What Happened to Weirton? Part 3: As Goes the Mill...
“History tells us, like it or not, as goes the mill, so goes Weirton, in good times and bad.”
This is a quote from Dr. David Javersak, a former professor and local Ohio Valley historian, from his book, "History of Weirton." There’s a lot of truth in that statement: Weirton would have never existed without the mill. And up until its fateful bankruptcy, the town fully depended on Weirton Steel, like any devoted company town. This episode will trace through some of the highlights of Weirton’s history, providing an overview of its prominence and decline.
When Ernest Tener Weir arrived in the Ohio Valley in 1909, he had a larger-than-life vision: a fully integrated steel mill, or a steel mill that contained all the steps of the steelmaking process. The mill in Weirton had all of this and more, from the initial iron-making in blast furnaces, the smelting of steel in open hearths, to the eventual coiling of steel sheets. It was a massive production that required more than 10,000 workers.
Long before the mill existed, a much gentler landscape occupied the space where Weirton is today. All that was there was a small farming village known as Hollidays Cove, named after a colonial fort built in the area in 1776. Located in Hancock County, the northernmost county in West Virginia, the village rested in a beautiful valley nestled between rolling hills, marked with fields and thousands of fruit-bearing trees.
There was some industry there: the first being iron-making at the Peter Tarr Furnace, built in 1790. But, the farmland dominated for at least a 100 years until oil wells began dotting the landscape in the late 1800s. Ernest Tener Weir bought 105 acres of land there to develop a steel mill in 1909.
Weir might have liked the look and location of the land, but he also liked its relative isolation. He was fervently anti-union, and his managerial style reflected this. A large part of his vision as a CEO was to keep national unions out of his mill. He fostered a paternalistic environment to make this possible. Charles Varano, author of "Forced Choices," a book about paternalism and its role in Weirton Steel’s eventual worker buyout, described this concept.
“Paternalism was a way in which the owners of companies, they were, you know, primarily the robber baron types back at the turn of the century, sought to organize their companies and in this case, organize the mill in a way that brought elements of a family structure into an otherwise industrial concern,” Varano wrote.
What Happened to Weirton - A Five Part Series
Weir, acting as the father figure, built up a community entirely dependent on the mill: his workforce constructed the infrastructure and public utilities that tens of thousands of people relied on. This company town structure faced opposition during the 1919 steel strike, when the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, attempted to organize the nation’s steel industry. As Javersak notes in his book, steel workers were disgruntled from working 12-hour shifts and making only $4 a day, which would be the equivalent of earning $5 an hour today.
But organized labor lost their battle in Weirton. In October 1919, Weir ordered his company police force to round up almost 200 suspected radicals, who were mostly workers from Finland, and marched them to town square. They were forced to kneel before the American flag, kiss it, and then were chased out of town.
In 1929, Weirton Steel merged with a few other metal companies to form National Steel, the only steel corporation to keep its head above water during the Great Depression. As President Franklin Roosevelt strengthened unions, Weir continued to douse the flames of organized labor and ultimately maintained Weirton’s reputation as a ‘scab’ town. Varano described this attitude.
“You know, we take care of our own, in our own way, and nobody should come in and tell us how to do it,” he wrote.
This paternalistic environment fostered a devoted Americanism that helped the war effort when the United States military entered World War II. When the battle of production intensified, Weirton Steel was there to support the front lines. Thomas Millsop was the president of Weirton Steel at the time. He arranged for the mill to produce 200 pound, 8-inch Howitzer Shells, and the mill was awarded an Army-Navy “E” Award for its excellence in production.
Of course, women played a key role during war-time production at Weirton Steel. Hundreds of Rosie the Riveters, donning their signature head scarves, worked on each step of the production line.
After the war, women returned to their domestic boundaries or remained in jobs specifically assigned to female workers. The most prominent of these jobs was called tin flopping. Women at Weirton wore blue uniforms as they flopped sharp sheets of tin into piles, sorting the metal and looking for defects. It was the highest-paying job for women in Weirton, but still failed to compete with the “family wage” that men were offered. And, up until 1969, Weirton Steel had a policy where they wouldn’t hire married women. Many women had to leave town to get married or act as if their husbands were only boyfriends; otherwise, they faced losing their job and the best income available to them in Weirton.
Just 6,693 people lived in Hancock County in 1900. Thousands of people of different ethnicities flocked to the area to work in the mill. By 1942, more than 13,000 people worked at Weirton Steel. The mill would continue to employ around 12,000 workers for the next few decades, making it the state’s largest employer and tax payer.
Weirton’s population reached its peak in 1960 with 28,201 residents. Enzo Fracasso, a former steel worker who now serves on the Weirton City Council, remembers how the mill and the city provided an idyllic setting for a comfortable, blue-collar life.
“It was fun growing up here in Weirton and the mill was always in my everyday life, really," Fracassp described. "I mean, my grandfather worked in the mill. My father worked in the mill, my brother, myself, you know. The mill made a lot of people, tens of thousands of people, raise a family, send children to school, live the American dream."
Everyone who’s lived in a steel town knows there is a dangerous price to pay for this American dream. More than 100 people have died in the mill, and their deaths were rarely gentle. Enzo filled me in on some of these tragedies. One time, a man was crushed by a steel coil.
“It was something he did every day for 25 years and one day it didn't work, and he paid the ultimate price," Fracasso said. "He was on daylight shift. I was on afternoon shift when I came out to work and they had the machine all taped off, caution tape all around it. They had the coil that fell on him. They had it bagged up, you know, from what they told me, they had to shovel him into a bag. It’s like stepping on a bug. I mean there's a lot of gruesome stuff, a lot of gruesome stuff that can happen and has happened."
Regardless of the dangers, the citizens of Weirton and the Ohio Valley stayed committed to the mill, and the area was seen as an example of the growth and progress of the United States. Unfortunately, it would eventually become a poster child of decline. When other countries rebuilt after WWII and revitalized their manufacturing sectors, they became less dependent on steel from the United States. In 1950, the U.S. produced about half of the world’s raw steel. By 1977, it was less than 20 percent. At the same time, U.S. manufacturers began to capitalize on cheap foreign steel.
As the American steel industry declined, National Steel, Weirton’s parent company, started taking profits from Weirton and investing elsewhere. National went from the fourth-largest steel company in the country to the fourth-largest savings and loans institution. To make matters worse, National started investing in aluminum, despite Weirton Steel being the second largest tin producer in the country. Following the onset of the early 1980s economic recession, on March 2, 1982, National announced they were going to divest completely from their Weirton branch. John Balzano, USW 2911 benefits coordinator, told me what happened.
“National tells Weirton, we're cutting our ties with you. You're a loser. You have to go. You can either shut it down or your employees can buy it, called the ESOP. Employee stock ownership,” he said.
Employee Stock Ownership Plans, or ESOPs, were very popular at this time. They offered lucrative tax incentives and gave workers more ownership of their company through stock options that were normally only available to private investors. ESOPs also provide disengaged owners a way to sell their company to already-invested employees, as finding an outside buyer might be impossible. It would have cost National $420 to $770 million in shutdown costs and pension liabilities to close up shop. Their best option was to sell Weirton to the steel workers themselves. Charles Varano illustrated that this was somewhat of a forced choice for the workers.
“It was forced because they were kind of facing, you know, the demise of the town," Varano explained. "You know, as I started off the book, the mill goes, so goes the town and that happened to a lot of places around there, you know. I mean at that point all you had to do is look over to Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Valley, what it looked like was just, you know, shut down plants and people leaving."
To make the deal possible, workers were told their pay would need to be cut by 20 percent. They also needed to spend $1 billion in the first 10 years of employee ownership on capital investments to upgrade the plant. It was a harsh reality, but the alternative was worse: a finishing plant that employed at most 2,000 people.
So, Weirton Steel employees and citizens banded together to secure their town’s future. There were parades and donations from basically every business in town, benefit drives and telethons. The whole town rallied around saving the mill.
“We can do it” became the town’s new motto, and they would do it. On September 23, 1983, 7,700 workers voted to implement the ESOP, and on January 10, 1984, Weirton Steel Corporation was born.
The first five years of the ESOP proved profitable. However, Mark Glyptis, president of USW 2911 in Weirton, thinks these profits only came from special tax incentives given to ESOPs at the time.
“Most ESOPs fail because they went from losing money or not being viable to all of a sudden making money. They're making money because they had these advantages that the government were giving them, not because they changed any underlying fundamentals of the company to be successful," Glyptis said. "And you have about five years time to do that. Then if you don't do it, then you'll be losing money again. We made money the first five years before we started losing money again."
In 1989, Weirton posted a public stock offering to fund a $500 million dollar modernization plan, and again in 1994, leaving the worker-owners with only 42 percent of their company. Every year, the company laid off more workers, blaming stagnating markets, new federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that required expensive pollution control updates, free trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and foreign dumping. In 1998, Weirton was no longer the largest employer in West Virginia. Walmart was.
Fewer and fewer employees were called back after each round of layoffs, and that took an emotional toll on the workers as job security became a thing of the past. Enzo told me he had many friends who took their own lives from the stress of the mill’s downfall. One time, while Enzo was cutting grass, a close friend of his randomly dropped by.
“He goes, ‘it was good knowing you,'" Enzo recalled. "I said, ‘what you talking about good knowing me? The hell you talking about? Good knowing me? I know you, and I’ll know you tomorrow, too.’
Enzo said he didn't give the comment much thought, but later learned his friend had visited other colleagues that night.
"He stopped and saw them too, talked to them, and he went home that night and left a note killed himself," Enzo said. "I think that was job related cause he was like really stressed out. I've known a lot of them. Probably more than I want to know. I can tell you that.”
By 1999, just under 5,000 workers remained. Hundreds of those workers and Weirton citizens rallied in Washington D.C. pushing for protectionist policies for the steel industry. President George W. Bush took the biggest stand for the steel industry three years later when he instated tariffs on steel imports in 2002. Mark Glyptis recalled trying to convince President Bush to continue with the tariffs after a year of their imposition.
“I said, ‘Mr. Bush, will you, what are you planning to do on the midterm review of the tariffs on your Fair Trade Act?’
And he said, ‘we will stay the course.’ That's a quote from in the White House from Bush.
And I said, ‘I'm glad you said that because we have put together, we the steel industry, three year strategies to get us back on our feet. We appreciate you doing the tariffs, that's going to help. It will be devastating if you revoke the tariffs on the midterm review.’
He said, ‘I'm going to stay the course.’
That was Friday. Monday, he revoked ‘em,” Glyptis said.
The tariffs were called off in 2003, and the short-term effort failed to save an industry that had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs since the 1960s. Glyptis placed full blame on the government for the fall of the steel industry in the United States.
"They deliberately made a systematic decision to shut down the steel industry in this country," he said.
Foreign dumping wasn’t the only hurdle facing the steel industry. Automation had also been impacting manufacturing employment for many years. A new type of steel mill called “mini mills” began dominating the steel landscape. They use electric arc furnaces, or furnaces that are heated with high-current electricity, to recycle steel scrap into fresh metal. Mini-mills require far less manpower to operate and produced about half of the steel made in the U.S. in 2002.
So, nearly 20 years after the ESOP deal was signed, Weirton Steel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 19, 2003. The mill officially needed a new buyer, and this time, the employees weren’t able to save the business. There was, however, a two-year-old steel company buying up several bankrupt mills at fire sale prices. This was International Steel Group, or ISG, with now U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross at the helm.
ISG officially bought Weirton Steel for $255 million dollars in 2004, after Weirton Steel had already cut 950 jobs, handed off its pension liabilities to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and cut both healthcare and life insurance benefits from its retirees. In 2005, ISG was sold to Mittal Steel, and in 2006, after a merger with Arcelor, the Weirton mill would find its permanent home with ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker.
Unfortunately, Weirton would no longer produce raw steel. It had finally become what so many had feared for so long: a finishing plant.
Currently, ArcelorMittal Weirton employs 880 people, a small number compared to the 13,000 who worked there when Weirton Steel was a world competitive powerhouse. I spoke with Tracey Lester-Locke, who’s been working at the mill for 45 years. She explained that the steel tariffs recently imposed by President Trump have helped ArcelorMittal, but acknowledged they aren’t a long term answer.
“Right now, we're doing okay with the tariffs, but that's only a temporary fix," she said. " How long are these tariffs going to be in place, you know? And, like I said, there is a need for tin plate, but not too many people make tin plate. I think that's why we're still here in spite of ourselves,” Lester-Locke said.
Ultimately, Lester-Locke believes that the reason the steel industry still exists in Weirton stems from the efforts of the community.
“I mean, because in spite of all the turmoil and you know, shutting down the mill, you know, we still persevered. And it just shows what kind of spirit and tenacity that we have as Weirton people. It's just not Weirton Steel people. It's Weirton people as a whole,” she explained.
At this point arises another question: what has all of this meant for the community? We’ll take a look at the effects of deindustrialization in the next episode.
Music featured in this episode:
"The Call of the Coyote" by Monplaisir
"Folk Round" by Kevin MacLeod
"Industrial Revolution" by Kevin MacLeod
"Final Frontier" by Sascha Ende
"Lithium" by Kevin MacLeod