Georgetown steel mill workers OK pact

Members of the Georgetown steelworkers union overwhelmingly approved contract concessions Wednesday, a move that could pave the way for the reopening of the ArcelorMittal mill.

The concession package the union approved included a $3.65-an-hour wage cut, but did away with a previous request that would have increased insurance costs.

The contract also put certain safeguards in place including: a guarantee that once the mill reopens, it will not be shut down until the contract expires in September 2012, and that employees will work 40 hours a week. It also allows renegotiation for a 32-hour week if the economy struggles.

"I just want to get back to work, so it had to be a yes," said Damien Howard, who was happy with the result of the vote. He has been looking for work since that mill shut down with no luck and said that even with the concessions, it is a good job.

"You can't find anything that still pays that here or around the beach," Howard said.

ArcelorMittal did not say when or if the mill would reopen.

"Our Georgetown facility will remain idled unless market conditions appreciably improve or the plant is put on a more competitive footing," ArcelorMittal spokeswoman Katie Patterson said in a statement.

The mill shut down in July 2009 due to a lack of orders and left about 297 workers unemployed indefinitely.

The workers rejected an offer in August from ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, which sought concessions to reopen the mill.

"There is no doubt in my mind the right decision was made," said United Steelworkers Union 7898 President James Sanderson. "Now we're positioning ourselves with the changes in the contract to compete with our competitors on an equal footing."

Sanderson said he informed ArcelorMittal of the results, and the company was pleased.

"I would say probably within the next month you will hear an announcement made by ArcelorMittal for the reopening of our plant," he said.

The pending expiration of supplemental pay benefits, which are set to expire July 10 for many of the workers, and the challenging employment market likely influenced the members' yes vote, Sanderson said. ArcelorMittal also seemed more willing to come to the table, he said.

"There really wasn't that great pressure because of the market, now that they see the uptick, the upswing, they understand let's get the mill working again," Sanderson said.

John Poston, who has worked at the plant for 10 years, said that he voted against the concessions the last time around but voted to approve them Wednesday and is ready to get back to work.

"The fact that they're guaranteeing us our hours, that's what made the change for me," he said. The previous offer only guaranteed the employees 24 hours a week.

For Ron Fredericks, who has worked at the mill for about 30 years, approving concessions was never a question.

"I know that the economy was in such a state that if we wanted to stay open, we needed to take a concession," he said. "It'll be a win-win situation for people going back to work and people in the city and in the county."

The fate of the steel mill has a broad impact on Georgetown and Georgetown County, and it is important that the mill reopen, said Wayne Gregory, the economic development director for Georgetown County.

"Hopefully, this will lead to the reopening of the steel mill," he said. "We'd love to see it happen very soon."

The mill provides many direct jobs, but there are also other businesses that are affected, Gregory said.

Tony Mau and Thomas Morris work for Stein Incorp., a subcontractor for the mill that mainly does old steel removal. They haven't been working since the mill shut down and stopped by the union hall to find out the results of the vote.

"We've got to get them back to work before we can get back to work," Morris said.

They were happy to hear that the contract was approved, but Mau said they would have supported any decision the union made.