Georgetown steel mill lays off 20

After years of on-again off-again work at Georgetown’s steel mill, workers are now facing more bad news as the mill cuts back.

Twenty workers at the mill have been laid off and another 20 open positions will go unfilled, local Steelworkers Union President James Sanderson said Saturday.

In a reduction Sanderson blamed on cheaper steel imports from China, the mill shed the 20 workers Oct. 26, shifting from three crews to two crews. Sanderson said the change means the mill now employs a little less than 200 workers, down from 282 workers and four crews in 2008.

After suffering through an idle mill in late 2009 and 2010, workers are upset and frustrated at the latest sour economic news, Sanderson said.

“They are very, very upset; very uncertain. They basically said deja vu, here we go again.”

This is only the latest of a series of troubles for the mill over recent years.

In 2003, the plant, then known as Georgetown Steel, filed for bankruptcy. It reopened under new ownership in 2004. ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer, bought the plant in 2007.

In April 2009, mill officials said the plant would go down in 60 days, due to lack of orders. That announcement came after months of on-and-off layoffs as the sputtering economy crushed the demand for steel.

The mill stopped production on July 10, 2009, laying off about 240 workers.

When it reopened in January 2011, workers had secured a promise from owner ArcelorMittal that it would not be entirely shut down again until their contract expired, but that promise ended with their contract in September.

The layoffs come as ArcelorMittal reported Oct. 31 its lowest quarterly profit in almost three years and slashed its dividend for investors by almost 75 percent.

The company reported Wednesday that it suffered a $709 million loss from July to September, a sharp contrast with last year’s equivalent profit of $659 million and the second-quarter’s profit of $959 million.

ArcelorMittal CEO Lakshmi Mittal blamed lower economic growth in China, which is now the world’s second-largest economy after years of stellar growth.

Calls to ArcelorMittal’s U.S. headquarters on Saturday were not returned, and calls to the plant in Georgetown were answered by a security guard, who said nobody was available to talk about the layoffs.

Sanderson blamed the shallow Georgetown port, which has languished in need of dredging for years, for at least part of the slowdown.

“It’s very vital we get this port dredged for the survival of this steel mill,” he said.

What about the mill’s future? Are more layoffs possible?

Sanderson wasn’t sure, but said “anything’s possible.”

He was not optimistic about the future of the plant if it suffers through yet another shutdown, however.

“I’m a firm believer that if that mill goes down again it won’t come back up.”

The mill is one of Georgetown’s largest utility customers, contributing tens of thousands of dollars a month to the city’s budget, and any cutback in production could ripple through the city.

Jackie Broach, Georgetown County spokeswoman, said that she hadn’t yet heard of the layoffs, but called the mill “a key component of our economy” and expressed concern about losing jobs and growing the county’s unemployment rate, which was 8.2 percent in September.

Many other Georgetown city and county officials could not be reached Saturday evening. One who could be reached, Georgetown City Councilman Clarence Smalls, said he also hadn’t yet heard of the layoffs but concurred with Sanderson’s assessment that the lack of port dredging was probably a factor.

“I’m pretty sure that had a lot to do with it,” he said. “That port needs to be dredged.”

Sanderson, who has led the local union for decades, said they have already petitioned the U.S. Labor Department for acceptance into the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, set up to help workers who have lost their jobs because of increased competition from foreign markets. It’s one reason the union is hosting 7th Congressional District candidate Gloria Bromell Tinubu at a news conference on Monday.

Sanderson said Tinubu will “fight for the working people” even as Republicans seek to dismantle the TAA program. If such assistance does not materialize, those laid off last month will have 20 weeks of state unemployment benefits to sustain them as they search for new jobs.

Regardless of a federal decision on jobless assistance, Sanderson wants to emphasize the importance of the recent announcement:

“We want to ensure everybody understands the seriousness of what’s happening at our steel mill.”