Local congressmen looking to help struggling steel industry

The temporary closure and mass layoffs coming to U.S. Steel’s Granite City mill are the latest example of a struggling domestic steel industry that federal lawmakers are now vowing to help.

On Wednesday, Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp. announced that the Granite City steel mill will be idled sometime by or after May 28 and the plant’s 2,080 employees will be laid off. Some may be hired back, but it’s not clear how many, or when.

This announcement came as members of the Congressional Steel Caucus were preparing to meet Thursday in Washington, D.C., to discuss the state of the nation’s steel industry. During the State of American Steel hearing on Thursday, federal lawmakers recognized the ongoing flood of cheap imported steel has driven down business at U.S. steel companies.

United Steelworkers of America Public Affairs Director Gary Hubbard said Congress has not done enough to address this issue. Hubbard said cheaper steel that is imported from China come from plants owned and operated by the Chinese government, whereas American steel mills are private enterprises that struggle to compete against the Chinese companies.

Hubbard also said that these Chinese steel companies have dumped in excess of 600 million tons of steel in the United States since 2001 and has driven down demand for steel manufactured in Granite City and other U.S. steel plants across the country.

“The Granite City steel mill is one the most productive steel mills in terms of man hours per ton, but they can’t make a buck because of imports,” Hubbard said.

In northern Madison County, Alton Steel Inc. has also recently witnessed a decline in business that led to temporary layoffs. Local union leaders also believe these layoffs were a result of cheap imports flooding the domestic market.

United Steelworkers of American Local 3643 President Terry Wooden said the Alton steel mill was forced to lay off about 75 percent of its steelworkers for about five weeks beginning last Thanksgiving and extending through the holidays. Wooden said the plant staffs as many as 250 hourly workers, depending on the time of year.

All of these workers have been back on the job since then, but Wooden is more concerned after learning about U.S. Steel’s plans to lay off its steelworkers in neighboring Granite City.

“I think it is catastrophic news,” Wooden said. “It’s affecting the whole steel industry. From what I’m hearing, it’s not just this area. It’s basically all over the country.”

A steel foundry in Granite City is closely watching how the U.S. Steel plant’s closure will affect the region’s economy. Robert Lott, a chief committeeman and past president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1063 said the U.S. Steel layoffs do not have any direct bearing on the 970 union members employed at Amstead Rail Co.a subsidiary of ASF-Keystone, which produces its own steel from scrap and manufacturers steel parts for railroad cars. Lott said the impact the Granite City steel mill’s closure and layoffs will have on the local economy is his major concern.

“What we are concerned about right now is the local economy,” Lott said. “We have our fingers crossed and we hope those guys get back to work.”

A number of state and federal lawmakers with constituents in the metro-east publicly voiced their concerns Thursday and issued statements vowing to act in support of the struggling steel industry. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, is a member of the Congressional Steel Caucus who said he was disappointed with U.S. Steel’s decision.

“My office has been in contact with representatives from U.S. Steel about this issue and we will work with state and federal officials to ensure those being displaced have all the tools at their disposal to find new employment or seek other opportunities,” Davis said.

“As a member of the Congressional Steel Caucus, I will continue to work with the steel industry on ways to protect and grow jobs here in Illinois.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said he was saddened by the announcement because the Granite City steel mill has been critical to the metro-east economy.

“We must do all we can to ensure the closure is, indeed, temporary,” Bost said. “As soon as I get home this week I will be meeting personally with local elected officials and offering any help I can provide to our steelworkers at this difficult time.”

In Springfield, state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, has filed a Senate resolution urging Congress and President Obama to review the nation’s tariff policy on steel and seek trade and economic policies to protect the country’s steel industry. Haine called the announced layoffs and the Granite City steel mill’s temporary closure “catastrophic.”

“The closure of this plant would be a tragedy to the families of all these employees, as well as Granite City and the metro-east,” Haine said. “I have reached out to Sen. (Dick) Durbin and (Illinois) Gov. Bruce Rauner, and I intend on voicing my concerns to the president in an effort resolve this issue. U.S. Steel needs to stay open.”

Hubbard agrees that the solution is drafting new federal regulations to protect the domestic steel industry from the ongoing flood of cheap imports.

“We’ve got to rewrite the trade laws,” Hubbard said. “We can’t just keep enforcing the laws we have. We have to change the trade laws.”

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat