BURNS HARBOR, Ind. – The largest steel producing area in the United States is located around the northwest corner of Indiana. Steel has dominated this area for over 100 years. Area newspapers tell a story about steel almost daily. The stories have the tone of relatives whispering at the deathbed of a loved one. They speak of the great past and anticipate the empty future.
The sense of doom is the same on the shop floor in almost every plant, the stories say, and it is true. Workers are unsure of the future despite the apparent need all around them. Bridges, roads and buildings, especially tall ones, depend on steel.
United Steelworkers of Amerca (USWA) President Leo Gerard, in calling for the passage of the Steel Revitalization Act (HR-808), which will limit imports and pay for retirees’ health care, pointed out that the steel for the repair of the USS Cole and any replacement buildings at the WTC will not come from the U.S. if something isn’t done.
On Oct. 5 the International Trade Commission held a hearing in Northwest Indiana to hear testimony about the impact of imported steel. This was the first time a hearing by this commission was held outside of Washington.
On Oct. 22 they unanimously agreed to send a report to President Bush saying that most of the imports were harming the industry. However, most observers are saying that since Bush is trying to put together support for his military actions in Afghanistan he will not take action against these countries in February when he is supposed to act.
Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy on Oct. 15, becoming the 25th steel company to do so in the current crisis. Shortly afterwards U.S. Steel announced the layoff of hundreds of workers and the idling of facilities.
A few miles north of U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, on the Illinois/Indiana border, ACME Steel closed its doors and laid off 1,000 workers. That plant had the most modern thin-slab caster in the country, built a few years ago for $400 million.
ACME’s closure adds to the nearly 12 million tons of annual steel production that has been eliminated with the recent liquidation of other companies. Less than a month before, a new CEO came to Bethlehem to help turn the company around. This was after AKSteel hired a hatchet man called ‘The Smiling Barracuda’ with a nasty anti-union reputation.
Bethlehem has over 13,000 active employees and 74,000 retirees; with their families, there are over 130,000 people who are dependant on the health-care coverage that Bethlehem would like to drop.
The USWA and Bethlehem are renegotiating the contract this week. The union is expected to push for a pattern like what LTV workers overwhelmingly approved a few months ago.
All of the measures being taken either to limit imports or strip union contracts are all temporary attempts to get through the worst today and hope for a better day tomorrow. However, the problems with the steel industry are structural and can’t be solved by a privately-owned industry whose only concern is profit.
That is why U.S. Steel took domestic steel profits and bought a huge steel mill in Slovakia. Now, according to the Czech press, they are looking to buy two or three more Czech steel companies.
Congress needs to enact a massive jobs and infrastructure building and repair bill soon. The Kucinich-LaTourette Bill (HR-1564) is a start, but the economic times demand more. Nationalizing the steel industry is the only action that will save the jobs of those working now and provide good jobs for the future.
It is enlightening how the president and Congress can come up with hundreds of billions of dollars when they want to, but for working people they only come up with excuses.