GARY | U.S. Steel started laying off as many as 323 workers at its Gary Works mill Thursday as it shuts down the coke plant, marking the end of an era that’s lasted more than a century.
The steel mill on Lake Michigan’s southern shore has made its own coke — a purified form of coal that’s used in steelmaking — since it first started cranking out steel in 1908. Gary Works once operated 838 coke ovens, back when it fed much of a thriving nation’s demand for steel for railroads, cars and skyscrapers.
Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel has decided to source its coke from elsewhere, including the Clairton Coke Works in Western Pennsylvania where it recently invested $1.2 billion in environmental upgrades.
“We have adjusted operations at Gary Works due to ongoing global market conditions,” spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said. “These adjustments resulted in WARN notices being issued regarding layoffs. Those layoffs have commenced as operations and maintenance warrants.”
The steelmaker is struggling after the collapse of oil prices killed its lucrative tube and pipe business, and because steel imports are capturing a record 33 percent market share. Roughly 30 percent of America’s steelmaking capacity has been sitting idle as imports have surged.
U.S. Steel notified the Indiana Department of Workforce Development that it will lay off up to 323 workers, including 284 production and maintenance workers. A total of 12 office workers and as many as 27 managers could be affected.
The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker had been in talks with the United Steelworkers union about whether any of the employees could keep their jobs by being transferred elsewhere within Gary Works.
On Thursday, security escorted managers from the massive integrated mill, which remains the largest in North America but which went to employing around 5,000 today from about 30,000 workers in the 1970s.
All units of Gary Works’ coke operations will be affected by the permanent shutdown.
“This action is the result of multiple factors, including market conditions, the company’s long-term coke position, and anticipated changes in the company’s future steelmaking operations such as the use of the electric arc furnace,” the company said in its WARN notice.
U.S. Steel has laid off more than 6,000 workers nationwide so far this year, including nearly 300 at its East Chicago Tin facility, which has been indefinitely idled.
Locally, more than 1,000 steelworkers have been laid off in 2015. ArcelorMittal, Northwest Indiana’s other large steelmaker, had been idling operations and plans to shut down the No. 1 aluminizing line in Indiana Harbor in December.