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Steel industry continues to face tough times in W.Va., nation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The American steel industry continues to face hard times, primarily because low wages and poor working conditions allow many other countries to produce steel, then export it, at far lower costs.

Mark Glyptis, long-time president of the United Steelworkers local at the Weirton plant, now operated by ArcelorMittal, said last week, "Today, we are a tin-mill facility. It was quite a change when we went from a fully integrated steel company to a tin mill. We are making a very good product. We are one of the top producers in North America.

"Today, the steel industry as a whole is still a difficult business, here and in Europe. The survivors are doing reasonably well, although the markets are not great. But they are not real bad. They are OK," Glyptis said.

"If the economy continues to gel, the industry will continue to improve."

Employment at the Weirton steel mill dropped from 14,000 in 1975, when it was operated by National Steel, to 2,100 in early 2005, when ArcelorMittal took over operations.

By November 2005, ArcelorMittal cut employment to 1,300 workers. In 2010, the plant had 935 workers.

"Today, we have 1,015 people working at the plant," Glyptis said. "We hired 125 new workers this past year."

"There is still quite a bit of opportunity for us in Weirton. Our product is improving. We have a senior workforce. One of our goals is to see that our tinplating is passed onto another generation. As new employees come in, we are looking to a bright future."

Steel-processing operations were first conducted at the Weirton facility in 1909, and the operation expanded for years. The plant was involved in iron-making, steel-making, hot and cold rolling, tin plating, chrome plating, and galvanizing some of the primary manufacturing operations completed at the facility.

Randy Moore, sub-district director for the United Steelworkers in West Virginia, said last week, "Until we start some infrastructure spending and get this trade balance in effect, things are not good.

"The Steelworkers fight trade cases every day, one right after another. It is a never-ending battle.

"We are trying to get a Buy American Bill here in West Virginia to convince people to use domestic products. The contractors are screaming to high heaven.

"This country has been infiltrated by China. I am really worried about the steel industry unless someone in Washington does something.

"Coal is getting pretty good demands for metallurgical coal in India and China. That tells you where the steel is going to be coming from."

Moore said a lot of steel produced domestically comes from "merchant mills" that "just re-melt scrap and make special bars and things for trailer beams, heavy equipment and other products."

Thomas Conway, a USW international vice president, testified before the House of Representatives Steel Caucus in May 2010, arguing that our huge trade deficit with China illustrates the challenges faced by American manufacturers.

"Congress can act," Conway testified, "to stop one of the most damaging of unfair trade practices -- currency manipulation -- and hold foreign countries accountable under U.S. law when they intentionally undervalue their currency to gain an unfair advantage."

World steel production and productivity

The United States used to be the world's top steel producer. But today, the U.S. ranks a distant third behind China and Japan.

China produced 716.5 million metric tons of steel last year, making it by far the largest producer. Four years earlier, China produced about 500 million tons, according to the World Steel Association.

Japan ranked second in 2012, making 107.2 million tons. The U.S. produced 88.6 million tons, only 12.3 percent of the amount produced in China.

Other top producers in 2012 included: India, 76.7 million tons; and South Korea, 69.3 million tons.

In 2012, Asian countries produced 65.4 percent of all the world's steel, according to the World Steel Association. World steel production reached more than $1.5 trillion tons -- a record.

But productivity sometimes seems to have little to do with total production.

Labor productivity in the domestic steel industry improved dramatically over the past generation, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, a coalition of steel producers.

In the early 1980s, it took an average of 10.1 man-hours to produce a finished ton of steel in the U.S. By 2006, that dropped to only two.

Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said the monthly trade deficit with China "continues to assume massive proportions, clocking in at $29 billion in November, down just slightly from an all-time record of $29.5 billion in October.

"Despite talk of a manufacturing renaissance, we will shatter 2011's record $295 billion annual trade deficit with China when the data for December" is released in February.

By November 2012, the trade deficit with China already reached $290 billion.

A coalition between the United Steelworkers of America, U.S. Steel and several other steel companies, AAM recently released a report that stated, "Our manufacturing sector alone has lost 5.5 million jobs in just the last decade, with 2.4 million lost or displaced as a direct result of our massive trade deficit with China."    

Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel

Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel operated steel mills south of Wheeling and in Steubenville, Ohio, for decades. But that company has been in economic turmoil for several years.

Recent owners of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh mills included Severstal, a Russian-based company, and RG Steel.

Last August, after RG Steel had filed for bankruptcy in May, the company began auctioning off its properties in West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland.

Glyptis said, "They are still up in the air with their sales. They are still trying to find buyers for the Sparrows Point plant in Maryland.

"In Wheeling, pieces of the old steel mill are still open. The mill has been fragmented into a lot of pieces."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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