President considers region a role model, local leaders believe
Local officials said President Obama sees Southwestern Pennsylvania as an example for the nation.
“The president really likes to use Pittsburgh as an example of how a region can revitalize itself,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, where the president spoke on Wednesday.
Fitzgerald said new technology and life sciences helped grow the county's gross regional product by 6.3 percent and bring in 16,000 jobs last year.
“The Mon Valley is a great example of how labor and management can work together,” state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said.
“We're ahead of the curve,” said county council president John DeFazio, the director of United Steelworkers District 10 based in North Versailles Township. “And we're going to get a lot better,”
Obama hailed the Steelworkers and U.S. Steel in the second of four follow-up speeches in the two days following his State of the Union address.
“This company helped build America, and over a hundred years later, you're still at it,” he said in a 20-minute message to several hundred Irvin Plant workers and invited guests.
“You forge the pipes that transport cleaner-burning natural gas,” Obama said. “You manufacture the lightweight alloys that our automakers use to build fuel-efficient cars.”
Labor-industry cooperation extends to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which hailed “a strong rhetorical focus on manufacturing” in the State of the Union.
But alliance president Scott Paul said that, “in some cases, such as the trade deficit with China, we've seen backsliding,” with steelmakers contending with overseas competitors, a point echoed by two Irvin pipefitters.
“It would be nice if (Obama) would impose tariffs and make it a level playing field,” Troy Stephenson of McKeesport said.
“It would help,” Brad Miller of Irwin said.
Two groups of protesters gathered in the vicinity of the plant.
A dozen set up signs at the plant entrance that urged Obama to “Save the Economy, Save Coal” and “Legalize Coal, Save Our Jobs.”
A county sheriff's deputy involved in security for the Obama visit ordered would-be interviewers from the media to move away from the group.
Another group protesting the Affordable Care Act and other allegedly “disastrous” Obama policies gathered at the intersection of Lebanon Church and Camp Hollow roads, up the hill from the plant entrance, near the West Mifflin borough building and Allegheny County Airport.
It was organized by the Republican State Committee, whose chairman Rob Gleason said the president's stop in West Mifflin “contains more of the same empty rhetoric we heard (Tuesday) night.”
Gleason said Obama decided to ignore the will of the people and implement his agenda with executive orders.
“It's time for President Obama and the Democrats to abandon their high-tax, job-killing policies and adopt common sense policies that will put Pennsylvanians first,” he said.
Obama signed a memorandum in West Mifflin directing Treasury Secretary Jack Lew “to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings.”
The MyRA concept, as the president labeled it, allows workers to set up an account with as little as $25.
“Workers can contribute through automatic deductions in their paychecks, just like those of you who have an employer-sponsored pension fund can do,” Obama said.
“I wish I had it when I was working, because our pensions from U.S. Steel don't cover that much,” said Homestead Mayor Betty Esper, who retired after 36 years at the old Homestead District Works.
“MyRA is a great idea,” said state Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg. “It is a chance for people to have another pension plan.”
Kortz, a retired Irvin Plant manager, recalled President Bush's 2001 visit there.
“Both presidents recognized we have a world class facility, managed and operated by world class steelworkers, producing high-quality world-class steel for the appliance, constructions and automotive industries,” Kortz said.
Esper was among a long list of Mon-Yough officials greeted by Obama after his speech.
“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” Esper said. “And I got a hug and a kiss from him.”
West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly sent a letter to the White House last month.
“Why is it the big city mayors who come to the White House can present their wish lists, and not the small town mayors?” Kelly asked Obama.
Kelly said his borough has had problems such as the shutdown of the General Motors Pittsburgh Metal Stamping division, also known as the Fisher Body plant.
“We did not get any brownfield (reclamation) money for it,” Kelly said.
West Mifflin is in the process of losing a General Electric training facility.
Ironically, Obama is scheduled to address job training on Thursday at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wisc.
“I'm sure there are some things he can do to help us,” said Clairton Mayor Richard Lattanzi, a 24-year Irvin Plant veteran. He is a safety coordinator for central maintenance and oversees 175 of 3,000 Mon Valley Works employees.
As mayor, Lattanzi is dealing with U.S. Steel's property assessment for the Mon Valley Works Clairton Plant, which the county lowered from $12.46 million in 2012 to under $3.26 million in 2013. The city and Clairton City School District are appealing.
“I'm pretty confident that we are going to work that out,” Lattanzi said.
West Mifflin police Chief Ken Davies said 12 officers aided security during the visit while seven patrolled the borough. Baldwin EMS paramedics were there, but there were no reports of medical problems.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org