Alabama Steelworkers Fight for Their Jobs, Threatened By Korea Trade Ruling

 

Alliance for American Manufacturing

Approximately 1,000 supporters of steelworker jobs turned out Monday, June 16 at a rally at the U.S. Steel facilities in Fairfield.

The author works for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which works in partnership with the United Steelworkers and other petitioners to the Department of Commerce for an appeal of the department's February ruling in favor of South Korea's steel industry.

Standing high atop Red Mountain overlooking the city of Birmingham, Alabama, is a statue known as the Vulcan.

It is the symbol of this scrappy southern city, reminding people of Birmingham’s roots in the iron and steel industries. A depiction of the ancient Roman god of the fire and forge, it is, at fifty-six feet tall, the largest iron statue in the world, and the seventh-tallest, free-standing statue in the United States. While it may not dominate the landscape the way the 125-foot “Christ the Redeemer” statue does in Rio de Janeiro, it is a similar symbolic, religious reminder for those living in the valley below.

To folks in Birmingham, steel manufacturing is more than just a job; it’s a way of life. Alabama—and Birmingham in particular—has a rich history as the leading Southern U.S. producer of top-quality, American-made steel. The only state in the nation that contains all of the natural resources needed to make iron and steel—coking coal, iron ore, fluxing dolomite and limestone—Alabama has long been host to a strong steel industry, thanks to these precious resources. As one retired steelworker puts it: “It’s God-given. Alabama was made to make steel so that our people could survive.”

Today, these jobs are at risk—and not because of a lack of resources. The steel industry is under attack by the selling or “dumping” of foreign steel. At the United States Steel Corporation’s Fairfield Works and Tubular Operations mills, located about seven miles southwest of Birmingham, the company employs approximately 2,000 people. Its tubular mill produces seamless steel pipe used extensively in the oil drilling and natural gas fracking operations throughout the U.S. and around the world. This pipe, known as oil-country tubular goods (OCTG), has become a profit-inducing link in steelmaking at companies across the U.S.

At a time when America is increasingly becoming more energy-independent because of its ability to drill for domestic oil and gas, the tubular market is being flooded with cheap pipe that is being exported to the U.S. and sold below fair-market value. Foreign companies are able to afford to do so because they are financially subsidized by their own governments. This model, once billed as “free trade,” is really unfair trade, as the U.S. government has failed to enforce the all-important regulations that were agreed to when the free trade agreements now placing the U.S. steel industry at risk first went into effect.

“We can’t survive in this situation,” said Sheila Tyson, a member of the Birmingham City Council. “It’s got to stop.”

Steelmakers are fighting back. U.S. Steel and several other U.S. manufacturers of OCTG filed claims with the International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce against nine countries. In a preliminary ruling released by the Commerce Department in February, all of the foreign entities —except South Korea—were found to have violated anti-dumping trade laws. These countries will have to pay duties or tariffs on their exported products to level the price-point playing field.

But the big shocker in the preliminary report was that South Korea was found not to have violated any anti-dumping rules, despite the fact it is likely the worst offender since China was punished for dumping in 2009.

South Korea does not use tubular goods at home, and its steelmakers manufacture OCTG strictly for export, dumping about 98 percent of their product in the U.S. at a price less than the cost of the pipe itself. Since South Korean steel manufacturers are subsidized by their government, American companies are hard-pressed to financially compete.

But thanks to a rare display of solidarity between U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers union (USW), intense lobbying on Capitol Hill, a nationwide collection of letters and petitions and a series of national rallies, the issue is gaining both media attention and bipartisan support from members of Congress.  The two U.S. senators from Ohio—Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican—wrote a letter of protest to the Department of Commerce appealing the preliminary decision  on South Korean steel pricing  practices, and recommending its reversal. The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of 57 senators. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressional Steel Caucus Chairman Tim Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Vice-chair Pete Visclosky, Democrat of Indiana,  garnered more than 155 bipartisan House co-signers on their letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. On Thursday, June 26, the Senate Finance Committee held an afternoon-long hearing on how enforcing trade rules can level the playing field. Testifying before the committee were U.S. Steel President and CEO Mario Longhi and USW International President Leo Gerard.

A final decision is due from the Department of Commerce by July 10. And at a time when the U.S. job market has recovered just a small percentage of well-paying middle-class jobs, a decision that punishes South Korea for illegal dumping is vital to all those whose livelihoods are connected to the U.S. steel industry.

Approximately 1,000 supporters of steelworker jobs turned out Monday, June 16 at a rally at the U.S. Steel facilities in Fairfield. Having been through layoffs before (especially when a similar case was brought against China in 2008) the steelworkers and their families are quite aware of the battle they are facing.

 

Valerie Lambert has worked at the Fairfield Tubular Operations plant in Alabama for almost 15 years, and knows the hardships of being laid off or unemployed. On June 16, she carried her own homemade sign and moved among participants at a steelworkers' rally with the fervor of a high school cheerleader.

“Well, I want to save my job, absolutely. We were laid off back in 2008, 2009 because of the Chinese thing. Actually, I had been laid off once before that for a couple of months and the longer it went, the more doubtful I got,” she said. “But I knew I had some seniority and if the mill started to run again that I would be one of the first persons to be called back.”

These days the Tuscaloosa native is not as optimistic.

“Oh, it’s going to be a mess,” she said. “But if it shuts down, they won’t reopen. They’ve got too many reasons not to reopen. It’s not going to come back.”

Lambert was a single mother of a 15-year-old daughter when she got her foot in the door at U.S. Steel. She says she was able to provide a good, middle-class life without having to worry about paying the next bill. She started out working as a grinder on the mill floor but eventually moved into a position working with all of the safety documents and paperwork at the Tubular Finishing plant. “I was hungry when I got this job. I rotated shifts, worked holidays and overtime. For the first three years I was knockin’ down about 85 hours a week. But it was an opportunity. They offered me the opportunity and I took it. Before I got this job I waited tables for three days and I knew I wasn’t cut out for that.

“You can’t go anywhere and find another job like this,” she added. “Nowhere. The only opening in this area that pays comparable to this are the coal mines.”

Lambert understands the threat to her job lies with yet another trade case ruling, but she doesn’t understand why the powers in Washington, D.C., let it happen. “They ought to clean house,” she said. “You want honesty, right? I’m ready to clean house. How could you not keep it made in America? I don’t understand that.”

 

Zach Little, a threader operator and a union section representative for the plant safety board, made the rally a family affair. He attended with his wife and three of his four children who distributed Popsicles on the hot and sunny Alabama afternoon. He has a 10-year-old son, born about the same time he was hired at U.S. Steel, and daughters aged 20, 17 and 12. His 12-year-old daughter, Bailey, was handing out the frozen treats from her wheelchair, her means of mobility because of a neurological problem that doctors think is hereditary or genetic. According to her father, the doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what’s causing her health problems. And because of the extra attention Bailey needs, Little’s wife has been unable to seek employment.

“When I hired in, I didn’t know exactly what the benefits were, but it’s good pay, good health benefits,” he said. “The health benefit in itself almost makes it worthwhile. We just wanted to help out here today as much as we could as a family. And the little ones enjoy it. Seeing Bailey, it would be hard for my wife to work. But I have a good-enough job where she doesn’t have to work. My wife’s there for all the kids.”

It wasn’t always that easy for Little, who bounced around working in the factories of different industries for several years. So after a career of job insecurity, he’s grateful for his past ten years at U.S. Steel. “It doesn’t even compare,” he said. “This is the best placed I’ve ever worked, ever will work, probably. Yeah, it’s not even close.”

Little realizes how fortunate he is to be able to provide his wife and children a life without monumental financial problems and take care of Bailey’s medical needs without sacrificing some of life’s other necessities. But he remains concerned about being laid off or the mill ceasing operations.

“My job, it means everything, it’s my whole life, my livelihood,” he said. “If they shut this place down, I don’t know what I’d do. This rally might register a little bit with the younger guys. I was laid off twelve weeks back when we had the problem with China steel. It was like a week here, two weeks there. The whole month of April that year, so yeah, I know what can happen.

“You know the whole economy was pretty bad at that time, too. It’s getting better but we certainly haven’t recovered as a whole nation.”

Little also would like to see the public a bit more educated about the effects foreign manufactured steel can have on the environment.

“The people around here know we make pipe but they might not realize what it is used for—gas and oil” he continued. “It’s kind of scary. I worry about the quality of the product from overseas. I mean, if you get a bad pipe two miles in the ground and something breaks loose or the pipe were to blowout, it could be bad. Our steel quality is the best. If you get a good quality product from the U.S. to start with, then you have no problems. We’re proud of the work we do here.”

 

Martin Edwards is known as “Detroit” by his co-workers and supervisors at the Tubular Goods plant at Fairfield Works. The 46-year-old straddle hauler driver is one of a handful of millworkers who relocated to Alabama after careers at the automobile plants in the Motor City.

Born and raised in Detroit, Edwards’ talent on the football field earned him a scholarship at Central State University in Ohio. But a series of injuries cut his playing days short, so he decided to test the work force before making any further educational plans. “I found honest work and was making an honest living,” he said of the auto factory.

Edwards worked 16 years at a Chrysler Jeep Assembly plant near the Detroit River. His parents both retired from long careers at General Motors when his mother decided it was time to move back home to Alabama. She was born and raised in the small town of Brighton, about three miles from the U.S. Steel Fairfield location. Edwards’ grandfather retired from the Fairfield mill back when it was known as the Tennessee Coal & Iron Division of U.S. Steel.

Beginning in 1914, Southerners seeking quality employment flocked to Detroit to secure an unheard of $5-per-day job at one of Henry Ford's auto plants. Ford's revolutionary compensation idea doubled the salary of the typical manufacturing worker and was a major factor in creating a solid middle class in America. A century later, many workers have returned to the South as those middle-class jobs have become scarce in auto manufacturing and the other blue-collar industries that once dominated Northern economies.

Edwards was one of the lucky ones. “When the bottom fell out of the auto industry, I was laid off, working, laid off, working,” he explained. “They kind of told us that we need to start looking at taking a buyout. My father was sick, so I was back and forth from Detroit to Alabama. Eventually I got laid off, so I started looking for a job and, thankfully, I found one with U.S. Steel and relocated. I didn't miss a beat. I just went home to Detroit and packed everything up, sold the house and it was just a brand new beginning."

Edwards has worked at U.S. Steel for nearly five years, hired shortly after the Fairfield layoffs caused by the Chinese steel dumping trade case.  But the auto industry layoffs taught him the challenges of being out of work. He tries to pass on those lessons to the younger workers at the mill.

“Everybody just calls me ‘Detroit’ but a few of the younger guys call me “Old School,” he said. “Again, it goes back to why I feel so fortunate. That’s why I try to talk to the younger guys about the little things because they don’t see the big picture yet. They say, ‘Man, I want to go to the party, I’m gonna get that $50,000 truck.’ Well, I tell them that stuff is going to be there. You’re in a position where any of the people out on the streets would love to swap with you. When you’re young, you don’t think about tomorrow. There’s a saying: ‘It’s a shame youth is wasted on the young.’”

He currently lives with his fiancé in a rented house in Fultondale, about 15 minutes from the U.S. Steel mill. He has a 24-year-old son and plans on purchasing a new home after the wedding. He sees in his future continued work at the mill driving the straddle “buggy” and remaining active in the union until he retires. But he also knows there are no guarantees.

“I have to look to the future and this threat of foreign pipe,” he said. “You try to save money and do everything you can. Do everything you can to keep this job and keep this industry going strong because there’s not a promise. It’s like life. Not a promise.”

 

There have been six rallies at steel mills across the country since the preliminary OCTG ruling was announced by the Department of Commerce in February. With each rally, the crowds are larger and better informed. One steelworker job is related to seven additional jobs in the supply chain, a fact that is now registering with both laborers and the companies that provide these middle-class positions.

There has been a marked growth of solidarity since the initial rally was held in Lorain, Ohio, on May 5. Aggressive early support was provided by U.S. Steel and the USW through a partnership with the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Washington, D.C. In addition to U.S. Steel, other petitioners in the trade case include TMK IPSCO, Vallourec Star, Boomerang Tube, Maverick Tube Corp, Northwest Pipe Co, Tejas Products, Welded Tube USA Inc. and Energex Tube, a unit of JMC Steel. Many of these petitioners are foreign-owned, but have steelmaking facilities in the U.S. that are threatened by South Korea’s OCTG dumping.

Those other petitioners have become involved. Randy Boswell, president of Energex Tube for JMC Steel, travelled from Thomasville, Alabama with a busload of about 20 Energex employees to participate in the rally. Boswell understands the need to band together, even though U.S. Steel is a competitor in tubular goods.

“U.S. Steel is one of the people that keep us in business,” said Boswell. “U.S. Steel is really one of the big suppliers of ours on the flat roll side. We compete against them on oil country, but they are a big supplier as well.

“In the oil country business, none of the pipe is protected, It’s all private companies that do the drilling and there are no requirements, even if they are drilling on public land. It’s just getting by with whatever they want. You know, if they put all these people on a level playing field, I don’t have an issue with them buying wherever they want. But the problem is they buy products that are subsidized in one way or another by foreign aid. And that makes it tough to compete.”

Boswell points out that when building our nation’s roads, from local streets to interstates, there is a strong “Buy America” narrative. “We, as domestic pipe manufacturers, should take the same approach with drilling and oil country applications,” he said. “We need to make our economy stronger by promoting domestic producers and suppliers. We need to make people realize that cheaper doesn’t always mean better.”

In addition to many company leaders and management teams, others in the union movement have joined the fight. Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa sent a letter of concern about the South Korean dumping to Secretary Pritzker in early June. Hoffa’s concerns were also voiced by top leaders of the Teamsters Railway Conference.

At the Fairfield rally, many members of the United Mine Workers of America were on hand to support the industry that heavily depends on coal and iron ore mining. James Blankenship was an electrician at the coal mines for 38 years before becoming a district field representative for the union.

“This here hurts the steelworkers and before it’s over, it’s going to affect the coal miners,” said Blankenship. “We’re all in this fight together. We should have started doing this in the ‘80s and we wouldn’t be here today.

“I had to actually move to Alabama to work in the coal mines because I worked for a company in West Virginia that the steel mills got all their coke from. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the steel was going downhill in Youngstown, Ohio, and they just shut everything down. So I know firsthand what happens.

“We’re all American workers and we have families to take care of, and without American workers, without a middle class, we’ll turn into a third-world country. There’s the rich and then there is the poor and there is no way for the poor to come up if there’s not a middle class to come up to.”

Echoing these sentiments was Tyson, the District 6 Birmingham City Council member.

“It’s becoming a class issue, rich against poor,” said Tyson. “I’m here today because I support y’all 100 percent because what they are doing is wrong. My dad, my brothers and my uncle worked for the steel plant. We got to band together. It’s all of our issue now.

“These are good jobs,” Tyson continued. “I was raised because of these jobs in the community. My father, all my folks worked here. That’s how we went to school. We all went to college. I went to college then went into the military. We had a good life from these jobs, absolutely.”

Tyson is a Birmingham native who, in the Alabama tradition, maintains an active voice on civil rights issues and helping the working poor. She shares concerns that a shutdown at the Fairfield plant could further distress financial difficulties in Birmingham.

“Lot of folks worked hard out here all day and many retire in their late 50s or early 60s,” she said. While many retirees are financially comfortable she worries about the local economy and the $14 billion dollar bankruptcy case in Jefferson County. “A lot of people have nothing to fall back on. They closed the county hospital and there’s not enough people living in Jefferson County to pay that bankruptcy bill. If they shut this plant, what are people going to do? It’s way worse than people understand. I see the problem. I feel it. I live it.”

 

Jonathan Kyzer, at age 23, is one of the youngest employees at U.S. Steel Fairfield Works. He hails from a long family line of steelworkers at the plant, and had just turned 21 when he was hired to work at the Tubular Goods Finishing plant, but had spent time at the mill since he was 18, working as a pipefitter. He now works at the threading station of the tubular mill and despite his family work history and his previous experience, he was still required to take a six-week class provided by U.S. Steel to get the job.

In the heydays of manufacturing, a high school graduate could attend a technical training school to learn the skills required to work in industrial factories.  Most of these schools have closed their doors or now focus on the nuances of advanced manufacturing. It’s now left to the companies or unions to train workers. But Kyzer was fortunate to get an early start.

“I graduated from Hueytown High School in 2008 and I actually graduated in May and had to wait until July until I turned 18 and could start working, said Kyzer. “I knew the business agent over at local 91 Pipefitters, and I went straight over there and he gave me a job. Straight out to the steel mill I came, green as a gourd.

“I had every opportunity in the world to go to college and, for some reason, I just didn’t have any interest in it. I told my dad I’m going to go to work for a couple years and then I’ll decide, re-evaluate it, going back to school. But I never did. I went to pipefitters’ school. I just came out here and never looked back and it’s been great so far.

“I have several friends that have one, if not several different college degrees in multiple fields and they can’t find anything," he continued. “They kind of all get at me when we all get together. It’s like, ‘Here I spent all these years in school and you’re the one that wound up with the good job.’”

It seemed natural that Kyzer pursue a career at the U.S. Steel plant being from a long line of steelworkers. His father, who worked maintenance on the blast furnace at the flat roll side of the facility, retired in 2006. His uncle also just retired from the mill and his cousin and even his mother are current employees. As a child he witnessed first-hand the kind of comfortable life a steelworker job can provide.

“You know this plant out here puts a roof over my head and food on the table,” he said. “It absolutely provides a good living. Aside from the mines, I can’t think of anything else around here you can do and make what we make.”

Kyzer anticipates putting in 30 years at U.S. Steel and retiring at the age of 51. But after talking with Local 1013 Steelworkers Union President David Clark and doing some recent research on Korea’s OCTG dumping, he has cause for concern.

“The part that stood out to me the most is, the first time around [trade dealmakers] put limitations on everything but they left South Korea out and they slipped right on in,” he said. “What was it in 2012, 868,000 tons just from Korea and a total of 1.8 million tons imported? That’s a lot.”

Kyzer has a four-year-old son, Jaiden, and plans to marry on October 4. He’s not afraid of hard work and has seemed to map out a steel mill career that will afford him a comfortable, middle-class life. But he now knows his work is not guaranteed.

“Honestly, I think a lot of people just shrug it off and say that [U.S. Steel] been at it this long, no one’s going to bother them,” he said. “Now it’s not just steel, per se—[it's] the oil-country pipe that they’re sending in here. That’s the part that concerns me the most, because of that quality.... Bam. There’s another BP situation and Lord knows we don’t need that.

“There is no comparison. I mean, there’s not another mill anywhere that, in my opinion, that would hold up to what we do. There’s so many steps to the process we go through just for one piece of pipe. If you got two pieces of pipe sitting there and they’re almost identical looking at them but you want $25 for this one and $5 for this one, somebody’s going to take that $5 deal, regardless of quality. That’s what scares me."

 

The Vulcan statue perched above the city of Birmingham has seen its share of hard times. It’s been left in pieces alongside railroad tracks because of unpaid freight bills. Once disassembled for inspection, its 29 cast-iron components became a playground for children. The Vulcan has been painted a variety of colors and even once became a symbol for road safety in Birmingham.

The Vulcan has had its fair share of abuse since being fully restored and recast with new parts in 2004. It has a long and storied history in much the same way as U.S. Steel and its Fairfield Works and Tubular Goods mill.

The steel plant survived the Great Depression, two world wars and a never-ending series of corporate, political, financial and social challenges. But the latest challenge to American steel manufacturing is a global economy shaped by trade deals—and it might be the end for Fairfield Works if the Commerce Department doesn’t act.

It’s up to the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission to enforce the laws and regulations that guarantee a level playing field for all the world’s steelmakers. If they do their job, American steelmakers will thrive again. Like the Vulcan, they will stand tall.

“We’re not going to give up this fight,” said Kyzer. “We want everybody in the world to know we make the best steel in the world.”

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement