Mill's shutdown ends lifestyles of steel workers

Sunday, December 16, 2001

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. -- Not long ago, the only thing Stan Machaj feared was being outfished.

But now, huddled around the familiar corner of a bar, sipping beer well before noon, it's clear to everyone -- his buddies, the bartender who puts up with their barbs and anyone who looks in Machaj's eyes -- that his worries are many.

Machaj is frightened about the future, of looming car and house payments, of being a 54-year-old steelworker without a job.

Like countless others in East Chicago and nearby cities, this sturdy man knows only steel. He's worked at LTV Corp.'s Indiana Harbor Works mill since he was 18. For 36 years, the job gave him security, good benefits and money to raise his kids and take fishing trips with the guys.

But this month, bankrupt LTV Corp. shut down its rusting steel mill on Lake Michigan. The company that had been producing about 5 percent of the country's steel won a judge's approval last week to stop production at Harbor Works and at its mills in Cleveland and Hennepin, Ill., affecting about 7,500 workers -- 3,000 of them in East Chicago.

Steel breakdown

The workers are joining an already growing unemployment line. The nation's unemployment rate is at 5.7 percent -- a 6-year high -- and economists expect it to climb as the country struggles with recession.

It's been a particularly hard time for the U.S. steel industry. Nearly 30,000 jobs have disappeared in the past 16 months, and more than 20 domestic steel companies have gone into bankruptcy court since late 1997, hurt by low-cost steel from foreign companies and the flagging economy.

Bethlehem Steel Corp., the nation's third-largest steelmaker, filed for bankruptcy in October. LTV filed last December.

Many at Harbor Works are still trying to grasp what has happened. It can't be possible that this once-mighty mill, which cranked out 3.5 million tons of steel a year, is done, and that these workers will never again march in to the clang of metal and the flicker of sparks spraying off acetylene torch flames.

"Most people have been working out here since they were 18 years old," said Kermit Kutzer of the United Steelworks of America Local 1011. "They've had mothers and fathers retire from here. It's just devastating."

The mill's closing is expected to take a heavy toll on the region. East Chicago and Lake County received $25 million a year in property taxes from LTV. The shutdown could lead to the loss of 10,000 jobs as the economic impact spreads, said Tom McDermott, president and chief executive of the economic development group Northwest Indiana Forum.

Accusations are being thrown in both directions at LTV -- hourly workers claim management ran the company into the ground, the company says the union wouldn't budge on cutting costs.

The heated opinions matter little at this point. The pay and the benefits are gone. For those not old enough to qualify for pensions, retirement plans might be history as well.

"They're going to lose everything because the company is dead," said Mark Tomasch, spokesman for Cleveland-based LTV. "Their company is out of business, so anything that came from the company, such as their wages, their benefits, all of that, is going to be terminated."

77 days from 30 years

Terminated. The reality of it wakes Tony Plomaritis at night with a sick feeling in his stomach. He was 77 days shy of the 30-year mark and full pension benefits.

Now his carefully laid out plans are uncertain. There's a new car in the driveway. He has six years left to pay off the home he and his wife bought in 1977. His kitchen and hall are partially covered in new tile, one of many home improvement projects now on hold.

"I didn't plan it to end this way," the 58-year-old welder and pipe fitter said. "I really thought I'd get my 30 years. I feel like I've just been tossed out like a used towel."

He also feels lost, like Machaj and so many other workers who have steel in their blood.

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