June 3, 2009
As Automakers Go, So Do Steel Mills

Marc Barragan said steelworkers in Michigan often feel overlooked when it comes to the impact the automotive industry is having on the state's economy and related industries.

"The reason why I think it is kind of under the radar is because we are right in the middle of automobile country," said Barragan, president of United Steelworkers Local 1299 in River Rouge.

But make no mistake: The steel industry has been hit hard by the recession and the automotive industry's turmoil, prompting the United Steelworkers to become leading national advocates for federal support of the automotive industry.

U.S. steel plants are operating at 38% of capacity, and tire plants are operating at about 50% of capacity, said Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers.

"When the auto industry went down, the steel mill industry went down," Gerard said.

Great Lakes Works, a steel plant in Ecorse owned by U.S. Steel Corp., was temporarily shut in January because of declining demand, putting 1,700 steelworkers out of work. It is one of eight plants that U.S. Steel has partially or completely idled across North America.

"That decreased demand in steel products, in our case, is directly related to the automobile industry," Barragan said.

OAO Severstal has also idled plants in North America and announced last week it would cut 230 of its 1,730 employees at its Dearborn plant, said spokeswoman Bette Kovach.

Gerard, who talks regularly with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, said the two unions are coordinating a grassroots effort to raise awareness to protect the nation's manufacturing base.

The Steelworkers, like the UAW, is critical of plans by General Motors Corp. to close 16 U.S. manufacturing plants while planning to increase imports from China, Japan, Mexico and South Korea while operating with federal loans.

Gerard said it's inconceivable that President Barack Obama would support GM's plan, especially since a key campaign promise was to end tax breaks for corporations that move jobs overseas. "I am expecting the president to be true to his values," Gerard said.

Gerard spoke in Washington, D.C., as part of the "Keep it Made in America" campaign tour last Tuesday, and the United Steelworkers is a key sponsor of a related 34-city bus tour that recently stopped in Michigan.

Gerard has also urged support for the industry through local radio and cable TV interviews. What's more, he repeatedly urged Congress to support the automotive industry during testimony before a Senate committee on manufacturing policy on May 13.

"The most important thing now is that we make the fundamental point that you can't be a strong nation unless you build something," Gerard said. "This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue. This is a jobs issue."

Source: Detroit Free Press, May 28, 2009

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