The Changing Life Inside Cleveland's Steel Plant

Sharon Daniels in the pulpit above the hot strip mill at ArcelorMittal. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]

Cleveland’s skyline features the towering smokestacks and rusty structures of the steel plant near downtown. It’s part of the city’s history and character. And for the plant’s lifers, like Sharon Daniels, being a steelworker is part of their identity too.

Daniels came to work in steel by accident.

“I just was in the parking lot, in the car, with a friend who put in an application and they were like, 'come in, they're hiring women,' so I put in an application and lo and behold they called me,” says Daniels.

That was 1976. Today she’s 60 and nearing retirement. We spoke in in the office building next to the plant’s hot strip mill. It shook every few minutes as steel slabs came out of the furnaces and onto the tables where they’re flattened, smoothed and rolled up for shipment.

This is where Daniels started 40 years ago. And she’s stayed here the whole time. The hot strip mill’s manager, Joe Palmer, says the hiring process nowadays isn’t quite so simple.

“There's computer tests that they take, then there's interviews that you go on, there's fitness things that we do here,” says Palmer.

Daniels says she had to pass a math test and that was it. She started as a walking recorder, delivering the day’s production schedule to each part of the mill. Now these schedules show up on computer screens. Next she was a bander burner, checking the steel at the end of the line.

“You take a torch and you'd light it with a striker and you heat up the steel, when it turns a little orange, like a yellow orange, you apply pressure to the nozzle and it burns right through the strip,” says Daniels.

Those jobs don’t exist anymore. Neither does gager or roll hand or shearman. Now there’s just two: senior operations technician and operations technician, those positions cover it all. Technology is part of the reason tasks have been consolidated into fewer jobs. There are things like improved sensors, cameras and controls for setting the thickness of the slab.

Daniels points to one of those subtle changes while standing at the wall of monitors and control panels in an office above the floor of the mill.

“You see that little button on the top of the mill going back and forth - so the gage or the screws which control the mill, they go back and forth to make the gage what the customer ordered,” says Daniels.

Another change happened after the plant closed down in 2001. The owner at the time, LTV Steel, lost money for years, unable to produce steel that met their customers’ requirements. So Daniels was laid off, for the first time in 25 years.

“It was kind of unbelievable because it had never happened and then we had foremen from other departments coming over here, saying goodbye, they were in tears,” says Daniels. “So it wasn't until I actually left out of here, got out of here, that I said, wow, it happened.

Five months later, she returned with a different view of her employers, including her current one, ArcelorMittal CEO and United Kingdom-based billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.

“They bailed on us,” says Daniels. “Sold us down the river to somebody who works, lives overseas, some millionaire, meaning Mr. Mittal, who doesn't I don't think care anything about us particularly.”

Daniels is 60 and is emblematic of a bigger challenge that Arcelor Mittal in Cleveland faces – the average age of their employees is 51. So they’ve started mentorships and recruiting in colleges to fill jobs that people like Daniels used to land in by accident. It’s not clear if it’ll ever be a ‘job-for-life’ business again.

 

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