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Republic Steel's indefinite closure in Canton leaves hundreds jobless

Republic Steel, Canton
Tim Rudell
Republic Steel announced Thursday it is indefinitely idling operations at its steel mill in Canton.

Republic Steel will idle steelmaking in Canton, leaving hundreds without work.

Workers received no notice of the company’s intention to indefinitely shutter operations in Canton and Lackawanna, New York, and learned of the news through the media.

These indefinite closures will end leaded steel production in the United States. Republic Steel is the only company in the country to produce and distribute leaded steel, which comes with many environmental concerns. The company had been under a court order since July related to the amount of lead it releases into the air.

Operations will continue at a "state of the art" mill in Mexico owned by Grupo Simec, the company that owns Republic Steel. The idling leaves hundreds of steelworkers and other employees in Canton out of work.

Steelworkers in Canton and city officials learned of what the company is calling an indefinite closure by reading it in the Canton Repository on Thursday.

United Steelworkers Local 1200 President Todd Fitzgibbon, who represents about 185 workers in the Canton plant, said calling the closure "indefinite" is a way for the company to avoid paying workers severance.

"They're not even calling it a shutdown," Fitzgibbon said. "They want to call it a temporary closure, that way they don't have the liability of shutdown benefits."

Fitzgibbon said this alleged breach of contract is just the latest issue workers have had since Republic Steel was purchased by Grupo Simec in 2005.

"Now we're all in question on, are we going to get paid our vacation we have coming? What about our personal items?" Fitzgibbon asked. "So, like, if you're a millwright, and you wanted to go get a job at Timken and work for Timken, you can't. Because Republic Steel has all your tools locked up."

Fitzgibbon alleged Republic Steel didn't file the correct paperwork at the state and federal level to prove workers are employed in Canton.

"Like I have employees calling screaming about their unemployment," Fitzgibbon said, "because unemployment's telling them they haven't worked, they have no recorded pay or work since May of 2022."

The company did not reply to Ideastream Public Media's request for comment.

The Canton mill had been the center of environmental concerns and was under Ohio and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement, as well as the court order issues in July.

"Although Republic Steel has, for the past two years, remained in strict compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for the production of leaded steel, ensuring future environmental compliance while producing steel in facilities that are up to 125 years old proved to be too challenging," Republic Steel said in an announcement, adding that moving operations fully to a more modern plant in Mexico is the environmentally responsible choice.

Using the media isn't typically how a big company lets a city know it plans to leave town, Canton's Director of Economic Development Chris Hardesty said. He noted that the relationship between the company and the city was not great due to the environmental concerns.

"It's a significant loss," Hardesty said. "They were a large employer in the city."

Canton is connecting furloughed workers with other local steel mills that are hiring, Hardesty said.

“A lot of them have already started looking for jobs," Fitzgibbon said. "Some of them have started filling out their retirement papers, and some are in panic mode because you still have people that work here that live payday to payday.”

Union leaders are meeting with leadership from Republic Steel next week. Fitzgibbon has a long list of questions and requests, including demanding shutdown benefits for his workers. Until then, he's been advised there's not much that can be legally done, but he hopes the U.S. government steps in.

"They should at least put tariffs to where they can't afford to ship steel from Mexico into the United States," Fitzgibbon said. "The tariffs should be so high for this company to bring steel into the United States that they can't afford to do it."

About 500 employees from Canton and the mill in Lackawanna are furloughed indefinitely, Republic Steel said.

The company also has operations in Lorain and Massillon. It's unclear how this decision will impact those mills. Fitzgibbon thinks they will all permanently close.

"Lorain, Ohio, has been temporarily shut down for four years," Fitzgibbon said.

Hardesty agreed that he thinks the closure will be permanent.

"I would believe that while they say they're idling, with how dated their infrastructure is at that site being the age that it is and how long they've been there, I would believe this to be more permanent than temporary," Hardesty said.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.