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Steelworkers back on job but keep a wary eye

U.S. Steel in Granite City
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | File photo

Dan Simmons, president of Local 1899 of the United Steelworkers, said he never forgets his own mantra -- to buy American-made products -- even when it turns out to be a real challenge.

Simmons said that he and a fellow union official spent hours scouring the warehouse of a St. Louis candy wholesaler recently searching for union-made -- or even American-made -- candy to toss to kids at Monday's annual Labor Day parade in Granite City.

"We had to really work at it," Simmons said. "We spent way longer than we should have to make sure it was American-made."

He said that it was an eye-opening experience to read the labels because so many candy favorites are made outside the United States. But "buying American" matters.

"You don't have to look too far to see somebody who's been impacted by the downsizing and outsourcing," he said. "We need to be really cognizant of that fact.''

Most of the workers who were laid off last year at U.S. Steel's Granite City Works are back on the job.

Simmons said the outlook for his union is much improved over last year's holiday when many of his members were waiting to be called back to U.S. Steel's Granite City Works. The plant was still ramping back up after being idled for the first time in its history. Local 1899 represents the majority of steelworkers at the plant.

The layoffs of about 2,000 Granite City steelworkers made national headlines in the early months of 2009. Local labor unions responded with "Buy American" rallies and protested the use of steel pipes made in India for the Keystone Pipeline that will deliver oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Wood River.

"In 2009 we were still in bad shape, so it was dismal," Simmons said. "This year I would hope that we have a lot of people in the streets who are happy that we are here and fully operating and that everything seems to be on fairly solid ground."

He said that only a handful of his members are still awaiting callbacks for specific jobs, and the plant has hired about 150 new workers since February.

Even so, Simmons said he spends a lot of time dispelling rumors about layoffs or that the plant is going to be idled again because his members remain apprehensive -- and understandably so.

"After going through what we experienced a year and a half ago -- that was the first time in history that had ever happened -- people are like Chicken Little," he said.

Simmons believes some of the rumors were triggered when U.S. Steel considered moving up the date of a scheduled shut-down of a blast furnace for regular maintenance, as it redistributed steel orders among its plants. The company later decided against the move-up and shifted orders to Granite City, Simmons said.

"We spend the majority of our time sending out information to dispel rumors, not only on our website, but in our updates out to the plant," Simmons said. "Anything you may have heard as far as coke ovens being shut down is not true."

Simmons said the plant's steel orders remain steady, though they have not returned to the levels that preceded the months just before the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008.

"Are we in a rebound? Are we going to get into slower periods? Nobody has a good crystal ball and can say that, but we are clearly better today than we were two or three months ago," he said. "We are going into the fall and winter, which can normally get into a slower period because of our product mix, but we are redistributing orders around the corporation so well that I think that Granite's going to be just fine."

Simmons said he hopes his members will show up at the parade in solidarity for employees at other local plants who remain out of work.

"People should be thankful that they are working and have a job," he said. "And be supportive of the ones who don't."

Read part one: How are things in Granite City? Hopeful and holding their own

Next: Some city worries outweigh the economy. 

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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.