GRANITE CITY — Union officials and regional leaders vowed on Wednesday to fight deep cuts at a centuries-old steel mill here, in the crosshairs of a company changing gears.
The plant’s owner, Pittsburgh-based US Steel Corp., said this week it is working on plans to sell key parts of the Granite City Works to Chicago-based SunCoke Energy and cease steelmaking by the end of 2024. Almost 1,000 jobs would be lost.
US Steel said it will continue to complete steel at the plant, and SunCoke plans to convert the plant’s blast furnaces into a 2-million-ton “pig iron” operation that will produce the building blocks for steelmaking at the company’s other facilities . But that will only support about a third of the current workforce.
Dan Simmons, president of the United Steelworkers chapter, called the decision a treason.
“Today, Granite City Works is a viable and profitable steel operation,” Simmons said in a statement. “However, in the pursuit of financial greed, USS plans to turn its back on both the skilled, hard-working steelworkers who have made this company successful and the community that has sustained it.”
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Officials pledged to fight against the loss of jobs. “Granite City is a city of fighters, and we’re lining up our ducks to fight this,” said Mayor Mike Parkinson.
But for the company, it fits with a strategy of building “better, not bigger.” US Steel, one of the country’s largest steel companies, brought news to investors that it is repurposing an older coal-fired power plant to power its growing fleet of newer, more efficient electric-powered operations. It’s a step that competitors have already taken. “It’s safer, it’s cleaner, and it’s cheaper,” said Gordon Johnson, steel industry analyst, founder of GLJ Research in New York.
A steel mill in Granite City has been around longer than Granite City.
St. Louis industrialists looking to make steel on cheap land across the river opened what would become Granite City Works in 1895, a year before the city was incorporated. It supplied rolled sheet metal to a sister stamping plant.
By the end of the next decade it employed more than 1,000 people and had taken its place as the cornerstone of a city connected to 10 railway lines and calling itself “The City of Great Industries”.
But when foreign competition and a slump in demand crashed the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, Granite City followed suit. The plant’s workforce declined from a peak of 5,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,800 by the end of 1982.
US Steel bought the operation from a bankrupt National Steel in 2003 and closed the plant five years later, rocking the city. Cafes saw their lunch orders dry up. Trucks that once came in and out of the mill disappeared. Thousands of workers flooded the unemployment line. They came back the next year, but in 2015 it happened again.
When former President Donald Trump announced new taxes on imports and reopened US Steel in 2018, there was hope the good times were back. Trump himself came to Granite City and delivered that very message.
“We’re watching this closely, and it’s going up, Dave, just up,” Trump told US Steel CEO David Burritt, who joined the stage during his speech with the president.
But the next year, US Steel spent $700 million to buy a stake in northeast Arkansas’ Big River Steel mill and its cleaner, cheaper electric furnaces, taking a move it had once resisted.
Analysts asked Burritt at the time if buying Big River meant Granite City would be closed. He called their proposals premature.
But on Tuesday the call came and the worries began again.
“These guys make good money,” Mayor Parkinson said.
Craig McKey, vice president of the local union, said the last time the store closed, people lost their cars and their homes.
Parkinson said he was doing everything he could to stave it off. He spent the morning going from call to call, reaching out to the company, state officials and the state’s congressional delegation for help.
The company has tried to pull out of Granite City before, he said, and they haven’t succeeded yet.
But McKey, who has worked at the plant for more than 25 years, feared that might be the case this time.
“I fear the worst,” he said.