Notes from the final days of the GST Steel plant
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City’s GST Steel plant closing is back in the news, thanks to an Obama campaign ad featuring the role of Mitt Romney and his company, Bain Capital, in the plant’s demise. (Romney had left the company when the plant closed, but was with Bain during the acquisition of GST of the company and transactions regarding it.)
I remember going down to GST in its final days and interviewing workers about the uncertainty of the transaction. Those interviews resulted in a column that I am posting here:
From The Kansas City Star, April 7, 2001 What hurts the most? The silence By Barbara Shelly
Steelworkers at Kansas City’s old Armco plant thought they knew uncertainty. Their jobs had been endangered for years.
But that was vague, off-in-the-future uncertainty. Workers today can supply a much more precise definition.
Uncertainty is showing up for work on Friday and being told there’s no schedule for Monday. But you’ve received nothing in writing and you don’t know what to do next.
It’s driving to work with your medical insurance intact, but not knowing whether you’ll be covered for the ride home.
Uncertainty is men in blue jeans and ball caps, clustered in the union hall, asking questions for which no one has answers.
“Does anyone know what we’re supposed to get in the mail if it ever gets there?”
“Do we file for unemployment today? Next week?”
Having a plant close is painful enough, but a bankruptcy action and the silence of their employer has thrown the workers of GST Steel Co. into a bizarre limbo in these final days of steelmaking in Kansas City’s northeast area.
The company announced in February that it would close its Kansas City plant as part of a bankruptcy reorganization. Eventually, 750 workers will lose their jobs. Union officials think that more than 400 hourly employees will not work after Sunday. The workers, however, have received no formal notice.
After reporting Friday and finding nothing to do, many employees found their way to the union hall at 6801 Winner Road.
“Hey, did you get that job?” someone asked Joe Soptic.
“No, I got to the third interview,” said Soptic, who is looking for work for the first time in nearly 30 years.
He struck out on a supervisory job at an electronic goods store. Next, he plans to interview for a position as a service rep for a telephone company.
Other workers said they’d held off on looking because they didn’t know when their current jobs would end, or the terms of their pensions.
Randy McKinney, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 13, could be of little help.
“Nobody’s got anything official,” he told one of his many telephone callers. “I’m gonna go live under a bridge when this is all over, where there’s no pressure.”
A bankruptcy judge in North Carolina has directed GST Steel to honor the terms of its union contract. But McKinney said the company has already defied some of the provisions, and he can’t assure union members that any of the contract terms will be honored.
Calls to company officials in Kansas City and Charlotte, N.C., were not returned. Officials said earlier they would try to modify or terminate the company’s agreement with the union as part of the bankruptcy reorganization. The contract was negotiated after steelworkers went on strike in 1997.
Outside the union hall, workers marked their entry into the abyss of unemployment in time-honored fashion — by cracking open 12-packs of beer.
“This place has been here since 1888,” lamented one member of the group. “And they pick this year to go out, and me with 29 years and three months.”
Had he reached 30 years, he would have qualified for an immediate pension.
It wasn’t yet noon — early for beverage-fed commiseration — but there was no one to care. No supervisors were to be found. The neighborhood, once a thriving industrial community, had a ghostly emptiness.
Uncertainty is a steelworker’s lot. What hurts is to have uncertainty sharpened with insult.