Obama coming to Western Pa. steel plant to pitch retirement savings

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

After delivering a State of the Union Address that focused on strengthening the struggling middle class, President Obama on Wednesday will head for a Western Pennsylvania town that's been swimming against the economic tide for years.

West Mifflin — where Obama plans to pitch a retirement savings program introduced in his speech — lost a General Motors Plant in 2008 and will lose a General Electric training facility soon, Mayor Chris Kelly said.

Kelly said he hopes the president doesn't forget this town of 20,000, where the median income is nearly $7,000 a year less than the national average of about $53,000.

“When they're passing out all the favors ... we're hoping our list is accepted as well,” said Kelly, who plans to attend Obama's speech at the U.S. Steel Irvin Plant. Kelly said he wants federal policies that bring good-paying jobs back to struggling middle-class towns such as his.

The steel plant will be the second stop on Obama's two-day tour of the country, during which he'll try to build support for policies he laid out in his annual national address.

He will begin by visiting a Costco store in Lanham, Md., to stump for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. After his stop in West Mifflin, Obama will spend the night in Milwaukee, Wis. He will speak about job training at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wis., on Thursday and visit a high school in Nashville before returning to Washington.

The Obama administration plans to release more details on the retirement savings plan on Wednesday. The White House chose to visit the Irvin plant because “the kind of retirement available to U.S. Steel workers should be available to workers across the country,” said a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Steel offers employees a 401(k) plan, and most union workers are eligible for a defined-benefit pension plan, according to the company's website. Obama's proposal won't mirror the plans U.S. Steel offers, the official said.

“Whether you like the president or not, it's a good thing that he's coming here to bring attention to the steel industry and talk about providing good jobs,” said Gilbert Miller, 52, a Belle Vernon resident who is a millwright at the Irvin plant and grievance man for United Steelworkers Local 2227.

If given the chance, Miller said he'll tell the president the federal government should spend more to rebuild public infrastructure and ensure American workers and materials are used for those jobs.

At its peak, American manufacturing employed more than 19.5 million. That fell to fewer than 11.5 million in early 2010. Although the country added 570,000 manufacturing jobs since the sector bottomed out, there are 1.7 million fewer manufacturing jobs than when the recession began in 2007.

“I don't think the president, Democrats or Republicans think we're where we want to be,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who plans to fly to Pittsburgh with Obama on Air Force One.

Doyle said he sees evidence of a resurgence in American manufacturing. Low energy prices, held down by bountiful natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation and oil in North Dakota's Bakken formation, are luring companies back to the United States, Doyle said.

“On a level playing field, U.S. Steel can compete with any other country in making steel. The problem is a lot of other countries subsidize their steel companies or dump cheap steel on the American market,” Doyle said.

The White House, Secret Service and local authorities declined to comment on security plans for the president's visit to Irvin in the afternoon, including whether drivers should expect any rolling blockades on the region's roadways. About midday on Tuesday, a pair of Sikorsky helicopters — similar to those that pick up the president on the south lawn of the White House — flew over Downtown followed by three V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

George W. Bush was the last president to visit the plant when he commemorated U.S. Steel's 100th anniversary in 2001. Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivered an energy policy speech at the plant in 2011 during his presidential campaign.

About 1,000 people work at the Irvin plant, which opened in 1938 and employed 5,000 at its peak. Production — steel coils used in appliance and auto manufacturing are made there — will continue during Obama's visit, spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said. Employees are invited to attend, she said.

“I didn't know a thing about” the visit, said Janice Korenoski, 53, who lives near the plant. “I'm glad he's coming. I hope he dresses warm.”

Tom Fontaine and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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