Why is Steel Important to You?
America's steel communities are at the heart of our current national politics. What do people living and working in these communities have to say? Read their stories — and share your own.Submit your Story
50 / Mohnton, Pa.
Vonie Long is a fourth generation steelworker who grew up in the Mon Valley, south of Pittsburgh. Today, he works as a maintenance tech electrician at an ArcelorMital plate mill in Coatesville, Pa., where he primarily performs preventative maintenance on large overhead cranes.
"I knew this could be demanding but rewarding work," Long says.
"When I started in 1994, it was known as Lukens Steel, and we have been making product here along the Brandywine River since 1810," he adds. "Being a U.S. Navy veteran, I take pride when we produce Navy armor and other military alloy. Our products continue to change the skyline of cities, build bridges and roadways, and become the home of many sports franchises."
Long also serves as president of United Steelworkers Local 1165, which has 13 units and about 1,200 members. He's also active in the Steelworkers' Rapid Response program, which focuses on issues that impact the working lives, families and communities of steelworkers.
"I am particularly interested in trade policy because our local once had 20 units (and 900 more members)," he says. "At closure, these employers usually cite wrong trade policy as a reason. The past two decades in the Chester/Lancaster/Berks County area we have witnessed over 40 USW represented facilities shut down due to imports and offshoring. The loss of manufacturing not only affects workers of a facility, it adversely affects many times the amount of workers."
But Long continues to work hard for American steel, not only in his own job but for others.
"I fight a little each day for a healthy domestic steel industry. These are great family sustaining jobs that lead into retirement security," he says. "I'd hope these same type of opportunities are available for my grandchildren and further."
43 / Racoon Township, Pa.
Tom Duffy is a fourth-generation steelworker who is currently the Mon Valley Pennsylvania safety coordinator. He in charge of all safety aspects at four U.S. Steel mills — Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Works, Edgar Thompson Works and Fairless Hills, located on the eastern side of the state near Philadelphia.
The 49-year-old Gulf War Army veteran spends quite a bit of time on the road away from his wife and three children at home in Racoon Township, an upscale, middle class area of Beaver County. But he hasn’t forgotten how becoming a United Steelworker member (USW) changed his life.
"At my first job, I had to pay for my wife’s baby delivery because my benefits were not good enough to cover it and that was $3,000. That would be like $30,000 today," Duffy says. "I look back at what a good union job did for us. Not only did it give us a boost in pay but great benefits. It gave you a life and it made you feel like you were doing something that actually meant something."
Duffy has been a steelworker for 30 years, the past 24 as a card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers (USW). He spent the previous six years doing contractor work in the mills.
His military career found him deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Today he gets sent out by U.S. Steel to mills in Pennsylvania to investigate work-related fatalities and major injury accidents. His first two steel mill jobs were cut short when the plants were forced to shut down because of unfair foreign competition. Then he landed at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, where he got involved in safety issues through USW Local 1557.
"You can see the way the industry has suffered in just the past few years because of all the steel coming over from China," he says. "Everybody’s been kind of worried about their jobs and it definitely has affected a lot of people’s ability to make a living."
Steel jobs aren't just important to the people who work them, Duffy notes — they support entire communities.
"When our mills are operating at capacity it’s a big shot in the arm for the community, the contractors, the small businesses, so it goes far beyond the people directly working in the mill," Duffy says. "Each union member that works in one of these plants supports seven other jobs in the community."
Duffy realizes his life could look a lot different had it not been for the generations of steelworkers that paved the way for a better way of life.
"Where can guys go right out of high school and work, with overtime, and make nearly six figures? There aren’t too many jobs around like that," he says. "I was able to put my kids through college, buy a home and live the American Dream. Otherwise, if you look around at everyone else, people that are working, they aren’t living the American Dream. They are surviving. They are living paycheck-to-paycheck and doing whatever they can to survive."
40 / Ecorse, Mich.
Stephanie Pruitt, pictured right, works in shipping at U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works, located just south of Detroit in Ecorse, Mich.
The success of the Motor City’s auto industry in recent years means Pruitt has had steady work. While she was laid off for about one year in 2008 when America’s economy tanked, the resurgence of Detroit’s auto industry has kept Pruitt and her colleagues busy making steel for the Big Three automakers ever since.
"When the auto industry is good, then we’re good," said Pruitt. "If they’re bad, then it’s a trickle effect and we’re bad, too. So most of our business is based on the auto industry."
Pruitt is a 40-year-old mother of one son and has worked at U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works for 14 years. Other than the one-year layoff at the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, she has worked steadily as a shipper at the caster.
"The molds come out and we put them on the ground and I ship them on a skid car to the 80-inch rolled building. It’s in the slab yard. After they come off the roll line they are piping hot and they go either on a skid car or they sit in the yard," Pruitt said. "There are no layoffs now here in this mill, but our other brothers and sisters, they’re displaced. We are lucky that most of our business is steel for autos. Many [United Steelworkers] members are out of work because of China’s impact flooding the American steel market."
Even one of America’s most successful steel mills is feeling the effects of the recession. From 2008 to 2009, Ecorse supported a bustling community of stores, restaurants and bars, many of which could not weather the loss of the steelworkers’ business and were forced to shut down.
"When we came back to work in 2009, some of them revived but a lot of the businesses didn’t come back," said Pruitt. "And it was mainly the same way with the poor people in Detroit. In the housing market, everybody was moving their homes. Everybody was struggling. I was struggling to pay my bills. It was a domino effect. Homes went. People were walking away from their homes or buying cheaper homes or doing whatever they could to survive. It was because of the steel industry and the auto industry all tied into one."
But since the stimulus package, proposed by President George W. Bush and ushered in by President Barack Obama, the auto rescue got Detroit working again and the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works returned to full production. And returning to full-time manufacturing has made Pruitt grateful she works in such a successful mill where the approximately 1,800 USW members of Local 1299 are back to their well-paying, benefit friendly jobs.
"It’s the difference from me being in the unemployment line and me striving to make something of myself and my son," Pruitt said. "I’m proud to work here."
35 / Plum, Pa.
Jim Johnston, a 35-year-old steelworker at the Edgar Thomson Works mill in Braddock, Pa, knows that the flood of dumped steel imports from places like China continue to threaten the American steel industry. But there have been no employee layoffs at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson facility since 2008.
Johnston, president of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1219, knows he and his colleagues are in the right place at the right time. The Edgar Thompson mill continues to produce steel slabs that support other mills, including those in U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works group like Irvin Works, Fairless Hills and Clairton Coke Works.
“We service mostly the appliance sector. The bulk of our orders are for appliances but we are able to make a lot of pipe grades,” Johnston says. “With a lot of the stuff that was coming in from South Korea and China, we did lose quite a bit of business and a lot of orders but we were able to pick it up from other places. It’s just unfortunate that we are making these orders because at Granite City (Illinois), half the plant is shut down.
"If Granite City, Fairfield (Alabama) and Lorain (Ohio) had all their people back making tubular goods, we wouldn’t nearly have the amount of orders we have right now. It’s hard to get my membership to understand the severity of the imports, because we are the low-cost producer for the company so they always seem to keep us working. But a lot of the (USW) members don’t grasp that.”
Johnston, a Pittsburgh native now living in Allegheny County’s upper middle-class Plum borough, has worked 12 years at the Edgar Thomson plant after attending community college for two years after high school. He is a caster run operator, cutting the slabs from a pulpit, making sure they are formed to a specific length and width. The slabs are then sent to be finished at sister plant Irvin Works in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin.
In addition to appliances, a large percentage of the slabs end up at U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Works facility near Detroit, where they are used in vehicle manufacturing.
"Like a lot of local steelworkers, this job means everything to me," Johnston says. "It’s kind of a blueprint for a lot of families in Pittsburgh. People like myself, who is a third-generation steelworker, this is what I know.
"It means a lot, especially here in the Mon Valley. We have between the three plants (Edgar Thomson, Clairton and Irvin) 3,500 union jobs and approximately 400 to 500 management jobs. If those were to go away, that’s a huge impact economically for the city of Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley. If you were to eliminate 4,000 good-paying jobs, how many other jobs is that going to effect as well? You are talking millions of dollars into the economy."
Of the three U.S. Steel Mon Valley area plants, Edgar Thomson is the smallest of the facilities, employing about 550 steelworkers. It is a fully integrated steel mill with two blast furnaces.
"We make iron and then turn it into steel. Then we take it to our dual-strength continuous caster to make the slabs," Johnston says. "We have the capability to produce 2.8 million tons per year, which is a lot for a mill our size."
51 / Coal Center, Pa.
Willard Jones certainly has a penchant for water. He works in water purification at the U.S. Steel Clairton Works plant during the day, and because of his steelworker’s well-paying, benefit-friendly job, Jones gets to return to his home at night in Coal Center, Pa., a borough located along the banks of the Monongahela River.
The Clairton Works plant is the largest coke-making facility in North America and, for environmental safety, all work is internal at the energy-making plant.
"I’m in water purification," Jones says. "The solutions they use on the batteries, everything is internal here so we clean the batteries thoroughly before the water gets sent back out into the river. We monitor the water going out to the river and make sure it’s up to spec. That’s a huge part of this."
Jones has been employed in the steel industry at Clairton for 11 years, but at the age of 51, he has a long background in water purification.
"I worked for a chemical company for 20 years before coming to Clairton,” Jones says. "I call it the Bug Plant here because we have two big tanks and the bugs feed off that water and take a lot of the last impurities out of the water. They’re microscopic so you can’t see them. That water has to be pure before it goes back into the river."
Because of its massive production of coke, an essential fuel in making steel, Clairton Works seems to have a relatively safe future in the American steel-making industry. But with such an influx of poor-quality, state-subsidized steel illegally finding its way into the U.S. marketplace, nothing seems safe in the steel industry.
"Nothing here recently has picked up at all," Jones says. "We’re flat. We are down to a three-quarters schedule. It’s hard to explain about China because you don’t know what to believe. You got guys saying they are going to help us cut back on imports and other’s that don’t do a thing. It’s really hard to tell who they are looking out for."
One thing Jones does know is that he is looking out for himself and his union brothers and sisters working as the Pension Insurance Benefits Chairman for United Steelworkers Local 1557.
"This job is my life and I want to make it work for all of my co-workers," he said. "This job put my daughter through college, I’ve got a house, cars. It puts food on the table, man. It’s a nice living and you want to have something when you are done working.
"These industries aren’t the best for your health so you want health insurance and a pension. We want to keep it floatable for retirees because we’re going to be there, too. We need to keep that structure in place for the next generation."
While Jones is fighting to preserve the benefits for steelworkers after their working days are over, he is hoping the American steel industry can begin to add to a dwindling workforce.
"When the mills go down, these towns turn into ghost towns," Jones says. "The towns all the way down through the Mon Valley. All along the river, there are so many old mills that are shut down and torn down. They are turning these areas into apartments but all of these little towns are just going away. It squeezes little towns out.
"You’ve got to be resilient. These guys, that’s all they do is hard work. The just keep on working and if something happens you have to move on and keep fighting."
29 / North Versailles, Pa.
At the age of 29, Kip Davis is among the youngest generation of steelworkers employed at the Edgar Thomson Works plant in Braddock, Pa. The Edgar Thomson plant is part of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, along with the Irvin Works plant, Clairton Coke Works and Fairless Works near Philadelphia.
For generations, the Mon Valley facilities have been the backbone of American steel-making. It is here where President Trump addressed a crowd of thousands during his presidential campaign and told the voters he would restore steel manufacturing jobs and renegotiate the free trade deals that have decimated the region.
But it’s a new world, with a global economy. The glory days of steel-making in the Pittsburgh area most likely will never return. Davis realizes future limitations but, young and hungry, he is willing to do the work like so many before him that provided a secure, middle-class family lifestyle.
Davis has worked at Edgar Thomson Works for five years, the first four of which he toiled in the heat of the blast furnace. He was transferred last year to the BOT Shop, where he helps mix chemicals to the iron that changes the temperature and helps the iron solidify itself.
After high school, Davis spent some time at community college, but quickly realized he just wanted to start working.
"That’s crazy, because I have a couple of friends with degrees and I make a lot more money than they do," Davis says. "That may change down the road but right now this job means everything to me."
"I live in North Versailles which is five to seven minutes away from the plant, so it is a short commute after working those 12 hour shifts. As a man, I have to take care of my family. I make sure everything is right at the job and the main thing is to be safe,” he adds. “This is serious business. I have a five-year-old son to protect and provide for."
Davis has noticed a bit of improvement in the quality of life in the Mon Valley area.
"The Pittsburgh area has really made an effort to improve the areas that were decimated by the loss of all those steel jobs," Davis says. "In Braddock, I see new stores being built, some of the old buildings are finally being knocked down with new ones being built. The community is becoming better and I can tell there is money starting to be involved."
The steel industry built this comfortable middle-class neighborhood. With employees like Davis, it just might do it again.
68 / Fla.
Diane Miller made a bit of history during her 38-year career as a steelworker for Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. in Philadelphia. In 1976 she was one of the first women to be hired at the pipe, sprinkler and fence-making plant. In 2015, she became the first female retiree at full age and full pension.
She held many positions at Allied Tube, starting out as a pipe sorter and closing her career as a crane operator. In the many other job positions she held over the years, she paved the way for future female employees in the steel industry. Her United Steelworkers (USW) contract with Allied Tube assured her that she would be spared from fighting gender discrimination in wage compensation.
Equal pay for women is a battle still being fought today, but Miller had other problems to confront on her way to a popular retirement life in Florida.
"When I started at Allied Tube, the men were not so welcoming to me," Miller says. "A lot of the men tried to talk to the women in a sexual way and a couple of them I had to put in their place.
"But I had equal pay and benefits. Each job has a different rate, so you worked yourself up the ladder. I was paid the same rate as the man doing the same job that I was doing. When I finally became the first female crane operator near the end of my career, I still felt like I had to show that I could keep up with the men."
Miller ran the crane during 60-hour work weeks that occasionally turned into 80-hour weekly marathons.
"We got time and a half for a certain number of hours and the we got double time for even more hours," she recalls. "But it worked out. I was happy there."
Miller could have retired at 62, but waited until she was 65 to hang up her gloves. She retired just months before Allied Tube & Conduit closed its Philadelphia manufacturing plant so she received her full benefits and pension upon her departure.
A trailblazer for female steelworkers, Miller was able to put her two daughters through college, take vacations and not have to worry about how to pay the next bill. Today, the 68-year-old is enjoying the Florida sun and spoiling her grandchildren on visits made possible by a successful USW manufacturing career.
62 / Elizabeth, Pa.
Steelworker Kevin Cunningham has begun the chant “four more years.” Not the presidential chant of four more years in the White House, but four more years until he retires from the big house – the Edgar Thomson Works steel mill in Braddock, Pa.
Cunningham has been working in and out of steel mills since 1973. At the age of 62, he has decided to give four more years of his life to the industry that has seen him through plenty of good and bad times.
In the early 1980s, a steel analyst predicted that U.S. Steel would close Edgar Thomson within a few years. Many American steel mills have shut down since then, but Edgar Thomson continues to manufacture the steel slabs through the continuous casting process that is the backbone of the historic Mon Valley Works.
"I’m a strand operator," Cunningham says. "We actually pour the steel to make the slabs. And the slabs are sent downstairs to be cut up to be sent to Irvin Works to make coils out of."
Cunningham, who lives in the borough of Elizabeth, is vice president of United Steelworkers Local 1219. He has seen both sides of what life is like as a steelworker. The bad times he blames on countries like China and Japan, who have illegally dumped their government-subsidized steel into America at below market prices.
"China affected us a whole lot," he says. "I mean, just in my steel mill that I worked at, National Tube, we were 4,500 people strong and places like Duquesne were 20,000 people strong. They made everybody relocate or retire. Some of my friends even committed suicide because they had gone out and bought homes, had babies, got married and they were just so overwhelmed, they couldn’t pay their bills. The took the short way out.
"Alcohol even caused me some problems because of me losing my job and having to relocate and everything."
But Cunningham also understands how steelworker jobs helped create a middle class in America for those willing to put in a hard day’s work.
"Steel is what built this country. It’s not just for my own benefit, it is for everybody," he says."Hopefully the younger guys will get involved and will continue what our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, uncles, aunts and what everybody started."
"It means a lot because it keeps the stores going, the small mom-and-pop shops open, helps with new constructions and the bridges I travel," he adds. "Steel is big thing for all of us."
54 / Pittsburgh, Pa.
A Pittsburgh native, Chris Chapman feels right at home working at Irvin Works in the borough of West Mifflin in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County.
U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works is the heart of Pennsylvania steelmaking these days with four facilities – the Irvin Plant, the Clairton coke plant, the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and the Fairless Hills plant in Bucks County northeast of Philadelphia.
For the past 14 years, Chapman has worked in the business planning department at the Irvin Works mill. After working for seven years on the plant floor doing about every job he could do in three different departments, he made his way into an office job where he felt more comfortable.
"The job I have now, I reapply defective material, the material that has been messed up, or the machine might have broken off," Chapman says. "They can’t sell it to the customer, so they have to find a secondary customer and that’s what I do. I recycle the scrap back into U.S. Steel or other companies."
Chapman began his second career getting hired at U.S. Steel at the age of 30. He had attended college and landed a job with Holiday Inn after high school, but he realized with children to raise in the challenging section of Pittsburgh known as East Liberty, he needed increased wages and benefits.
"Someone said U.S. Steel was hiring so I came out, applied and got hired,” Chapman recalls. "I wasn’t surprised about the pay and benefits because my foster father and his father worked in the steel mill."
The Irvin plant rolls and treats steel slabs produced by the nearby Edgar Thomson plant and manufactures hot-rolled, cold-rolled and coated sheet products used in the appliance, automotive, metal building and home construction industries.
Chapman has been fortunate having been laid off just once in his 22 years at the Irvin plant.
"Some of these guys in the mills work from 12 to 16 hours a day but it causes more accidents and everything increases because it causes more stress," he said. "I work in an office and purposely gear myself not to have all this stress. I work Monday through Friday, eight hours a day. It’s only because I was guided. They tried to make me a manager.
"This job has been a great asset and blessing in my life."
Chapman grew up in West Mifflin and the borough has continued to be impacted by the influx of foreign steel imports causing steel industry companies to close. The mills still in production are also not involved in any new hiring. They get by with the present staff working longer hours.
When South Korea and China were dumping tubular pipe known as OCTG into the U.S. market about four years ago, a lot of people in the Mon Valley were laid off.
"You can see the devastation in the community," Chapman says. "Businesses and houses shut down, people left town and the area is decimated. There is no pipe moving out on the railroad tracks. It’s all over West Mifflin. There is pipe in every field because we can’t compete with the trade cheating from China."
51 / Ben Avon, Pa.
Donald Jackson grew up in the Arlington section of Pittsburgh located at the top of a hill known as the Southside Slopes of the Steel City. In close proximity to the Monongahela River, which in Pittsburgh’s manufacturing heyday was lined with steel mills and other steel-making facilities, Arlington was the home to the working-class people of steel.
"If you lived in Arlington, steel is all you knew," Jackson says. "My friends’ fathers and mothers all wanted to work in the steel industry. It’s all the people ever wanted to be — a steelworker. I think my job might mean a little more to me than the average person."
Jackson is a third-generation steelworker, spending his last 4 ½ years at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works. He is the third helper on the No. 1 blast furnace, but expects to be back working in maintenance in the next few weeks.
There is a great sense of pride among steelworkers who work on the maintenance crew, and Jackson is no exception.
"I need to be back on maintenance. I did it, my dad did it and my grandfather did it," he says.
Prior to coming to the Edgar Thomson Works, Jackson worked at Union Electric Steel for 11 ½ years. He felt conditions deteriorating with the influx of Chinese steel, and knew it was time for a change.
But the same difficult conditions continued at U.S. Steel with cutbacks hitting the whole of America’s steel industry.
"It was getting bad and for some it was devastating," Jackson says. "We went from a regular 40-hour work week or sometimes more, to 32 hours and maintenance people were cut back to 40 hours, no exceptions.
"It’s kind of a slap in the face when you have people in China putting out stuff that isn’t even good scrap."
At the age of 51, Jackson no longer lives in Arlington but it is obvious “the Slope” will always remain in his heart. He currently lives a middle-class lifestyle in Ben Avon borough along the Ohio River in Allegheny County. He is putting his daughter through college.
Along with his pride of being a steelworker comes his love of his union, United Steelworkers Local 1219. He is an inside guard, civil rights rep, the communications/action team coordinator and the co-coordinator of Rapid Response.
"It’s the way I was raised. If your union asks you to do it, I’m ready to step in and do it," he says. "I am very proud of my family that was in this union."
40 / Penn Hills, Pa.
Derick Gee has been working at the Edgar Thomson Works, a U.S. Steel facility near Pittsburgh, for the past 6 1/2 years. It may have just been a simple twist of fate that Gee ended up working so close to Pittsburgh, his place of birth.
After receiving his associate’s degree in electronics from Penn Tech, a trade school located in downtown Pittsburgh, he began his steel industry career at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant near Baltimore. He set up his life in Baltimore, buying a house with his wife and planning a long career at Sparrows Point.
But after Sparrows Point was sold multiple times, Gee was laid off by new owners RG Steel. After 10 years in Baltimore, Gee decided to take a chance and look for work back in Pittsburgh. He no sooner landed a job at Edgar Thomson Works when RG Steel called him back to work in Baltimore.
"I still had my house back in Baltimore, my seniority and friends," said Gee. "I had to make a decision and I figured God opened this door for me in Pittsburgh so I took a leap of faith."
Now, at the age of 40, with his electronics background, Gee is happily working as a systems technician at Edgar Thomson and living in the working, middle-class suburb of Penn Hills. Sparrows Point shut down permanently eight months later.
While Gee feels more secure in his present job, he is well aware of the threat of cheap, foreign steel entering the U.S. from China and South Korea.
"As for me, I had to move to a whole different state, to a different steel mill based on one company shutting down," Gee says. "I don’t think people realize what the steel mills mean to the community until after years of them being gone. Then they see the roads and everything else falling apart because the tax money is not available for the city and people can’t find jobs. It’s really sad. People don’t know how the system works. The money has to come from somewhere to fix the roads, open new businesses and create good-paying jobs. Steelworkers just need to keep the faith."
60 / Pa.
Calvin Croftcheck’s first day of work in the steel industry was Aug. 16, 1976. To say he’s seen it all, and then some, is a gross understatement.
With more than 40 years of experience, Croftcheck has worked the majority of positions available to a young man beginning his manufacturing career right out of high school.
Today, at the age of 60, Croftcheck is the corporate safety coordinator for U.S. Steel, representing about 18,000 workers at 12 locations throughout the country.
He started out at Rockwell International, a brass foundry in Uniontown, Pa., where among other tasks, he was a general laborer, a molder, a grinder, a core maker, maintenance helper and even trained to be a machinist. The foundry manufactured water meters while at the same time, another division of Rockwell, was building the Space Shuttle.
When the water meter manufacturing future seemed ominous at Rockwell, Croftcheck decided to take his vast experience and find a job at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Works, North America’s largest producer of high-grade, steel-making coke. Having been the president of his steelworkers local while at Rockwell, Croftcheck soon became involved at United Steelworkers Local 1557 in Clairton.
He eventually became involved in the safety aspects of working in a steel mill and despite his tremendous knowledge of the manufacturing process, Croftcheck, as they say, hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.
"Safety is now a full-time job for me and it is an important job,” Croftcheck says. “It’s still dangerous work in these mills even though new technology has helped tremendously. The training I have received from the union — I have held almost every position there is in a union at two different steelworker locals — prepared me for this, but the other side of the coin is that I have lived it."
Croftcheck has seen more than his share of hardships from his union colleagues.
"I’ve seen members of mine who have killed themselves when they lost their jobs," he says. "I’ve seen families break up. I have seen drug use and alcohol abuse. I’ve seen some guys have heart attacks because they are stressed out about how they are going to pay the bills or keep the kids fed if they get laid off or lose their job.
"This is something that I am very passionate about and it’s a fight I’ve been fighting for over 30 years.”
When Croftcheck began his career, there were hundreds of thousands of workers connected to the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area alone. That's changed, of course, as foreign imports and advancements in technology have nibbled away as jobs. And the steel industry is still reeling from the ongoing flood of government-subsidized steel imports from China.
But Croftcheck continues to work hard for his fellow steelworkers, because he believes steel jobs are worth fighting for.
"I always felt the jobs I’ve had are part of what makes America so great. I mean I am solidly middle class, I’ve raised kids, bought houses, drive new vehicles," he said. "If it wouldn’t have been for the steel industry and the steelworkers’ union, I would never have been able to afford this lifestyle. I have no other education other than high school and for guys like me, these jobs are what brought us into the middle class."
Cindy and Greg Cochan
45 and 42 / San Bernardino, Ca
Greg Cochran works as a maintenance mechanic at International Paper in Anaheim, Calif. Cochran is also vice president of United Steelworkers Local 810, and says he is proud to provide "paper products to people all over the globe from a plant here in the U.S.A."
Cochran adds that his steel job is important to "provide a stable living to support my family."
That family includes his wife, Cindy, who says a good-paying steel job not only provides for their family today, but for the future.
51 / Lower Burrell, Pa.
Fran Arabia works for Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) Flat Rolled Products in Brackenridge, Pa.
"The company is just one of many American companies that were built by the hard-working immigrants. Blood, sweat, and tears," Arabia says. "The company has provided middle class jobs to raise our families, build our towns and provide secondary jobs that sell to the mill. Without the jobs that the mill provides, our towns would become ghost towns."
Arabia is the president of United Steelworkers Local 1196. As part of his job, he's fought to protect jobs, pay and benefits for his fellow steelworkers, including during a 2015-2016 lockout that lasted for seven months.
"My local... fought to become a union in 1937 and we are still fighting today to preserve good-paying jobs for our children," he said. "Proud to be union."
62 / Detroit, Michigan
Paula Thomas has seen an assortment of changes during her 43 years as a steelworker at the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works mill in Ecorse, Mich. just south of Detroit. A 62-year-old widowed mother of three children and stepmother of two others, she has lived a comfortable life after applying on a whim for work to make some spring break money.
Thomas was attending Eastern Michigan University when she and a girlfriend decided to seek temporary extra money by working at Great Lakes Works.
"My father said, ‘Oh, you’ll never last. Girls can’t work in the steel mill,'" Thomas said. It was 1972 and the federal government had enacted the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. Companies were making a concerted effort to hire women and minorities.
"I got down there and started working and took the test and my first day I was scared to death," Thomas recalled. "My father laughed and said, ‘Yeah now you want that job, go ahead and get some money.’ I ended up not going back to school. I ended up meeting one of my future husbands and now it’s 43 years later and I’m still here."
Thomas has held a variety of jobs, beginning in the soaking pits in the slab mill. She has moved around the fully-integrated mill learning the intricacies of many jobs.
"I am in the skilled trades, so we are in a group called Central Mechanical and what we do is go out and do the repairs and maintenance at the mill when areas get shut down,” said Thomas.
“I just came out of a 28-day outage at Zug Island, which is where the blast furnaces are. In my younger years, I would just sit and watch the line and be amazed at the technology and all the new methods they had come out with. I was able to see these things transpire during my career."
And it’s a career she is very proud of. She is a 21-year elected official of the United Steelworkers Local 1299 and was the first woman treasurer and financial secretary to serve the union that represents the people who make the steel for Detroit’s automobiles.
But perhaps her proudest achievement is the stable life and education she was able to provide her five children. While Thomas opted out of college, her decision to break social and financial barriers afforded her the opportunity to send her children off to higher education.
"My oldest daughter went to Cal-Berkeley, my second daughter went to Eastern Michigan and my youngest went to Western Michigan," said Thomas. "My stepdaughter, we had the opportunity to send her to Michigan State and my stepson went to trade school in the Detroit area. They are all employed and working and I think that’s because we pushed education.
"My job gave me a life, it afforded me a good life. Good wages, health care benefits and for me to be an African-American woman and a trailblazer as far as becoming a millwright and becoming a union officer. It’s meant a lot to me. It opened the door to a lot of opportunities for me and my family."
42 / Ecorse, Mich.
Tony Barragan has worked for 16 years at the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works mill, located just 12 miles downriver from Detroit, the capital of American automobiles. The 42-year-old father of three plans to work another 20 years at Great Lakes Works before retiring. The fully-integrated mill is a U.S. Steel success story, historically providing steady work for its employees who manufacture the steel for America’s automobiles.
"My job means everything. It supports my family, puts food on the table and I have great benefits. I appreciate the development in Detroit for what it is, but I still honestly believe what’s going to make Detroit a thriving city again is manufacturing like it was before," Barragan said. "You have to be in manufacturing. You see that a bit now with smaller manufacturing companies making bikes and small machinery. Almost all of the work here by U.S. Steel is exclusively for the auto industry. We have a division that makes steel for companies like Whirlpool and other appliance companies, but what makes the Great Lakes Works facility such a viable plant is due to the fact that we’re kind of the heart of the Motor City. We’re the heart of the Big Three. It’s attractive to not have to ship your steel so far."
For the most part, it’s been steady as she goes for Barragan at Great Lakes Works, even though, as life does, a few changes are in the offing. He began his steelmaking career on the Zug Island part of the mill working on the coke battery. After six months, he was able to transfer to the coal mill, where he operated the overhead cranes for 15 years. As much as he loved working the cranes, in 2016 he went down to the Double Eagle area of the mill to work the electrical galvanizing coating lines.
Another change in the near future is paying for his 16-year-old daughter’s college tuition. He has another 13-year-old daughter and a son who will turn two in December.
"My daughter is already visiting colleges, but I told her if college doesn’t work for you and you drop out you’ve got to learn to weld. If you learn how to weld, you will always have a job," Barragan said.
As much as Barragan wants to see his daughter excel in college, he has steelmaking in his blood. His father worked with the finished product of Great Lakes Works steel, spending 34 years employed at General Motors.
"My grandfather worked for the mill and my uncle worked for the mill. I am third generation working for the mill and I’ve got to believe there will be fourth generation working at that mill," he said.
And Barragan believes the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Work plants will continue to prosper, despite a surge of dumped steel from China.
"I talk to these truck drivers and they say, 'I got two loads for you guys and then I have to go over to Nicholson Docks and pick up two loads coming over from China.' They’ve got trucks lined up over there waiting to pick up steel loads from China. But it is poor quality steel," Barragan said. "I remember when we did the Stand Up for Steel rallies in about 2003, and you would hear about slabs that would come over from China. These slabs were a good 8-inches thick and they would fall and just crack. It’s just crap steel coming in from over there and in turn they fill our market with inferior product."
43 / Ecorse, Michigan
Lee Kettlewell has worked for 21 years at the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works facility in Ecorse, Mich., a few miles south of Detroit. The 43-year-old millwright and union safety representative at United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1299 credits the steel mill with providing the means to afford his daughters a higher education.
"One daughter’s off to Michigan State already, and I’ve got an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old," Kettlewell said. "One will be going to med school, so that will be a challenge. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay it all off but I’m sure going to help wherever I can.
"I owe a lot to the steel industry. My dad worked in the steel industry. He got a job at National Steel and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door, like a lot of other people here. He hired in in 1965 and retired in 2000 so I am second generation, and I have my own education to thank for his overtime work. I’m trying to do the same for my kids as much as I can."
Kettlewell has avoided the frequent layoffs that have plagued workers at steel mills throughout the country because Great Lakes Works supplies the steel for nearby automobile plants in the Detroit area. The American automobile business has successfully rebounded from the Great Recession, and that has kept the fully-integrated Great Lakes Works in three-shift, around-the-clock production.
But while the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works is now thriving, there have been scares. The mill was forced to shut down in 2008 during the recession, but it reopened again in 2009. Today, China’s dumping of steel into the U.S. market keeps Great Lakes Works employees on edge.
"We roll about 300,000 tons of steel a month, but when we got down to the 170 to 180-ton range, a lot of people around here thought they were going to shut us down," Kettlewell said. "They thought they would just run everything through Gary Works. But people rallied and made our case known and I think our voices were heard."
When Kettlewell was hired at what is now the Great Lakes Works, he started out, like most newbies, as a laborer in the blast furnace. He eventually moved up to running the locomotive in the railroad and then moved to the maintenance programs in 2009. He is currently a millwright and a safety representative for the union he is extremely passionate about.
"I think with the amount of jobs that have vacated the country, I think people are starting to figure out that people have a choice," Kettlewell said. "I just think people are starting to understand again that if you stick together you can have change and that is important to us."
Almost as important as being able to send three daughters off to college.
56 / Steubenville, Ohio
Judy Manfred has never been a steelworker. But she’s worked for steelworkers for most of her career as sole proprietor of Manfred’s Lounge and Catering in Steubenville, Ohio. For the past 26 years, Manfred has been serving food and drink to the thousands of steelworkers at both the Weirton West Virginia steel mill and the now defunct Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steubenville mill.
Her establishment on Sunset Blvd. in Steubenville is about a five-minute drive from both Weirton Steel, which is now a small, 800 employee factory owned by ArcelorMittal, and the shuttered Wheeling-Pittsburgh mill, which ceased operations in 2005.
When Manfred opened the restaurant in 1990, Steubenville’s population was approximately 29,000 residents, many of whom held well-paying, middle-class jobs at one of the steel making facilities. Today, the city’s population has dropped to about 13,000 and the majority of the prosperous steel jobs are gone. At one time, the Steubenville area provided tens of thousands of jobs in the steel industry.
But Manfred has managed to survive.
“We have a banquet hall, we have a restaurant, we have a lounge and a catering business,” said the 56-year-old Manfred. “The catering is what carries me now and the ArcelorMittal orders really help us out a lot.”
The irony in that steelworkers are still the crux of her business extends to her husband Michael Banovsky, who spent his career at Wheeling-Pittsburgh. His income over the years made it possible to take care of the homestead while Manfred concentrated on feeding the steelworkers without the pressures caused by a dwindling customer base.
When Banovsky became disabled in 2004 and Wheeling-Pittsburgh shut down, Manfred was able to change her business focus to where she still is getting by on what’s left of her customer base in Steubenville.
“Our business gradually went down in the late '90s and then in 2008, with the recession, we literally dropped 50 percent,” Manfred said. “We are just a very clean, little neighborhood bar. At one time, my customer base would have been five or six thousand people. My market now is about 1,200 people. We had a ton of regular customers. That’s what we live off of now — regulars and the catering business. The catering is what keeps my doors open. It keeps people employed. I employ people whether we need them or not because we have to have jobs. We’ve never laid anybody off. Never. On a steady basis, I employ three or four people but on the catering business we have 10 or 11 people working.
“The steel mills were a good life for a lot of people and we’re definitely a guy’s bar. We’re holding on to what’s left. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Steubenville is a great town. The people here are generous. We get along and everybody watches out for each other. There is just a big disconnect between government and citizens these days.”
But the steel-bred people of Steubenville are still sticking together and remain loyal to its once bread-and-butter product. It wasn’t that long ago that a local bridge was being built and the workers refused to continue the project when they discovered the steel supply was sourced from China.
“They had to wait to get American steel,” said Manfred. “They did stand up for it. They had all this Chinese steel in and the guys wouldn’t put it up.”
There still is fight left in the steel folks of Steubenville and Jefferson County.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Manfred. “I am a woman and my husband has had an income. I just don’t know how to fail and I’m not going to fail, ever.”
59 / Weirton, W.V.
During Dave Kyer’s 33-year career at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in Mingo Junction, Ohio he has lived through the best of times and the worst of times. He made a prosperous living in the Ohio River Valley, but was the victim of the plant closure and loss of benefits.
Like many veteran steelworkers, Kyer held several different positions at the mill, finishing his career as a strand operator in the caster. He started out as a laborer in the blast furnace and was transferred to the coke plant.
"You know I worked just about every department in the mill," Kyer said. "Most of the time what I did for a living was make slabs. I’d walk out through the slab yard and normally I would see slabs from America but there were slabs from China and slabs from South America. They were rolling in all these slabs and were cutting our production. We had the capability to make a lot of slabs but they found it more cost effective to import junk steel and roll it."
Since his forced retirement in 2009, Kyer lost his health insurance and receives only a meager pension. His health took a turn for the worse and about one year ago he received a life-saving liver transplant. He was fortunate to be able to use his wife’s health insurance and, as a veteran, get some assistance from the Veterans Administration.
"I liked my work," said Kyer. "You know I made good money at my job. I liked the people I worked with and the work was taxing to say the least. It was very hot and hard on your body. If I wanted to stay in this Ohio Valley I had to work someplace where I could make a decent living and the mills were it."
The 59-year-old Kyer lives in Weirton, West Virginia not far from the Mingo Junction plant. At one time the Ohio Valley was rich with steel making companies but those days are long gone.
"The steel mill meant everything to the community," said Kyer. "The valley, it’s a poor place to live now. There’s just no work so we see a lot of declining population. The downtown areas are turning into slums. The steel mills meant everything to this valley."
76 / Reading, Pa.
Carl Ramich is a 76-year-old retired steelworker from Reading, Pa. who spent his 34-year career at the Dana Parish plant in the heartland of American steelmaking. He retired in 1997, before the plant was shut down in 2000. But he hasn't stopped fighting for American steel, and remains active in United Steelworkers (USW) Rapid Response program and his local retirees chapter.
The Dana Parrish plant was a major fabricator for the auto industry, building car frames for Pontiac, Chevy and major-league truck companies Peterbilt, Mack and Kenworth. Ramich had a successful career at Dana Parish, and it began when he became aware of the United Steelworkers union.
After high school, Ramich joined the U.S. Army, working in missile defense as a radar operator. He left the Army in 1962 just before the Vietnam conflict became the Vietnam War.
"I knew that I could make more money working at Dana Parish than by going to college," Ramich said. "I was 23-years-old and trying to figure out why I had to join the union, but after a while I discovered that was the best investment I ever made. Management wouldn’t honor your worker’s rights but the union was there to stick up and protect you if you had a problem."
Ramich started his career at Dana Parrish in 1963 and retired in 1997. He was a furnace operator. After his retirement, Ramich poured his energy into working on the steelworkers’ behalf. He became president of the Dana Parish retiree club, organized the local SOAR chapter and is working with USW Rapid Response.
"For this area of the country, it was pretty good money and I was working overtime all the time," Ramich said. "We sourced our steel from Allenwood and U.S. Steel. Because of the USW we had good pay and health care. It was the best. When you wound up in the hospital, you didn’t pay nothing. The place was so dirty with dust and smoke. There was asbestos dust all over the place. A lot of us have died, but I survived."
Ramich was one of the lucky steelworkers who avoided extended layoffs and has been giving back to his union brothers and sisters long after his retirement. He received a lifetime achievement award last month from USW District 10 Director Bobby “Mac” McAuliffe.