Coatesville Aims to Make Steel for 200 Years

From the AAM

Step into the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, Pa., and you’ll come across replica after replica of the indomitable submarines, ships and tanks that have defended our nation since World War I. 

All of them originated in the steel mill just a few yards from the museum.

ArcelorMittal Coatesville, the oldest continuously operating steel mill in the country, makes some of the thickest and largest steel plates in North America – steel our nation’s defenders depend upon. Coatesville’s steel mill has long played a crucial role in America’s national security, supplying our troops from World War I up through recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But just a few years ago, it came close to shutting its doors for good.

THE OLDEST STEEL MILL IN AMERICA

ArcelorMittal Coatesville began as the Brandywine Ironworks and Nail Factory in 1810. It has known many names and had many owners over the years, but perhaps was best known as the Lukens Steel Company, the name it carried for most of the 20th century.

Steel from the mill helped build everything from steam locomotives to the St. Louis Gateway Arch to the Walt Whitman Bridge to the World Trade Center. In fact, the steel “tree” beams that withstood the collapse of the World Trade Center are now in Coatesville, while the mill itself helped to rebuild much of the city’s skyline after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  

And it long played a vital role for our nation’s defense; in 1942, the U.S. Navy even gave Lukens its Navy “E” award in honor of the mill’s work to supply war materials.

In 2003, MittalSteel bought the mill, and it changed names again when the company merged with Arcelor in 2006. And it continued to play a vital role in defending the troops, supplying emergency armor to safeguard America’s combat vehicles during the Iraq war.

But by 2015, the mill simply could not compete against foreign steel, priced far below market value, that was flooding the U.S. market from government-owned steel mills in countries like China.

Things were bad. The mill could no longer afford to replace retirees, let alone expand its workforce. It had counted 840 employees in 2010, but just five years later, employment dwindled to below 500 for the first time in the mill’s history.

“We had taken a pounding,” said Fred Grumbine, who grew up in Coatesville and now works at the mill. “We were all worried about the layoffs and the business and the direction we were going.” 

Fred Grumbine says the steel mill in Coatesville, Pa., means "everything in this community." | Photo by Cathaljine Adams

But relief for Coatesville finally came in March 2018 with the announcement of the Section 232 trade action, which placed tariffs on steel imports.

Vonie Long, a fourth-generation steelworker who serves as United Steelworkers Local 1165 president, recalled that in the two years before the tariffs went into effect, order backlog and shipping tonnage – two important indicators of the mill’s success or decline – were “all over the map.”

 “A pretty good week and then a pretty slow week, then a pretty good week, so it was all over,” Long said.

With tariffs on foreign steel in place, Coatesville’s mill has found its footing in a fair market.

“Our backlog is kind of steady level now,” Long added. “Our shipping tons is kind of a continual, gradual uptick, so I think the tariffs have given us a lot of stability here in Coatesville.”

ANOTHER 200 YEARS?

Today the mill employs 535 workers, including more than 50 new hires since the Section 232 announcement. And, as the mill continues to regrow its workforce, there’s no lack of interest in open jobs.

In just the last round of hiring in August and September 2018, more than 600 people applied to join the mill’s workforce. Meanwhile, recruiting efforts at local technical colleges are underway to guarantee that this supply of available workers remains plentiful.

With an increase in orders, the mill has a backlog through the end of this year, ensuring steady work, and the stability has carried over to life beyond the mill’s fences as well.

“Lately, with more work being put out, yeah, there’s extra money in the paycheck,” Grumbine said. “You’re able to do anything. You’re not worrying about buying a new vehicle now or doing updates around the house or whatever.”

Local businesses, too, have seen the difference. 

“I don’t know all the local business owners, but I know a lot,” Grumbine said. “When it was 2015, we were hit pretty hard, and they were coming to me, ‘What’s going on over at the mill, man?’ Business was down, and right now everything seems to be pretty good.

“There’s two local businesses that I stop in probably every other day, and probably once a week, they tell us to keep it going over there because they notice everything that’s going on. Also, when we get bonuses, everybody knows. They’ve got back to buying extra stock because they know there’ll be more money spent. There’s been a few times lately in the past where they weren’t doing so, you know. They weren’t getting the extra stuff. Oh, absolutely, you can definitely see it and hear about it.”

The mill’s recent success has been felt at the Little Chef restaurant, which has served as a community gathering place in downtown Coatesville for more than 65 years. 

“You can definitely see when it’s doing well. You get a lot of people coming in, and a lot of people, they refer to, like truckers who pick the steel up from Indiana… So we’re fortunate for that,” said Nick Lymberis, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother and mother. 

Along with this uptick in business, there’s growing hope in town that Coatesville will see continued revitalization.

“We’re just seeing some movement downtown. We heard a train station is coming. We see a lot of First Avenue flats getting worked on, so that’s positive vibes,” Lymberis said. “As I ride by that, I’m very excited because I’ve been waiting for a long time for this, and I’m not speaking for myself on that – I’m speaking for city of Coatesville – we’re all waiting for that to make a change. We want a change in a positive way, you know.”

Though Coatesville’s legacy is secure for now, Grumbine and his fellow steelworkers worry that the mill could again experience an onslaught of cheap steel imports.     

“[The mill’s] been here for over 200 years. I want it to here for at least 200 more,” Grumbine said.

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Reposted from AAM

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Alliance for American Manufacturing

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