GRANITE CITY. Union officials and regional leaders on Wednesday vowed to fight the closure of a century-old steel plant here at gunpoint by a gear-shifting company.
The plant’s owner, US Steel Corp., based in Pittsburgh, said this week it is working on plans to sell key parts of Granite City Works to Chicago’s SunCoke Energy and end steel production at the end of 2024. Nearly 1,000 jobs will be eliminated.
US Steel said it will continue steel finishing at the plant, and SunCoke plans to convert the plant’s blast furnaces into a 2 million-strong iron shop that produces building blocks for steel production at other company sites. But that will only support about a third of the current workforce.
Dan Simmons, president of the local United Steelworkers, called the decision a betrayal.
“Today, Granite City Works is a viable and profitable steel business,” Simmons said in a statement. “However, in pursuit of financial greed, USS plans to turn its back on both the skilled, hard-working steelworkers who made this company successful and the community that supported it.”
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Officials vowed to fight job losses. “Granite City is a city of fighters and we’re gathering our ducks to fight it,” Mayor Mike Parkinson said.
But for the company, this is consistent with the strategy of building “better, not more.” US Steel, one of the largest steel companies in the country, presented the news to investors as the conversion of an old coal-fired power plant to fuel its growing fleet of new, more efficient plants. This is a step that competitors have already taken. “It’s safer, cleaner and cheaper,” said steel industry analyst Gordon Johnson, founder of GLJ Research in New York.
The steel mill in Granite City has been around longer than Granite City itself.
St. Louis industrialists, eager to produce steel on cheap land across the river, opened what would become the Granite City Works in 1895, the year before the city was incorporated. She supplied sheet metal to a related stamping plant.
By the end of the next decade, it employed over 1,000 people and took its place as the city’s cornerstone, connected to 10 rail lines and calling itself the “City of Great Industry”.
But when foreign competition and falling demand caused the industry to collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, Granite City went with it. The plant’s workforce dropped from a peak of 5,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,800 by the end of 1982.
US Steel bought the facility in 2003 from bankrupt National Steel, and closed the plant five years later, leaving the city reeling. The cafe has run out of orders for lunch. The trucks that once drove in and out of the mill are gone. Thousands of workers filled the waiting list. They returned the following year, but in 2015 it happened again.
When former President Donald Trump announced new import taxes in 2018 and US Steel reopened, there was hope that the good times had returned. Trump himself came to Granite City and delivered exactly this message.
“We’re watching this closely and it’s going up, Dave, only up,” Trump told US Steel CEO David Burritt, who joined the president onstage during his speech.
But the following year, US Steel spent $700 million to buy a stake in the Big River steel mill in northeast Arkansas and its cleaner, cheaper electric furnaces, in a move it had once resisted.
Analysts then asked Burritt if the Big River purchase meant a closure in Granite City. He called their proposals premature.
But on Tuesday the bell rang and the unrest began again.
“These guys are making good money,” Mayor Parkinson said.
Craig McKee, vice president of the local union, said the last time the place closed, people lost their cars and houses.
Parkinson said he is doing everything he can to prevent this. All morning he went from one phone call to another, asking for help from the company, state officials and the state delegation in Congress.
According to him, the company has already tried to leave Granite City, but so far without success.
But McKee, who had worked at the plant for more than 25 years, feared that this time it might be the one to do it.
“I fear the worst,” he said.
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