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U.S. Steel To End Operations At Alabama's Fairfield Works Mill

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So it sounds like it could be the beginning of a new era in the military. It is more like the end of an era in the city of Birmingham, Ala. A steel mill that has been at the center of that city's economy and culture for over a century is being shut down. U.S. Steel announced it's closing its Fairfield Works Mill and laying off about 1,100 workers. Andrew Yeager from WBHM in Birmingham reports.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: To understand how much Birmingham honors its Steel City roots, just look up. On Red Mountain, south of the city center, is a 50-ton iron statue of the Roman god Vulcan. With an arrow in one hand and a hammer in the other, Vulcan represents the industrial history of Birmingham once called the Pittsburgh of the South. In the nearby museum...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Birmingham became, in effect, a city built from iron.

YEAGER: An introductory video in the Vulcan Park and Museum lays out that history. Education director Mark Akerman says company towns sprung up around steel plants, as did stores.

MARK AKERMAN: You know, you had your butcher, you had your post office, you do all your mail and then you'd have things like baseball. Company towns had baseball teams that helped entertain everybody. And then they had dancers and they put on plays, and they'd do all these fantastic things to keep the workers happy.

YEAGER: Of course Birmingham area leaders today are not happy with the news U.S. Steel would close its blast furnace starting in November.

KENNETH COACHMAN: Quite devastating.

YEAGER: Kenneth Coachman is mayor of Fairfield, a planned company town adjacent to the plant. It opened about a century ago and made steel used to build ships during World War I. Coachman says he wasn't surprised about the closure. U.S. Steel had laid off scores of workers in recent months.

COACHMAN: They kind of were preparing you for this, you know, in increments. That's the way I see it.

YEAGER: A statement from U.S. Steel says the decision to permanently close the plant was necessary to improve efficiency and keep the company competitive. The mill closure comes as U.S. Steel was negotiating a new contract with the United Steelworkers Union. A statement from the union blamed unfairly traded steel imports, in particular from China. Industry analyst Charles Bradford says in this case it's not about imports, it's about competition. He says U.S. Steel is losing ground to smaller mills in the U.S. that are more efficient and not unionized. Still, he says the strong dollar poses a problem for steelmakers.

CHARLES BRADFORD: It's the strong dollar that leads to imports. The industry likes to claim dumping and all kinds of other things. It's the strong dollar that makes imports less expensive.

YEAGER: Today, Birmingham's economy is less dependent on the steel industry with medicine and higher education now dominating. Foreign automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai have major operations in the state. Fairfield Mayor Kenneth Coachman says the plant closure announcement is a setback but not insurmountable.

COACHMAN: Fairfield has to forge ahead, and as we have before, I believe we will do it again.

YEAGER: He says there is a silver lining. U.S. Steel says it will keep open an associated operation that makes steel pipe - meaning about 700 jobs, far from the tens of thousands once employed across the region. For NPR's News, I'm Andrew Yeager in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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