Forecast for local manufacturing jobs still partly cloudy
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - On Monday, a Granite City steelworkers union president left for Washington to talk to Congress about jobs, while U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- who was home from Washington -- toured Scott Air Force Base and ended up talking about jobs.
Manufacturing jobs, to be precise.
While talk of the future for the St. Louis area inevitably turns to a discussion of the need to diversify the economy, on this rain-soaked morning the reality was the present -- and thousands of local manufacturing jobs endangered by the recession.
Dan Simmons, president of Local 1899 of the United Steelworkers, addressed a roomful of union members and the media at the Labor Temple in Granite City where questions still swirled about U.S. Steel's disclosure Friday that it would resume at least limited operations at the idled Granite City Works, where about 2,000 workers have been laid off.
U.S. Steel would not commit to how much of the plant would eventually resume operation, or how many workers will be called back, but union officials say about 100 maintenance workers have been called back for return-to-work physicals and safety orientation and should be on the job later this week to ready the iron-making and 80-inch finishing mill departments. Simmons said they would meet with company officials later in the week to hear plans for the startup of other departments.
Simmons called it a hopeful sign but warned that the crisis is far from over.
"We don't yet know when all of our members may be called back to work,'' he said in a prepared statement. "And, certainly the crisis in the steel industry and in American manufacturing is not over. Hopefully, the surge in orders that led to the announced startup will be sustained by a real economic recovery."
Later in the morning, McCaskill addressed the media after meeting with Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), and officials of the Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott. Both use Boeing's C-17 airlift planes, which support about 900 jobs at Boeing's Hazelwood plant, in addition to thousands of jobs among suppliers. The base provides transportation and logistics support to U.S. military missions around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposal to end the procurement of C-17s caused an uproar among St. Louis labor leaders and Boeing supporters. Congress has since included $2.2 billion in the supplemental appropriations bill to buy eight more C-17s.
McCaskill, who sits on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, commended Scott personnel for the work they do, particularly in transporting the wounded, but she also talked about the importance of providing proper equipment, such as Boeing's C-17s and F-18s. And she stressed the importance of maintaining the region's manufacturing industry, particularly during the economic downturn.
"And competition is very important,'' McCaskill said. "We're not going to get the best value for taxpayer dollars if we don't have competition for these weapon systems, for this aircraft, for all of the things we must buy in the military. That's why our job in Washington is not just making sure we get the right aircraft, but that we maintain competition.''
McCaskill said that competition keeps the price of defense equipment in line.
"We can't just have Lockheed. We can't just have Boeing. We need to have both,'' she said.
Simmons was invited to testify before the steel caucus by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, a caucus member. The hearing is expected to include testimony from steel industry leaders, union officials and analysts about ways to stabilize the industry, which has been operating at less than 40 percent of capacity.
Simmons said he would tell Congress about the devastating impact the layoffs have had on his members, their families and their communities.
"We will continue to fight for economic justice for steelworker members. We will support the trade case filed with the International Trade Commission against dumped steel pipe from China. We will work to enact the Buy American provisions of the Recovery and Stimulus Act,'' he said.
Simmons said company officials have attributed the plant startup to an uptick in steel orders that could keep operations going for several months.
Local steelworkers have held out hope that when U.S. Steel decided to restore idled operations, the Granite City Works would have an edge because of a partnership with SunCoke, which is readying a new low-emission coke-making facility that will also provide low-cost energy to the steel plant.
Among those listening Monday was Jeff Rains, a retired Granite City steelworker who first noticed steel pipe made in India being transported through Granite City for the Keystone Pipeline being built by TransCanada. The pipeline will deliver oil from Alberta, Canada to the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Wood River. Laid-off steelworkers garnered national attention for their protests of the foreign-made pipe and their calls to "Buy American."
Rains, who serves as a field coordinator for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said he is ecstatic about the mill restarting.
"Everyone's happy about that,'' he said. "I've seen so much euphoria in the city, but I want people to realize that the thing that caused this hasn't been remedied yet. We need to enforce our trade laws. That's a problem that we had to start with. We can't compete with nations that, one, provide health care for their industry -- and we don't do that. And, two, we can't compete with people who subsidize their manufacturing sector. If we don't remedy that, what happened in the past will reoccur.''
Rains said he hadn't heard reports that U.S. Steel is recalling 800 workers to its plant in Hamilton, Ontario, but he said that was also good news.
"Sure, I have national pride, and I have city pride. But I want workers all over the world to work. Make it where you sell it. If 700,000 Korean cars are sold here, 700,000 Korean cars should be made here. I mean they sell 700,000 cars over here, and we sell 5,000 cars over there. What's fair about that?"
A report by the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator speculated that the Hamilton recall was connected to resumption of operations at Granite City and noted that U.S. Steel was facing a deadline under Ontario's Employment Standards Act, which requires companies to set aside funds for permanent severance pay to workers who have been laid off for more than 35 weeks. Several hundred Hamilton workers would reach that point in mid-July, costing U.S. Steel about $15 million.
Dave Dowling, director of sub district 2 of the Steelworkers District 7, said that Canadian steelmakers don't enjoy the same type of government subsidization that raises calls of unfairness by U.S. workers -- except in the area of health care.
"I don't think there is a sense, for example, that Canada is involved in the dumping of steel in the U.S., whereas certainly that feeling exists right now regarding some Chinese imports,'' Dowling said. "Nor, is there a sense that Canadian steelmakers benefit from the same kind of government support and subsidization that exists in Russia, China, India -- with the exception, perhaps, of one thing, and it's not so much a source of anger so much as it is a form of envy. I'm talking about national health insurance.''