90.3 WBHM Birmingham--German steel giant ThyssenKrupp announced Tuesday it may delay opening its massive steel plant under construction near Mobile. The $4.5 billion plant is currently scheduled to open for next spring. But ThyssenKrupp says its hemorrhaging money - more than one billion dollars this year - so the plant may have to wait. This comes after U.S. Steel announced it would indefinitely idle steelmaking operations at its plant in Fairfield, putting 1,700 jobs in limbo. WBHM's Andrew Yeager attended a town hall meeting Tuesday and spoke to a number of workers who are anxious and confused, but optimism as well.

Jody Broadhead knows the date March 13th well. That's when U.S. Steel laid him off. He'd been there less than three years, meaning he doesn't qualify for what's called subpay, a portion of salary which U.S. Steel continues to pay longtime workers. Not a happy situation for Broadhead, his wife and their three school-aged children.

"They can't have any toys. And the food there ain't as good as it was. No steaks. [I'm] just staying around the house, trying not to burn any gas. Turn off the power so the light bill won't be as high"

Broadhead's not alone. He and several hundred coworkers packed the Fairfield Civic Center a the town hall meeting, which was sponsored by Democratic Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Artur Davis. Many of the steelworkers complain they're not getting enough information on unemployment benefits. Davis agrees.

"This is the first time in their lives they've been unemployed or at least in 99% of these cases, first time they've been unemployed. And I want to let them know there are things out there that can help them and resources that can help them"

But it's not just the issue of benefits. Pipe cutter Mark Bentley says rumors swirl about the plant. How long will it be idled? Will the plant be shut down? Who specifically will be affected?

"If they could sit and tell us we're gonna shut down for two months, people could deal with that a lot better. But for them to say, 'We don't know.' Well, somebody knows."

U.S. Steel isn't offering specifics. In a written statement, a spokeswoman says the total number of layoffs is still being determined. She declined to speculate on when steelmaking operations will resume at the Fairfield Works.

And the pain isn't just being felt in Alabama. Around the country, Steel companies are laying off workers and idling plants. University of Maryland economist Peter Morici blames low demand for steel. He says demand will return, but...

"Unless we get a rapid expansion and unless we do something about all the import competition in places like automobiles and construction steel and so forth. It's going to be more difficult for American mills to maintain their market share."

Back in Fairfield, workers at the town hall meeting raised those larger trade issues. But workers and the union leadership remain optimistic about their situation. One union official says conversations have been amicable with U.S. Steel management. Steel worker Randy Ellenburg takes it all in stride, as he chats with union members outside the civic center. He's in new territory, having been laid off for the first time in his life two weeks ago. So what's that been like?

"Doing stuff around the house that I've put off for about five years. Finally taking time to do that stuff that needed to be done."

"There is a bit of a silver lining."

"Kind of, yeah. It just doesn't pay as good, that's all."

Ellenburg believes the plant will be up and running again. It's just a matter of when.


~ Andrew Yeager, May 12, 2009