Steelworkers Remain Optimistic During Downturn

YOUNGSTOWN – Leaders at the United Steelworkers union face an immense challenge: navigating the split personality of COVID-19 as the pandemic inflicts serious pain on some member companies while others remain strong and buoyed by changing consumer habits.

Aluminum production is up while steel is hurting because of lower prices and reduced global demand. Local tube producers are enjoying a strong market rebound while those companies engaged in the aerospace business have suffered a collapse in their core markets that threaten the stability of one of the Mahoning Valley’s largest manufacturers.

“Our biggest concern is aerospace,” says Jose Arroyo, district director of USW District 1 Sub District 1. “It looks like the industry is not supposed to rebound for some time.”

For sure, the pandemic has bludgeoned the commercial aerospace industry. Boeing, for example, has watched its stock drop by more than one-third since March 2020 as COVID-19 placed a chokehold on air travel.  

A sluggish aerospace market has had an impact on at least one major employer in Trumbull County – Howmet Aerospace, which operates the former RMI Titanium processing plant in Niles. Nevertheless, the company and the USW announced Feb. 12 that it had agreed to extend its collective bargaining agreement until 2024 and maintain the plant’s melt shop – a measure that is critical to preserving jobs for the future.

While the agreement calls for downsizing the workforce at the plant, idling the melt operations would have certainly led to even more job losses, officials say.

“The plant is one of the largest employers in Trumbull County,” he says.  Indeed, just three years ago the Howmet plant – then under the name Altronic – employed about 700. As of Feb. 12, some 450 USW members worked at the plant. At press time, it was unclear as to how many workers would be placed on layoff.

“These aren’t run-of-the-mill jobs,” Arroyo says. “These are some of the best manufacturing jobs in the area.”

Titanium is a lightweight, strong and corrosive-resistant metal used for commercial and defense aerospace applications. About 15% of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, is made of titanium.

“These were challenging negotiations and while we did not win everything that we wanted, the final outcome means Howmet’s Niles plant will continue to employ our members for the foreseeable future and be the beneficiary of millions in new investments that will make our facility more competitive,” said Terry Thirion, president of USW Local 2155, in a statement.

He credited the help of U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13, who is vice chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, as a major contribution to keeping the plant alive.

“The reduction in workforce is painful, especially to the families that will lose a working paycheck – my heart goes out to them,” Ryan said in a statement. “I made it clear in my discussions with Howmet leadership that keeping the furnace operating was paramount.”

 Idling and then restarting these furnaces would have been costly and problematic, affecting future operations there, Arroyo says. 

 While the situation at Howmet is tenuous, other companies that do business with aerospace giants are also affected by the downturn. Timet, which operates a titanium plant in Toronto, Ohio, just north of Steubenville, is also experiencing difficulty since the market crashed, Arroyo says.

Steel producers are still struggling with soft prices. But promising construction activity and the prospects of a generous infrastructure bill under President Joe Biden stand to help the industry.

Business at Cleveland-Cliffs’ coke production plant in Warren appears to be strong, Arroyo says.  Moreover, there are signs of a rebound among steel processors such as Hynes Industries in Austintown. “They were hit hard initially by COVID,” he says. 

Other USW plants such as Commercial Metal Forming in Youngstown – which manufactures tank heads for the energy industry – project a promising 2021, he says. “All their employees are back to work and looking at a strong 2021.”

Another bright spot is the steel tubular business.  Companies such as Wheatland Tube’s plants in Niles and Warren, for example, experienced steady business throughout the pandemic.  Recently, the union negotiated a five-year agreement with the Warren plant that calls for 3% pay hikes annually for its 160 workers. A second agreement is up for renewal in April at the Niles plant.

Wheatland Tube is owned by Chicago-based Zekelman Industries, which has worked closely and productively with the Steelworkers union over the years, according to Arroyo. “We’ve had a good relationship and our members have benefited,” he says.

Aluminum plants such as Astro Shapes in Struthers are filling capacity since their products are tied to the booming recreational vehicle market. As air travel subsided, many vacationers took to the road and fueled a spike in the RV business – a business that looks strong in the near term.

“We just ratified a new six-year agreement [at Astro Shapes] with 80% approval,” he says.

In January, Monomoy Capital Partners announced it had acquired the assets of Astro Shapes and subsidiaries Datco and Aerolite Inc. in Boardman. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Elsewhere, Steelworkers and management struck a new bargaining agreement after an extended strike.

Todd Clary, staff representative for USW District 10, said the union’s leadership and management at NLMK Pennsylvania in Farrell, Pa. have agreed on a tentative contract. “The major things are health care, wages and a couple of other smaller items.”

Clary says the Steelworkers, members of Local 1016-03, appeared to be in good spirits throughout the strike. “We’d like to get a fair contract and get back to work, back to making steel, make the company profitable and our people making money again.”

About 410 steelworkers walked out Aug. 22. Clary said the union would present the terms of the tentative agreement to its members this week.

Steel and aerospace continue to be the soft spots among organized labor, affirms Bill Padisak, president of the Mahoning/Trumbull AFL-CIO. “A lot of our people are struggling now,” he says.  

Turning the economy around and helping the future of organized labor almost certainly depends on support from the Biden administration, Padisak says. “So far, he’s made some good moves such as replacing the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board,” he says.  

Although Steelworkers were miffed at Biden canceling work on the XL Pipeline, the potential for a big infrastructure bill could more than help to rescue the industry.  “We’re very hopeful about that,” Padisak says.  

Arroyo is optimistic that President Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Steelworkers union will carry forward through his first term in office.

In 2010, then-Vice President Biden visited the Astro Shapes plant in Struthers. Biden also made subsequent appearances in the Mahoning Valley as vice president. “He knows us,” Arroyo says. “We have a seat at the table with him.”

Among the union’s priorities are to ensure that the United States remains diligent on trade deals, takes measures to remove impediments to collective bargaining and circles back to passing a massive infrastructure bill that could benefit all Americans.

“An infrastructure bill could bring us to full employment,” Arroyo says. “Membership is down, but there’s some reason for optimism.”

Arroyo’s subdistrict represents between 2,300 to 2,500 workers in 28 locals in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, plus a portion of Cuyahoga County. Today, the union represents workers in a variety of sectors, including steel, aluminum, paper, chemical and even graphic packaging, which has experienced a strong year amid COVID.   

“We had to diversify our union to continue to do what we do,” he says, especially in the wake of the steel shutdowns of the 1970s and 1980s.

“We’re proud of our history, our roots, and improving lives, working conditions and wages,” Arroyo says.  “This Valley was built on steel.” 

Pictured: Howmet Aerospace and the USW announced Feb. 12 that it had agreed to extend its collective bargaining agreement until 2024 and maintain the plant’s melt shop – a measure that is critical to preserving jobs for the future.