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Laid-off steelworkers don't mind hard work - just give them a chance to survive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 1, 2009 - Last hired in, first to be laid off.

That was the reality for a group of laid-off United Steelworkers who were furloughed during the first wave of steel industry cuts in Granite City last November. Their job now is to guide 2,000 of their colleagues to agencies and programs that can help them write resumes, sign up for training programs or find emergency financial help with their utility bills or groceries at local pantries.

In some ways, this job can be harder than working in the mill because laid-off steelworkers are a proud bunch who want only to get back to work without asking for help, the counselors say.

"Some guys are able to step past their pride, and some guys aren't,'' said Matt Krause, 32, who was laid off after just seven months at American Steel Foundries in Granite City. "The guys who are coming in and talking with us...hopefully the other guys will be able to do that.''

As the layoffs stretch toward summer, they've been getting more calls for help, said Scott Legault, 31, who worked at U.S. Steel's Granite City Works for three months.

"I tell them, check your pride and ego at the door. If you're here, it's because you're being a man or a woman. You're not swallowing your pride; you're showing it by coming here and saying, 'I need some help.' There is no shame in that,'' Legault said.

In most cases, the peer counselors -- who are paid by the AFL-CIO -- are assisting colleagues with many more years of experience. When they were laid off, most thought it was temporary. A month later, U.S. Steel idled the Granite City plant.

Now, as hopes fade that the plant will be up and running by summer, some workers are planning for the loss of their health insurance and, eventually, the supplemental pay they get in addition to unemployment benefits.

Krause worries about the reaction if the layoffs extend into fall.

"Once it starts getting through fall and the holidays, then it will start sinking in to them, 'I'm still laid off. I should have been back to work by now,' '' he said.

No seniority, no health care

Because they had been on the job for only three to seven months, the peer counselors were among a group of about 70 steelworkers who weren't entitled to health care or supplemental unemployment pay. They consider themselves fortunate to have been hired as counselors; they say they are paid about the same as if they were collecting state unemployment benefits.

Their layoffs were shocking, they say, because times were booming in the steel industry in 2008. All were hired as laborers, an entry-level union classification with a base pay of $17.39 an hour, plus incentives.

Legault, who grew up in Granite City, said he had worked for a plumbing company before learning that U.S. Steel was hiring.

"I always knew this place was here; I have three family members who work here now; two of the three are laid off,'' he said. "The reason I came here was fair pay for fair work. It's a harsh environment in a steel mill, but you do get paid well.''

Legault, who had studied biochemistry in college, said he has enrolled in the registered nursing program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

About one-third of the laid-off workers have college degrees, he said.

"You know how many people work at U.S. Steel who have college degrees?'' he asked. "They make more money.''

Kevin Brown, 43, of Belleville said the plant was working overtime when he started there last September.

"We could not produce enough steel to meet the demand of our clients at that time,'' he said. "The steel industry was at its all-time peak, and the rug was pulled out from underneath us. It's devastating. When things are going so good and then you're pulled into an office. We were told it's temporary. Obviously, it's grown into something larger than that now.''

Brown, a Marine veteran, said he has been down this road before. In 2006, he was laid off when Big River Zinc in Sauget closed its doors. He took advantage of a government retraining program to study heating and cooling and had hoped eventually to get into that type of work at the Granite City plant.

"And I'm back in the streets again,'' he said. "They said they'll retrain us; I'm going back to get my electrical certification this time. Maybe I can do something with that one.''

Brown said he wanted to be a peer counselor because he saw the devastating effects layoffs had on his former colleagues at the zinc plant.

"I've been through it before, and I wanted to be in the position where if I could possibly help someone who was going through a hard time, I could help them,'' he said.

First out, last back

Jason Fernandez, 26, said the peer counselors bring a level of understanding to laid-off workers because they appreciate what they are going through. Although he had worked for U.S. Steel only six months, he grew up in Granite City and has a number of family members who are also laid off.

Fernandez said that although steel plants are tough places to work, they allow hard-working people an opportunity to make a good living; everyone starts at the bottom -- and can work their way up.

"There are not enough jobs in the metro east to support all of these laid off workers,'' he said.

The men are proud that local steelworkers haven't taken their layoffs lying down but have held public demonstrations against U.S. trade polices that they say have cost the nation hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

"We haven't asked for a bailout or a handout -- just a level playing field,'' said Brown.

He hopes that the Granite City plant starts some level of operation soon -- even though he knows he will be among the last to be called back.

"As long as somebody goes back in the plant and gets it back up and running, there's hope for everybody,'' he said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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