May 16, 2016
Dan Simmons has seen a lot during the 38 years he’s worked at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works in Illinois, just outside St. Louis.
From starting out as a general laborer, to swinging hammers on the track gang, to “feeling like Mr. Haney from Green Acres” while trucking around the mill, Simmons took it all in. There were days “you were whistling when you came in, and whistling when you left,” he said.
But nothing compares to what he’s seeing now.
“I have grown men coming into my office, crying,” said Simmons. “You see the pain, the ‘what ifs,’ the blank stares…”
Simmons, who just turned 56, is now the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1899, and some of the grown men coming to him are pipefitters just like he had become during his long tenure, which began in 1978.
However, those men and women aren’t coming to him because they’ve been hurt on the job. They are coming to plead for help, because they have lost their jobs, and in many cases still don’t know when they’ll land their next one.
Cyclicality in steel production is nothing new, but it wasn’t until 2008 — when the global markets began crashing — that USS Granite City Works endured its first indefinite idling in its history.
“We had the unemployment office cycling 400 people through at a time,” Simmons told MetalMiner. “The biggest fear is not knowing. If I could have given them a definitive timeframe, they would’ve said, ‘OK, I can handle that.’ But after two to three months, people come to me and don’t know what to do with themselves.”
And now, after the mill went idle a second time in December 2015, some of those workers have been without a job for nearly half a year. Last December, 1,500 people were laid off — 75% of the mill’s total workforce. Across the country, a total of 13,500 steel workers have been laid off over the past year.
Simmons knows what it’s like to feel that fear firsthand. “I got a brother that works here, a brother-in-law that works here, so it’s personal. You worry about where your whole family will be.”
So what’s different today, compared to 2008?
For Simmons and scores of others in the country’s steel sector and other manufacturing industries, much of the pain can be traced back to one main source: China.
The world may have never encountered a more crucial Year of the Monkey than 2016.
That is, at least as far as global trade between China and the Western world is concerned. At the end of this year, China believes it ought to receive Market Economy Status (MES). This would allow China to enjoy the same market status as the U.S. and European Union when it comes to anti-dumping investigations before the World Trade Organization.