Union and officials pledge to fight Granite City steel mill closure

GRANITE CITY — Union officials and regional leaders vowed on Wednesday to fight the closure of a century-old steel mill here, in the crosshairs of a company shifting gears.

Plant owner Pittsburgh-based US Steel Corp said this week it was working on plans to sell key Granite City Works components to Chicago-based SunCoke Energy and end production end of 2024. Nearly 1,000 jobs would be lost.

US Steel said it would continue to finish steel at the plant, and SunCoke plans to convert the facility’s blast furnaces to a 2 million ton “pig iron” operation producing the basic elements for the steel fabrication at other company facilities. But that will only support about a third of the current workforce.

Dan Simmons, president of the United Steelworkers local, called the decision a betrayal.

“Today, Granite City Works is a viable and profitable steel operation,” Simmons said in a statement. “However, in pursuit of financial greed, USS plans to turn its back on both the skilled, hardworking steelworkers who have made this company successful and the community that has supported it.”

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Officials have vowed to fight the loss of jobs. “Granite City is a city of fighters, and we’re putting our ducks in line to fight that,” Mayor Mike Parkinson said.

But for the company, it’s part of a “build better, not bigger” strategy. US Steel, one of the nation’s largest steel companies, pitched the news to investors as the repurposing of an old coal-fired plant to power its growing fleet of newer, more efficient electric operations. This is a step that competitors have already taken. “It’s safer, it’s cleaner and it’s cheaper,” said steel industry analyst Gordon Johnson, founder of GLJ Research in New York.

There has been a Granite City steelworks longer than there has been a Granite City.

St. Louis industrialists seeking to make steel on cheap land across the river opened the plant that would become Granite City Works in 1895, a year before the city was incorporated. It supplied rolled plates to a sister stamping plant.

By the end of the following decade, it employed over 1,000 people and had established itself as the cornerstone of a city connected to 10 railway lines and calling itself “The City of Big Industries”.

But when foreign competition and collapsing demand caused the industry to collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, Granite City followed suit. The factory’s workforce grew from a peak of 5,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,800 by the end of 1982.

US Steel bought the operation in 2003 from bankrupt National Steel and five years later closed the plant, sending the city reeling. Cafes have seen their lunch orders dry up. The trucks that once drove in and out of the factory have disappeared. Thousands of workers flooded the unemployment line. They came back the following year, but in 2015 it happened again.

When former President Donald Trump announced new taxes on imports in 2018 and US Steel reopened once more, there was hope the good times were back. Trump himself came to Granite City and delivered that same message.

“We’re watching this one 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 northeast Arkansas’ Big River Steel plant and its cleaner, cheaper electric furnaces, taking a step it had once resisted.

Analysts then asked Burritt if the Big River purchase meant a shutdown was imminent in Granite City. He called their suggestions premature.

But Tuesday, the call fell and the worries started again.

“These guys are making good money,” Mayor Parkinson said.

Craig McKey, vice-president of the union’s local, said the last time the place closed people lost their cars and homes.

Parkinson said he was doing everything he could to avoid this. He spent the morning going from phone call to phone call asking for help from the company, state officials, and the state congressional delegation.

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 factory for more than 25 years, feared that this time it was him doing it.

“I fear the worst,” he said.

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