel Industry Braced for Meltdown

Sunday, 07 December 2003 23:36 by: Anonymous

     Steeled for Meltdown
     By Jacqui Goddard
     The Scotsman

     Sunday 07 December 2003

It s like the rich uncle who died. We can t knock on his door again

     As A boy, Mark Glyptis would sit at the supper table of an evening listening to his father and grandfather swapping tales of life inside the steel mill, whose chimney stacks belch steam across the depressed town of Weirton in West Virginia.

     He later followed in their footsteps, as most young men here did, clocking on each day as part of the 14,000-strong workforce at Weirton Steel Corp, a member of what was then one of America s proudest and strongest industries.

     Now, as President of the Independent Steelworkers Union, Glyptis - who has worked in the mill for 30 years - sits glumly in his office as the local television station cuts live to the White House for the announcement he has been dreading.

     "I feel betrayed," he says when it is over. "We have just witnessed one of the darkest moments in the history of our nation s steel industry."

     President George W Bush s declaration that he will abolish import duties on foreign steel 15 months earlier than promised will turn up the heat on a domestic industry already in meltdown.

     In 1998, a record 41 million tons of foreign steel flooded in as producers in Asia, beset by economic crisis, unloaded their wares here. The effect was to drive down steel prices. More than 50,000 jobs were lost as 40 American steel companies sank into bankruptcy.

     Import duties were introduced for three years to slow the pace of imports and allow American steel breathing space to reconsolidate. The sense of dismay at their premature repeal - which came after the EU and others threatened more than $2.2bn worth of tariffs against US exports - is tangible on the streets of Weirton, a town of 20,000 people that boasts of having been "forged by steel".

     Part of America s Rust Belt, a tag earned before steelmaking became more environmentally-friendly, iron ore dust from the furnaces would pour from the mill s chimneys, coating the streets reddish-orange and choking the lungs.

     The plant is an ugly tangle of grey concrete, giant tanks, pipelines and rusting girders, and the town around it a drab and uninspiring scene whose environs provided some of the backdrop for the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, starring Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken.

     "At this time of year it s cold, the leaves are off the trees and the area might look bare and tough," said ISU spokesman Dave Gossett, a millwright at WSC. "But there s a lot of pride in the industry, the jobs and the community."

     Such was the scale of that pride that in 1984, when US Steel threatened to close the mill after the effects of global competition first began to bite, the workers bought it out. In floated on the stockmarket in 1989 and remains America s eighth largest steel producer.

     Since then, workers have agreed pay cuts, job losses and concessions over healthcare benefits and pensions to keep WSC afloat. Just 3,400 of the workforce remain. Eighty-five workers were laid off on Friday and there are around 950 more redundancies are in the offing.

     "Everybody s lives have had to change," said steelworker Mark Roach. "Now they re about to change even more. Eighteen months ago, Bush promised us three years of relief to give us time to shape up and get back in the game and he s pulled that from under us."

     A third-generation steelworker with 34 years service, he is realistic about the industry s plunging fortunes, with or without the tariffs, but believes 15 months further protection would have been vital to their attempts to shape up for the future.

     "I m proud that my father and my grandfather worked here and I was able to maintain a good life through working here," he said. "But it s sad that I won t be able to pass that legacy on to my kids. They will have to leave this area to find work."

     Steel used to be the biggest employer around here. Between WSC and the Wheeling-Pittsburgh company, which owns six steelmaking facilities in the area, there used to be 25,000 jobs. Now, only around a quarter remain.

     The biggest employers in West Virginia these days are the local university and Wal-Mart, the budget retail chain. Many of its shelf-stackers and till-operators used to work the steel mills.

     Like so many who have given up so much to keep Weirton buoyant, Steven Kyle knows the meaning of sacrifice. His father Lester, who worked in the mill for 36 years from the age of 16, died of cancer in 1981 at the age of just 53. His mother, Ada Rose, also lost her life to cancer at the same age, and Steven s two-year-old sister Michelle was killed by the disease in 1969.

     No one can say for sure that it was down to industrial pollution, but the Ohio Valley steelmaking area encompassing Weirton has one of the worst cancer rates in the country.

     Now Kyle, 48, has lost his entitlement to free healthcare and his entitlement to early retirement. Son Justin, 23, who operates cranes in the mill, also expects to lose his job in the forthcoming redundancies.

     Kyle sees Weirton as a shadow of its former self. When he graduated from high school in the 1970s, 400 others graduated with him. This year, there were just 160. "People don t like leaving this area because it s home," he says. "But they re having to if they want a future."

     Barber Paul Altomare, 57, who retired from steelworking in 1997 after 32 years, recalls that life was different when his father ran the shop during the mill s heyday.

     "We d see people walking past constantly, carrying shopping, visiting the bakery, the grocery stores... it used to bustle. Now we barely see anyone and the shops are boarded up and stuck with for sale signs," he says.

     "There s anxiety in that mill now. There s bitterness and tension and grumbling. Steel was dying a slow death before the tariffs, but they gave us the oxygen to get through. Now, no one knows what will happen."

     Mayor Bill Miller, like every previous mayor in this town a former steelworker, is philosophical about Weirton s future, recognising it can no longer count on steel as its economic backbone.

     "I think we can be great again," he says optimistically, citing the town s potential as a "bedroom community" for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 25 miles away, and enthusing over new projects such as the construction of a new state office building, a new bank, motel and restaurant that will bring more jobs.

     But he admits it will be a struggle. WSC used to support the town far more than it can afford now, maintaining the infrastructure, paying for police and firemen, accounting for nearly 50% of the city budget.

     "It s like the rich uncle who died," says city manager Gary DuFour. "We can t knock on his door again and ask for help. Weirton Steel swept the streets of this city, they hung the Christmas lights. Now changing reality says that s not possible."

     Deer Hunter Territory
     The town of Clairton, where the film The Deer Hunter was largely filmed, is also bracing itself for the effects of George Bush s decision.

     There, at the Clairton Coke Works, workers were this weekend writing to the president, along with their families and ex-colleagues, to protest. Worker Calvin Croftcheck said: "It was all for naught. It was all very disheartening."

     Andy Miklos, a heavy equipment operator, said: "Our men basically being kicked right in the face now for all the hard work they ve done, and I think it s a disgrace."

     The Deer Hunter, made in 1978, tells the story of a group of young steelworkers and the effect on their lives of experiencing the Vietnam War, It starred Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep and won five Oscars.


Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 09 December 2003

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:46