Sparrows Point workers hear union account of their steel mill's death

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Several hundred former Sparrows Point workers gathering late Monday afternoon for details of their steel mill's demise heard from union leaders that at least two groups had wanted to restart the plant but weren't given the chance.

Joe Rosel, president of United Steelworkers Local 9477 in Sparrows Point, told the crowd that Sherman International, an iron and steel equipment supplier in Pittsburgh, wanted to operate the plant and tried to bid $150 million for it last week.

"They were told they couldn't bid because the plant wasn't for sale anymore," Rosel said.

Instead, Hilco Trading, one of the two companies that bought Sparrows Point for $72.5 million in an August bankruptcy auction, sold the plant's most valuable steelmaking asset to Nucor, a Charlotte, N.C.-based steelmaker, reportedly for spare parts.

Another group — led by a former executive with steelmaker Severstal, which once owned Sparrows Point — also was working to put a deal together but wasn't able to submit a bid before the opportunity was unexpectedly taken away, Rosel said. Hilco originally set Dec. 21 as the bid deadline, with an auction in January.

The second potential bidder, working with the Seaport Group, a New York investment bank, wanted to purchase several of the plant's mills and employ perhaps 1,000 people, Rosel said. About 2,000 worked at Sparrows Point when then-owner RG Steel filed for bankruptcy in May, rapidly idling the plant.

Sherman International, Hilco and Seaport could not be reached late Monday for comment.

About 300 laid-off steelworkers packed into a union hall on Dundalk Avenue for the meeting, some to rage, some to mourn and some just hoping for a few more scraps of information about pensions, unemployment insurance and the rest of the thin replacements for their pay and benefits.

Some workers had anticipated that Sparrows Point would close. But plenty couldn't believe they'd lived to see this day.

"I never thought the place would shut down," said Bert Mahla, 60, a pipefitter who worked at Sparrows Point for 38 years.

He and Mike Perry, a pipefitter with 39 years there, both think in retrospect that the plant was dealt a fatal blow in 2007, when federal antitrust regulators ordered former owner ArcelorMittal to sell Sparrows Point.

"If we'd still been Mittal, we'd still be operating," Mahla said.

"Kicked us to the curb," Perry said of the Justice Department.

Rosel said Sherman International had the backing of a foreign steelmaker in its attempt to bid for Sparrows Point. He said he was frustrated that the sale process was "short-circuited" by Hilco's decision to sell the plant's 12-year-old cold mill — by far the newest asset in an aging facility — to Nucor.

"We tried and tried and tried to get this thing done," he told members. If Nucor really intends to break down the cold mill for its components, he added, "it would be like buying a Lamborghini for spare parts for your Chevrolet."

Other union leaders told the crowd that there seemed no avenues left to pursue. Hilco's decision to cancel its auction and sell the plant off in pieces is legal, they told members. So is a company declaring bankruptcy for want of cash — despite being owned by a billionaire — and laying everyone off.

Anger bubbled up on several occasions at the meeting.

One member got roars of approval and applause when she asked "where the hell" the union's international leadership was during the months that proved to be Sparrows Point's death throes. Another member criticized the local's decision to call off a rally planned for the day after the bid deadline.

But there were more murmurs than shouts. The grieving process has moved past denial and — increasingly, perhaps — past anger, too.

Rosel said the entire situation has been very much like the death of a family member.

"This is probably one of the saddest days of my life," he said.

Six more years, and his family would have worked at Sparrows Point for a full 100. Rosel said he carried around a brass chit that belonged to his grandfather, one each mill worker once needed to get his pay, "to remind me what I was fighting for."

Dee Hicks, 64, whose first of two long stints at Sparrows Point began in 1966, came to the meeting for pension information. She's moving on, getting training to be a medical assistant. She hopes she can successfully make the career switch and land a new job.

The wishes of many former Sparrows Point workers are focused in a similar vein, now that the final shreds of hope for the plant are gone.

"This is probably my last union meeting," Hicks said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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