For the workers, caution with a dose of optimism

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February 21, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,sun reporter

The Sparrows Point steel plant has had so many owners come and go during the past few years that workers joke about seeing a Wal-Mart sign appearing next.

But yesterday, when workers learned that yet another owner is in their future, they peppered uncertain reactions with a sense of optimism that this time the change could be for the better. With the right owner willing to invest in Sparrows Point, the plant could expand operations with the potential to become the premier facility for the new company, workers say.

"The guy who owns us right now, there is no money being put back into the plant," said Erin Kelly, 24, a cold mill crane operator from Baltimore who has worked at Sparrows Point for more than four years. "With a new owner, we may get more money, allowing us to grow."

"I'm hoping for the best," Kelly added.

Despite such hope from rank-and-file workers, leaders at the United Steelworkers union said yesterday they would challenge the U.S. Justice Department's decision to force the sale due to antitrust concerns. Union leaders argue the move would not protect Sparrows Point's future. And the Local 9377 president said the union would support the national union's move to reverse the order, noting that the outcome could be a "coin toss."

Such uncertainty has become routine for workers at Sparrows Point, who have faced various owners since Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001. Two years later, the company sold its assets to International Steel Group, founded by financier Wilbur Ross.

Mittal Steel Co. NV became Sparrows Point's third owner in 2005 when it bought ISG to form the world's largest steelmaker. The plant's 2,400 workers produce about 3 million tons of steel a year.

Most workers and the union, United Steelworkers Local 9477, said they weren't expecting Sparrows Point to be sold; all indications said otherwise, including Mittal's desire to sell its Weirton, W. Va., plant instead.

The sale of either the West Virginia or the Baltimore County plant was necessary to resolve the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit related to Mittal's merger with Arcelor SA of Luxembourg. The Justice Department said selling the Sparrows Point mill makes the most sense because it is a "profitable and diversified facility," one that can make steel slabs used to produce tin mill products, unlike the West Virginia plant.

Workers said there was a certain amount of satisfaction that the Justice Department noted Sparrows Point's strengths, indicating that the plant could be a robust and long-term asset for the new owner.

Under Mittal, the plant was not slated to receive capital investment for two more years, aside from environmental upgrades.

"A lot of people are optimistic," said Tom Blackburn, 53, a training coordinator, who spent 33 years at the plant. "We could be the best steelmaker in the country provided the right company buys us."

Unlike the high level of anxiety and concern among workers when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt - with some retirees losing medical benefits - several workers say they don't feel a sense of doom about their future.

Still, workers such as Randy Balderson, 35, a third-generation steelworker, said it's hard not to think about "who's writing your paycheck."

"It's always from someone else. We don't know how the next company will deal with workers," said Balderson, of Abingdon, a 10-year steel production worker.

John Cirri, president of Local 9477, which represents production and maintenance workers at Sparrows Point, said yesterday the union would have some say in who buys the plant under its contract, which is set to expire next year.

"The main thing that I want people to realize is that this transition is going to be different than Bethlehem," Cirri said. "Their heads need to be on the jobs and safety. Don't get bent out of shape. Don't let your mind be consumed by `Am I going to be here? Is the plant going to be here?' The plant will be here. There is just going to be a new owner."

Bill Barry, director of Labor Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, who teaches two labor classes at the plant, said a new owner might pay more attention to Sparrows Point workers. Because Mittal is so large, workers have felt the Sparrows Point plant wasn't as important to the company, he said.

"They've felt [Mittal] didn't have any loyalty to Sparrows Point," Barry said. "It was just another property."

The location, with its deep water access and trained workforce, makes it appealing, which gives workers some comfort level, Barry said.

Whatever the outcome, workers say they've become resilient as the plant and the industry have evolved over the years.

"One thing is the people down here, everyone resents change at first but they went through it together ... and came out of it better," said Jeff Mikula, 51, of Dundalk, a maintenance worker for the past 33 years. "Of course, we've lost jobs and not hired as many, but I would say that workers are highly motivated and do a good job. We just want to work."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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