Employees react to closing McKeesport plant

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 4:41 a.m.

Uncertainty is common among those rank-and-file workers at U.S. Steel's McKeesport Tubular Operations willing to talk about losing their jobs come early August.

“Some say it is going to be idle for six months, some say it is going to be idle forever,” said electrician Jeff Meehan of McKeesport, a married father of two with eight years at McKeesport Tubular and its predecessor, Camp-Hill Corp.

On Monday, U.S. Steel said it will idle indefinitely Tubular Products plants in Bellville, Texas, and McKeesport. The 157 rank-and-file employees in McKeesport and other union and management personnel at the two locations were given 60-day notices required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification or WARN Act.

Company officials said pipe imports were a factor in the decision.

“I thought they would give more pressure on imports,” said Aaron Gaska of McKeesport, who works in shipping and loading and has “three or four generations” of steelworkers in his family.

Politicians from both major parties reacted to U.S. Steel's announcement by pointing to how “Oil Country Tubular Goods,” that is pipe produced for oil and gas development, are “dumped” below the cost of production by such countries as South Korea into the United States.

“My heart goes out to those workers and their families, and I promise them that I will do everything in my power to get the McKeesport facility back up and running,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.

But the announcement came amid U.S. Steel's “Carnegie Way” effort to cut costs.

“While these are difficult decisions, they are necessary in order to return our company to sustainable profitability and position us for future growth,” U.S. Steel president and CEO Mario Longhi said.

“A lot of things could have been done differently” by government and by U.S. Steel corporate officials, said one three-year employee, who only identified himself as Dennis.

“We've been laid off before,” Meehan said. “Hopefully we get more orders.”

In December 2012, U.S. Steel laid off 142 hourly employees, leaving 95 behind, but gradually that number almost doubled before Monday's announcement.

Others didn't want to stop to talk to a reporter as they left the parking lot near the Marina at McKees Point.

“I gotta get going home,” one employee said.

“I got a long way to travel,” said another as he drove through the gate.

Monday's announcement wasn't in the plans for many of those who came to work in a mill making pipe for the gas drilling industry.

“A lot of kids quit other jobs to come down here to U.S. Steel,” said Ron Erosenko of McKeesport. “I feel bad for those younger kids.”

Erosenko, whose brother Greg is mayor in Monroeville, turns 65 in December. He has 36 years behind him at the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works Edgar Thomson Plant, five years at Camp-Hill and three years at McKeesport Tubular.

“So it's not so bad for me,” the prospective retiree said.

Erosenko and others had to re-apply for their jobs when U.S. Steel took over from Camp-Hill in May 2011.

“Successful candidates will have experience in operating a variety of equipment used for the production and inspection of large diameter welded pipe, as well as auxiliary equipment used to support its production and inspection processes,” U.S. Steel said in an ad for operating positions posted on its website.

“It's terrible for us and for the unions,” Meehan said. “It is all political right now, I'm guessing.”

“I can't believe they didn't know sooner,” Gaska said.

At a rally in Munhall two weeks ago, United Steelworkers Local 5852 president Mark A. Fronczek said McKeesport Tubular had turned a corner after three turbulent years that included a contract dispute and management changes, as well as layoffs. Fronczek has not been available for comment since U.S. Steel made its announcement.

Recalling the rally many McKeesport Tubular employees attended on May 19 at U.S. Steel's Research and Technology Center in the Waterfront, Gaska said the politicians “spoke of how powerful the steel industry is.”

“Steel manufacturing is a critical segment of Pennsylvania's economy and I cannot stress enough the importance of enforcing our country's trade laws,” Gov. Tom Corbett said as he authorized a “rapid response” unit to provide workers awaiting a layoff with information on retraining, continuing education, job-seeking, health insurance and unemployment benefits to help them transition to re-employment.

Some McKeesport Tubular employees hope they eventually can be transferred to the nearby U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works, including Edgar Thomson as well as Clairton coke and Irvin finishing plants, under terms of Local 5852's contract.

“That is somewhat settling,” Meehan said. “We should be able to get transfers.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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