President-elect Donald Trump is reportedly going to offer the Secretary of Commerce post to billionaire "king of bankruptcy" Wilbur Ross, who bought out and made deep cuts to distressed Northwest Indiana steel mills more than a decade ago.
Ross restarted local steel mills at a dark time in the early 2000s when more than 30 U.S. steel companies went bankrupt but cut jobs, wages, retiree health benefits and pensions for thousands of steelworkers. He acquired Acme Steel, LTV Steel Corp., Bethlehem Steel and the Gary Plate Mill of U.S. Steel, merging them into International Steel Group, a company he sold to Mittal Steel for $4.5 billion. Mittal Steel eventually merged with European steelmaker Arcelor, forming the world's largest steelmaking venture.
Ross has been described as a "vulture capitalist" who preys on moribund industries, but has contended he's actually a Phoenix who made dead steel mills rise from the ashes. He interviewed with Trump Nov. 20 at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, in New Jersey.
ArcelorMittal still operates mills Ross bought out of bankruptcy in East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Riverdale, as well as the Gary Plate Mill inside U.S. Steel's sprawling Gary Works mill.
Ross reaped an estimated $300 million for the the common stock he and his company, WLR Recovery Fund, held in ISG when it was sold to Mittal Steel, according to a 2005 report in The Times. Plus Ross gained a small stake in Mittal Steel and a place on its board of directors.
Investors pocketed $2 billion from the sale, but working families in the Calumet Region weren't so lucky.
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Ross made deep cuts, for instance slashing the number of salaried personnel in Acme's Riverdale mill from 200 to 25, according to Times archives. He slashed the total number of workers there from 800 before the bankruptcy filing to 125 in 2002.
However, the mill is still running. About 320 salaried and hourly workers work at the compact strip mill just across the state line today, according to ArcelorMittal.
International Steel Group also eliminated 3,000 jobs at Bethlehem Steel, which operated the Burns Harbor steel mill, through buyouts and voluntary departures.
"Now with Acme, LTV and Bethlehem together, ISG has fewer employees than LTV alone," then-ISG President Rodney Mott said in 2003, according to Times archives.
The steel companies Ross purchased also dumped retiree benefits for more than 190,000 steelworkers and retirees, and shifted pensions to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. And employment in the steel industry has never recovered since the consolidation engineered by Ross.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the United States has lost 48,000 jobs in the steel industry since the bankruptcy crisis in the early 2000s. That figure includes jobs lost both at the companies Ross consolidated and others, such as U.S. Steel Corp.