Loss Of Steel Jobs Lingers In Fairfield
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's no rush hour in Fairfield, Ala., these days. Just outside of Birmingham, U.S. Steel closed its blast furnace in Fairfield in 2015. About 1,100 workers were thrown out of work, and the loss of those jobs shook the whole community. We went to Fairfield this week, a town that now looks empty and quiet, to meet with three of those people at their old steel workers union hall in Fairfield on a street of boarded-up storefronts.
SIEGFRIED POWELL: Siegfried Powell, hotscript (ph) mill, 26 years.
DIANE WOOD: Diane Wood, blast furnace, 13 years.
BO EDWARDS: Bo Edwards, QBOP, 22-plus years.
SIMON: They did work that was hot and dangerous. Siegfried and Diane are now in job retraining classes, but Bo has no time for classes because he has to look for work and classes don't pay the bills. Working at the blast furnace wasn't just a job, it was the way they saw themselves, proud to work around hot steel and scalding steam, a life most people would find risky and frightening.
EDWARDS: Yes, sir, hot and dangerous.
SIMON: You knew a lot of people who got hurt doing that?
EDWARDS: Yes, sir, quite a few.
SIMON: And if I call you Diane, Diane Wood...
SIMON: ...You worked a blast furnace, right?
WOOD: Yes, sir.
SIMON: What's that like?
WOOD: In the summertime hot, in the wintertime cold with a lot of graphite and sulfur in the air.
SIMON: Weren't a lot of women working the blast furnace, weren't they?
WOOD: No, no there wasn't. When I hired in, they had one other lady in the department, and she retired within a year. And then it was four or five years before another woman came in.
SIMON: Bo, you're 49.
EDWARDS: Yes, sir.
SIMON: So what happened when in your late 40s, you go to look for a job and people see, oh, gosh, this guy did something important and dangerous, he'll be a good employee?
EDWARDS: Being my age, the first thing they look at, they go, oh, he's 50 years old. And they discriminate because of age because, oh, this guy don't have much more left in him. And then if you do get past the first part of the interview, and you go in and you have a physical, you know, they want to know, oh, what kind of medications are you on?
Well, guess what? OK, I've got some health issues. You know, you have to tell them what kind of medications. And then, oh, Mr. Edwards, we're sorry. We don't have a position for you at this time.
SIMON: Diane, you're in a job retraining program.
WOOD: Yes. I'm taking culinary arts at Wallace State Community College right now.
SIMON: That's a lot different than working the blast furnace, isn't it?
WOOD: Yes, it is, but it's something I enjoy. And I am 46. And if I want to work longer, I want to do something I enjoy instead of something I have to do to provide.
SIMON: So what's the price difference between what you were earning and what you bring in now?
WOOD: Probably about $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
SIMON: That's the difference?
WOOD: Yes, sir.
SIMON: That's a lot of money.
WOOD: Yes, sir.
SIMON: Siegfried Powell is 51 and tall with powerful hands with steely fingers that hold on to a tattered souvenir cap he once got in the Cayman Islands. He says he's discovered in job retraining class that the strength and experience that once made him a valuable steel worker now seem useless.
POWELL: I noticed that with this layoff here, it wasn't about big, strong guy like myself.
POWELL: It's more about, you know, the brains, the computers, the programming. Siegfried can't type.
SIMON: You can't type?
POWELL: I cannot type. Siegfried has very little computer knowledge. Somebody showed me a brochure from U.S. Steel that I was doing something. I say, heck, you know, you do the same thing for 20 years, you know, GFB, GFB, you know, the keyboard always wear out on those three keys. But it might have looked technical in the book, but it was just the same thing that we were trained.
So I knew that I had to retrain myself, especially on that computer. And once I started it - I got in the game too late. And the young people I was in school with, they still had their earbuds in their ear, and they were doing stuff on their phone. And I was, like, sitting in front of the class. And I'm like, OK, is this guy going to slow down so we can ask a question?
SIMON: Did - I apologize in advance that this question might be painful, but I think it's - it'll be good for people to understand how you're living now. Can you tell us some examples of things that you can't do now that you used to be able to do?
WOOD: I used to travel.
SIMON: To see family and stuff?
WOOD: No, no, vacations, just travel just to go see whatever I wanted to.
POWELL: You don't do that no more now.
SIMON: Cayman Islands.
POWELL: Yeah. You don't take those - well, I thought they were luxury trips with my family. You know, this is a hat - it's been many, many years since I done been there. And I probably won't go back no time, but...
SIMON: Your Cayman Islands hat, yeah.
POWELL: Cayman Islands hat, you know. And everybody said, man, why don't you throw it away?
EDWARDS: When we were working, we were - we had money. I mean, to be honest with you, it was a good company to work for, but their profit-mindedness has affected the entire - not just us, you affected an entire community. I always say this - for every job that was out there, there were 10 support personnel behind it.
There were truck drivers. There were security guards. There were railroad workers. If you're going to work, you stopped at a fast food joint or you stopped at a mom-and-pop place and you got your Mountain Dew, your Gatorade. You got your pack of cigarettes if you smoked.
POWELL: Twenty bucks was on the counter. Twenty bucks was on the counter. You might say, OK, Sieg, so what's 20 bucks? Well...
EDWARDS: That's their granddaughter's dance lesson.
POWELL: That's - those little business like that, they suffer.
SIMON: The former steelworkers seem resigned and regretful now, but when you ask, they'll say they're angry at U.S. Steel for shutting the blast furnace in Fairfield when they say it still made money and the U.S. Congress for not protecting their jobs from foreign competition.
WOOD: Do you think Congress could have done different? I always think Congress could do different, so I don't have the anger in me. I think things could have been different if they were done differently, but there is no anger in me.
EDWARDS: There's a major disconnect from your working families and your people in Washington. They do not understand the working man. You know, I got an 18-year-old daughter who's just graduated high school. College is coming up. Here I am in a situation where I have lost my job. Well, I have a child that needs to go to college. And I need to be able to provide for my household.
So what do I do? I'm in a catch-22 situation. I like Donald Trump. I'm a union man and I'm saying that I like Donald Trump. That's completely 180 degrees from what a union man would say, but he understands us a little more right now, I think. I and my family growing up were Democrat all the way - Democrat, Democrat, Democrat - but the Democratic Party has got away from the working man.
POWELL: I think the reason Trump is so popular - I like to fight, though. It's about time for the fight. The country had got to a point where it was - it needed somebody to show the fight. God, I hope this not racist, but every gas station you pull in, every hotel, I am still waiting for one that I see an American face behind. So where is that American face at? I'm missing something.
SIMON: It might be hard to hear those harsh words about immigrants from a former steelworker, an African-American man from Alabama. Siegfried Powell, Bo Edwards and Diane Wood poured their lives into their work, their family and town. And now, they seem to feel that the kind of country they helped build with their muscle, blood and sweat is disappearing and can't be passed on to their children. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.