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Men Of Steel

Men Of Steel

By Mark Oprea

Lorain, Ohio used to be louder. In the steel corridor, along West 28th, you’d hear the roar of the blast furnace from inside U.S. Steel’s plant, the melting of iron ore into hot slabs or billets, the ding of pipe crashing down off the lifts. Get closer, and you’d hear the boxcars rushing toward the Lake Erie docks, the mechanical twist of the cranes, the crunch of unfinished tube in the expander — at night, the holler in street-side pubs, the burst of pickup exhaust.

In March 2015, that collective sound diminished. U.S. Steel corporate idled the No. 6 Quench & Temper Mill at Lorain Tubular Operations because of “challenging market conditions” and “unfairly traded imports.” The mill finished seamless steel pipe, primarily for the energy industry (‘Quench & Temper’ refers to the water-aided cooling process to prep completed pipe for sale), and ran alongside the accompanying No. 3 and No. 4 Seamless facilities. Last March, when Six Quench received its notice of closure, 3-Seamless became the only prong of U.S. Steel Lorain still in business. In theory, if the U.S. steel market continues to plummet, a domino effect could wipe out Lorain entirely by as early as 2018.

To Lorain, known as Steel City since the early 1900s, idling Six Quench was a deafening blow — more than 1,000 steelworkers were cut that year. Since the 1980s, Steel City had been threatened by cheaper overseas competition, mostly by East Asian companies resting on government subsidies. In 1999, the then-named Lorain Tubular and Republic let go a hundred after Kobe Steel fled back to Japan. But the plant still hosted 1,900 workers, many who lived with their families nearby, had kids who went to Lorain High, marched in Home Days parades. Now, nearly two years after Six Quench was placed on hold, the entire plant barely reps two hundred.

Around the corner on Broadway Avenue, a street lined with auto parts dealers and overhang wires, is the union hall of United Steel Workers Local 1104. Sitting behind a desk in a clean USW polo and khakis is 48-year-old Brian Sealy, one of the few remaining steel union reps in the county. Sealy is a former U.S. Steel hooker (“Quite a title, huh?”) in charge of linking pipe tie to crane hook. Now, he manages collective bargaining and settles grievances. Around him sit broken desks, dusty copiers, file stacks pushed to the fringes. “Nobody really needs the office space,” he says, “so they let me use it.” Sealy opens his laptop, takes out a pack of Marlboro Blacks. “You mind if I smoke?” he asks.

“To be completely honest
with you? It makes
me feel like shit.”

It was Sealy who first heard about U.S. Steel’s decision, in January 2017, to permanently close Six Quench come June. Sealy went quickly into action after the January letter. He fought for a round of severance, extended benefits and sub-pay. All the while he wondered: how could Lorain’s plant — which had just installed this $100 million mill, and had been supplying American steel for a century — be shutting down Six Quench for good? To Sealy it didn’t make sense. “It’s not even ten years old!” he says. “They put eighty to a hundred million into that plant just for efficiency. Their running time was about sixty-five percent — but it ran. That’s unheard of. It was a very efficient mill.” Sealy sighs. “I just don’t understand. The market will come back. And when it does?”

Sealy takes me on a tour of the union hall. To get there, we pass through a defunct kitchen that Sealy says used to prep dinners for 180 party-goers. “It’s storage now,” he says. In the hall, eighties-vintage posters — “BRING JOBS HOME, GOOD JOBS NOW,” “SOLIDARITY IN STEEL” — hang around a shadowy room with rows of folding chairs facing a podium. It looks like a model exhibit for a museum. “I remember when I first got involved,” Sealy says, “you couldn’t move an inch.” He points to a photo of a 1986 “Lockout” protest, bumper stickers urging their readers to ‘Buy American.’ I mention how relevant their message seems today, and Sealy says, “To be completely honest with you? It makes me feel like shit.”

* * *

On March 13, 2017, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio’s 9th District sat down at her desk in Washington to type up a one-page letter regarding the shuttering of Six Quench. Her addressee: President Donald J. Trump. On behalf of “over 700 idled U.S. Steel workers in Lorain,” Kaptur forcefully recommended “the immediate assistance of your Administration in every way possible to avoid the permanent closure” of Six Quench. She ended with a shot in the dark: inviting Trump to visit Lorain “very soon” so he could “evaluate alternatives to delay this decision.”

President Trump would not write back.

During Trump’s campaign, the candidate hopped across the Midwest singing the promises of “Buy American, Hire American.” “It will be American steel that fortifies America’s crumbling bridges — American steel,” he said, wearing a candy-red tie at rally in Monessen, Pennsylvania last June. “It will be American steel that sends our skyscrapers soaring, soaring into the sky. Beautiful sight. More beautiful with American steel.”

Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, he signed a Presidential Memorandum that would require the use of domestic metals in “all new pipelines” built in the U.S. In February, Trump repeated this promise in his meeting with top manufacturing CEOs — including Mario Longhi, then head of U.S. Steel — stating that “the pipe is coming from the U.S.” for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. An Executive Order calcified Trump’s stance, emphasizing “buy American, hire American,” while warning agencies about “dumped” or “injuriously subsidized” steel. Yet Trump backers banking on domestic sourcing of the Dakota Access Pipeline were let down when, a month later, they learned the company was exempt from those provisions because it did not qualify as “new.”

In 2016, China produced over 808 million metric tons of steel — almost half the world’s total output, the
World Steel Association reported — while the U.S. produced 79 million.

‘Buy American’ proponents, like Kaptur and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, stress the importance of choosing domestic rather than foreign. Doyle, who stems from a line of steelworkers in Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley, says the quickest federal solution to discourage foreign preference is to fix the “cost is king” mentality by tackling shifty trade laws that allow ‘dumped’ Chinese product on U.S. shores — a feat easier said than done.

In 2016, China produced over 808 million metric tons of steel — almost half the world’s total output, the World Steel Association reported — while the U.S. produced 79 million. All of China’s steel companies, from Baosteel to Shougang, are heavily subsidized by the government, and work under shifty regulations that would make a U.S. counterpart’s jaw hang. As a result, plants export stock in droves, “dumping” it on foreign shores at a price well below market value — often through Thai or Malaysian distribution channels to bypass strict U.S. anti-dumping duties. Last April, U.S. Steel filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission claiming that forty Chinese companies were involved in trade manipulation that had deeply affected U.S. steel (which would claim $2 million in losses in 2015). But here’s the catch: thousands of workers had to be laid off for the ITC suit to appear legitimate, all while companies like Baosteel remain — as the F.B.I. reported — “fugitives from justice.”

In March, Kaptur co-sponsored the “Buy American Improvement Act” (H.R 904) in the House of Representatives, a bill intended to “increase the requirement for American-made content,” and combat this foreign influence by surging U.S. manufacturers. If the bill passes — it’s still at the Committee level — a corporation like U.S. Steel would be the preferred vendor for federal infrastructure projects. Kaptur believes plants like U.S. Steel would then refuse to fire millworkers under solid legislative backing. Yet, she added, “that doesn’t solve the larger problem of closed markets and dumped steel globally. That’s where you need executive action — and quickly.”

When I asked Kaptur if President Trump understood the urgency, she said, “You’d have to ask him.”

* * *

The peaks and troughs of oil and gas are unpredictable. If I’m a laid-off Lorain worker, even if I get called back for my gig in March, there’s no guarantee I’ll make it to November. In the case of Lorain, U.S. Steel has been steadily laying off employees in spurts, from 1,400 in 2015 to a couple hundred for small piping jobs and “asset protection” in 2017. In that respect, the ‘steel city’ concept itself seems bound for extinction, kept on life support by optimistic CEOs and sympathetic politicians. The industry, known for its high death rate and grueling 60-hour workweeks, begs a question from outsiders to those who’ve labored for years inside it: Why persist?

“It wasn’t just a job, it was a privilege,” Gabriel*, a U.S. Steel crane operator who was laid off with 200 others last March, told me. “I think what it was for me personally was this sense of pride. And for them to say, ‘We’re going to idle Lorain for a bit — and then shut the whole town down?’” His voice raises, “It wouldn’t be here. The city wouldn’t be here. For me, nobody in the world made the best material other than Lorain. We made quality.”

Gabriel, who requested that his real name be kept secret, is a former Army helicopter tech who worked at U.S. Steel for five years. Although the 42-year-old acknowledges U.S. Steel’s right to react to foreign threat, he says it doesn’t mean he must suffer the whims of corporate deficits. Even after a coworker nudged Gabriel, who was struggling “to buy my kids more than one pair of shoes for school,” to apply for a lucrative transfer gig in Ecorse, Michigan, where a dozen or so laid-off transferred last year, he turned it down solely on the premise of relocation. Instead, he took up landscaping. “My heart’s here in Lorain,” he said. “I know people here, and people know me.”

Down Broadway, turning south on West 28th, one enters a corridor of thirty vacant beige bars and shops, the occasional tire retailer and tiny-signed strip club. U.S Steel looms to the east quiet, as if it’s a factory that makes pens, not one that melts iron ore. At the Crystal Rock Inn, a dive bar directly in front of the plant, locals gather for afternoon dollar lagers. A banner above the jukebox advertises “Unemployment Mondays.” I ask the owner Tammy if she knows of U.S. Steel’s heyday, and she says, “Are you kidding me! My place would be packed. I’d open up here at 5:30 a.m. and make all the guys eggs for breakfast.” She shakes her head in disgust when thinking of the rest of the street, bustling nightlife relegated to memory. “I swear to God,” she says. “If I had a million dollars, I’d turn this street back into Vegas.”

* * *

In February 2017, a month before U.S. Steel announced it was permanently closing Six Quench, Jason Norris, the president of Pennsylvanian pipeline company Dura-Bond, made an announcement of his own. His company would purchase a defunct U.S. Steel plant in a riverside town called McKeesport, at the southern end of Pennsylvania’s Mon Valley. In one of the biggest deals of its kind in recent years, Norris, an avowed Trump supporter, reportedly aims to run the plant in full ‘Buy American’ spirit. To start, he’s hiring all 200 workers locally.

“Trump said it a number of times,” Norris told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January. “He wants pipelines that are installed in the United States to be made in the United States, steel melted and rolled in the United States.” Norris re-stated his optimism for the manufacturing sector, stating that “oil and gas always has peaks and troughs … You have to be ready to capitalize on that when it comes out of the trough.”

Situated at the crossing of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers — the “Mon” and the “Yough” — McKeesport is an archetypal steel town. In 1872, the National Tube Works Company opened with hopes to lead the nation’s steel pipe trade. Twenty-nine years later, in 1901, U.S. Steel merged with National Tube to make McKeesport the top-producing pipe city on the planet. The city earned the nickname ‘Tube City.’ Like Lorain, the fall of domestic metals in the 1980s and 1990s hit McKeesport hard, and the population plummeted to 20,000. The cause of this crash is still hotly debated at local taverns: One half blames corporate greed; the other, workers’ overbearing demands. No matter the side, the town collapsed. Businesses fled the city center. In 2015, as U.S. Steel ended its 116-year reign, the McKeesport Daily News shut its newsroom, laying off all 175 workers. For years, Mayor Michael Cherepko considered applying for Financially Distressed Municipality status, to help bounce back from the city’s $2 million deficit. Instead, the city outsourced its sewage.

Downtown McKeesport in April 2017. Businesses fled the city center since the nineties, but city development director A.J. Tedesco believes that Dura-Bond’s revival of the steel plant could have the opposite effect. Photo by Mark Oprea.

In April 2017 I drove to McKeesport. Snow flurries blew over the pastel McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge. The waters of the Monongahela ran milky and agitated. Teal stacks of tube pipe sat still in front of brownstone factories. A “Welcome to McKeesport” sign was barely noticeable on Lysle Blvd. — locals pronounce it “LAHL” — where U.S. Steel’s idled plant stands behind the McKeesport Police Station. Nearby, there’s the Tube City Inn, Tube City Beer District. Driving south, beyond clothing outlets and boat shops, one encounters hundreds of abandoned homes, many gutted and boarded-up.

“We’re always on the verge of Act 47,” A.J. Tedesco, head of city development for McKeesport, told me from behind his desk at City Hall, citing code for fiscal emergency. A burly, bespectacled man who still lives in the same house he grew up in, Tedesco touts Dura-Bond’s purchase as a milestone in McKeesport’s five-year climb to recovery. First, an Aldi opened on redesigned Walnut St.; new traffic lights were installed on Lysle; a city grant razed thirty homes.

But, Tedesco said, “we still have to turn around the economy.”

“I think that once people see we’re heading in the right direction, that’s the key. Positive hope is key.”

With two hundred workers McKeesport-bound at the end of the summer, the possibilities for a fiscal bounce-back could be sweet, Tedesco said. “It has trickle-down effects: they’re going to eat here, shop here. And hopefully they’ll move here.” The seven- to eight-hundred homes awaiting demolition could, in theory, be demolished with the help of increased tax dollars. Dura-Bond families relocating could be appealing for prospective developers (McKeesport hasn’t had a McDonald’s since in the eighties). There are talks that the Penn-McKee, the hotel where Nixon and Kennedy had their first debate as Congressmen, might be renovated into a tourist destination. “I think that once people see we’re heading in the right direction,” Tedesco said, “that’s the key. Positive hope is key.”

At the Eat n’ Park on Lysle, two blocks from the plant, I asked locals what they thought about Tube City’s redemption. On the walls hung sepia-toned shots of McKeesport in its prime: flat-capped workers in front City Hall; of a bustling Marina in 1926. A server, Judy Black, who has worked at the Eat ’n Park for 38 years, lit up when I asked about this heyday. She said, “There was always camaraderie. They would line up at the bar over there — all from the mill. Smoking cigarettes. Drinking coffee. The bar was packed like that every darn day.”

I asked a 75-year-old server named Colleen what she thinks of the revival, and she added, “I’ve been working here 32 years. We’re so happy. We almost closed but the mayor had to fight to keep us open.” I asked for clarification, and she said, “He signed a ten-year lease. He didn’t want to see us go!”

Locals recommend the Marina, so I walked up Lysle to where the Mon meets the Yough. Inside McKee’s Boat Service and Repair, I met Dino Elleria, the eccentric owner of the service shop, who resembled an Alaskan fisherman in his red skull cap and wily beard. We talked about boating for an hour, before the conversation switched to the plant. I ask Elleria if President Trump had anything to do with Tube City’s resurgence. He smiled.

“I guarantee Trump saved them a half a million dollars in permit fees,” Elleria speculates. “And in my opinion — and I could be wrong — if he hadn’t been elected, the mill would have still been dead. They would have trashed the deal.”

* * *

In December of 2011, David Deer walked into 3-Seamless for the first time. He’d been working as a freelance accountant for ten years, and was looking for a more structured job. A friend tipped him off about a U.S. Steel hiring; a couple of weeks later he was on a memorable tour of the plant. “There were these huge cranes,” he told me. “Fifty-foot-long pipe twenty-four inches in diameter — like ten thousand pounds. I’m walking through like, ‘This is awesome.’ I’d never been in a mill in my life. It was big, nasty and dirty. You couldn’t walk through 3-Seamless without getting dirty.”

Deer was sucked in. He got hired as a hot-end reeler — aiding pipe movement in its malleable stages — and worked for years in a fifty-person crew. It was demanding work, but Deer never felt his safety was at risk. “Even when equipment went in the air,” he said. “You’re talking twenty-foot long pipe that’s 1,900 degrees, looking like straws whipping up. Even then, I never felt like I was ever going to die.”

Deer spent five years at 3-Seamless, living an hour away with his teenage son, Brendan, in Sandusky. He was making good money. The mill job helped build his son’s college fund, paid for surgery on Brendan’s restricted aorta in 2011. In December 2015, Deer had plans to move into a $200,000 condo with his son and fiancé. Come January, he was laid off. Deer and his fiancé split. Deer moved into a tiny apartment, and went to the Grand Canyon for a spiritual uplift. When he returned, he was hired back until March. Then U.S. Steel extended his layoff.

In July 2016, Deer and a dozen of his fellow crew members took advantage of an offer by U.S. Steel to fund two years of community college. The 45-year-old Deer opted for a degree in automation, and began summer classes that August. Come November, Deer witnessed many in his cohort turn to president-elect Trump in hopes that national pipeline construction would revive job security, or at least a stint of good work. Lorain voted red that year; Deer didn’t. “I knew when they signed that executive order, they weren’t going to scrap all that pipe,” he says. “For us? Nope.” Deer voted Democrat, he said, “because there are greater things that affect my freedom than steel.”

In the middle of April, I met with Deer at a Starbucks inside Lorain Community College. He wore a black USW T-shirt, carried a black backpack, and, with his snow-colored hair, looked out of place among twenty-somethings sipping iced mochas. In front of him sat a physics text and a spiral notebook open to lecture notes. He told me he plans to finish college, attend job fairs next January if Lorain shuts down for good. If things go well, he’ll move to Cleveland for a robotics gig. Toward the end of our meeting, I pointed out the contrast between note-taking in a classroom and sweating in front of an ear-numbing pipe expander. Deer laughs with teeth showing. He takes a breath. “Yeah, I still miss it,” he told me. “And the camaraderie, I miss that, too. But I try not to think about it because I can get consumed in whether or not I’m going to get a call back.” He taps his book. “College physics is hard enough.”

On June 8, Six Quench officially shut its doors. Although U.S. Steel was secretive about its shutdown process, they had been preparing for months: shipping off valuable machinery, winterizing the rest, shutting gas lines and electricity. On June 8, as in past permanent closures, workers hopped on tall forklifts, wielding hot torches, to weld shut the front entrance of Six Quench — a job, Brian Sealy anticipated, most likely performed by the same guys who once labored inside. “Why shouldn’t they?” he said. “They’re the ones that know that place the most.” 

But a few smaller side doors were intentionally kept open, just in case. “Because you never know,” Sealy said. “Sooner or later, it’s got to start back up again.”

___
*”Gabriel” asked to speak to Belt on conditions of anonymity, in case of a job callback.

Banner photo by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a writer based in Cleveland. He’s written for Cleveland Magazine, Crain’s, and has work forthcoming in Pacific Standard. This is his first feature for Belt.

 

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