Mill workers have been an integral part of both Indiana and Illinois for decades — working in a local mill, which is extremely dangerous work, is part of our local culture and the rich history of our part of the country.
Times are changing, though. Consider the following:
1. One of the World’s Largest Smelters Shuts Down in Indiana
Over in Warrick County, Alcoa recently shut down its aluminum manufacturing plant and laid off over 325 workers there. Alcoa had been making alumina in this Indiana facility since 1960. So, after 50+ years, Warrick Operations’ smelter is no more, although Alcoa’s rolling mill and power plant mill are still operating there.
This was a big deal given that the Warrick County, Indiana smelter was one of the biggest smelting facilities not just in the United States, but in the world. Why was it shut down? According to the Alcoa news release, “ it was no longer financially viable.”
2. ArcelorMittal Idles Hot Strip Mill at Indiana Harbor East Chicago
ArcelorMittal is known as the world’s largest steelmaker. Along with shutting down its aluminizing line at Indiana Harbor West earlier this year, ArcelorMittal has idled its hot strip mill at Indiana Harbor East Chicago.
Why? According to its news release, the European company is cutting back on its U.S. operations after recording a loss of $8 Billion last year. None of the Indiana workers are expected to lose their jobs, though. Union officials are negotiating with ArcelorMittal management to get these mill workers relocated to other ArcelorMittal work sites.
3. U.S. Steel Lays Off Salaried Workers at Indiana Steel Mills After Christmas Layoffs at Illinois Plant
Here in Northwest Indiana, U.S. Steel is known as one of the region’s biggest employers so when it announces that workers are being laid off, it’s a major event for our community.
Recently, U.S. Steel announced that it had laid off 25% of its employees that were on salary.
It’s not known how many salaried workers were laid off at each location, the percentage applies overall to the company. However, managers, supervisors, and other non-union white collar workers lost jobs at both Gary Works, the largest steel mill operated by U.S. Steel, as well as their Portage facility.
And last December, U.S. Steel laid off 2000 mill workers at its Granite City, Illinois mill two days after Christmas. The company said it was temporary (fingers crossed, right?).
Why the layoffs? U.S. Steel is explaining the massive cuts as the company’s response to “challenging market conditions” and it is known that U.S. Steel lost $1.5 billion in 2015.
Interesting note: According to Motley Fool, things aren’t looking so bad for U.S. Steel. The stock price for U.S. Steel rose 26% in February 2016 and amazingly jumped up almost 76% gain in March 2016. How this jives with all these people getting pink slips in Indiana and Illinois is something to ponder, isn’t it?
Steel Industry Suffering: Union Calls for Federal Action
So, what is going on here? According to the Financial Times, the steel industry has been hit hard by cheap Chinese exports and excess steel capacity worldwide. Plants are closing and mill workers are being giving their walking papers at steel plants all over the country, from Indiana and Illinois, to Alabama and Texas, as steelmakers try and regroup financially.
Today, union leaders are in Washington, D.C. trying to get the federal government to help steel mill workers. United Steelworkers (USW) International President Leo W. Gerard explains:
“Today, more than 13,500 steelworkers across the country are holding layoff notices that they have received from their employers. Statistics and an academic discussion of free trade do not mask the pain that has been inflicted on hard-working American families by unfair trade practices and policies that essentially ignore the impact of trade on real people.
“Manufacturing and steel are the backbone of America’s national and economic security. For national security, it’s more than just the steel that goes into our ships, tanks, armored personnel vehicles and weapons. It’s the critical infrastructure that supports our troops: the steel rails that guide our trains; the girders that support our bridges, docks, warehouses and buildings; the grain oriented electrical steel that is vital to electrical transformers and steel towers that support electrical transmission lines. …
“The current steel crisis is primarily caused by unfair foreign trade that includes dramatic expansions of global overcapacity. The largest source is China, which currently has more than 400 million metric tons of overcapacity.
“We need an immediate action plan to address this crisis that includes: broad-based import restraints; comprehensive, enforceable measures to reduce global overcapacity; a definitive statement declaring that China does not qualify as a market economy under U.S. law …..”
Financial Crisis and Safety Concerns
When a company is faced with tough economic times, its concern isn’t making sure that workers and their families are safe from harm; it’s about the bottom line. The shareholders and the profit margin are what causes all the stress in the corporate offices. If plants have to close and families have to move, or employees have to find new jobs, then that’s what has to happen. That’s life, right?
Except from a personal injury law perspective, that’s not the whole story. When a company is in a panic over money, then making sure that safety standards are being maintained and that workers are safe on the job isn’t on the priority list. Maybe it’s intentional: that’s money that they don’t want to spend. Maybe it’s neglect: in the fretting about how to make revenue, monitoring safety issues is something that just doesn’t get much thought.
Either way, these news stories serve as a warning to all mill workers out there.
Right now, mill workers in Indiana and Illinois need to be vigilant as they go about their jobs because these economic conditions are a red flag that the level of danger on the job may be higher than ever before.
Mill workers are employed in some of the most dangerous lines of work in our country. Be careful out there!