U.S. Steel Plant Remains Idle, Workers In Limbo

Steel pipe plant in Lone Star, Texas has been idle since February, leaving workers uncertain how long the shutdown might last.

LONE STAR, Texas (AP) -- The U.S. Steel Corp. plant in this small town has anchored generations of northeast Texas families, long providing the best paychecks in the region, but a quiet uncertainty has descended since it was idled in February.

"Every time you get a haircut, every time you go to the grocery store, if you go to Wal-Mart, you can't go two aisles before running into one of your buddies who's laid off and wants to know what you've heard," said Russ Hall, a Linden resident and plant supervisor laid off in late February. "In church, every time you shake hands with the preacher, he's asking about it."

The plant, located about 30 miles north of Longview, is a mainstay in the region since 1951. It was idled in February -- a temporary move company officials said was prompted by falling demand for oilfield pipe and the poor economic outlook.

U.S. Steel has declined to say how many people were laid off or how long the shutdown might last, but union officials told The Dallas Morning News for a story published Sunday that 786 of their 894 workers had been sent home by early April and that only a few maintenance and warehouse crews are working at the facility that once employed 1,200.

The layoffs are worrisome in a region where employment prospects have always been tougher than elsewhere in Texas. Since October, the joblessness rates in Morris and Cass counties have been growing faster compared to elsewhere in northeast Texas and most counties across the state.

"In the past, there's always been something else out there," said local United Steelworkers president Randy Dean, who followed his father into the mill 31 years ago and has been laid off five times. "This time, the whole economy is in the tank."

The shutdown has also affected related businesses and local retailers in Lone Star, a town of 1,600.

"It's a chain reaction," said C.E. "Nick" Nichols, who was mayor during a devastating 1980s downturn and is running for the office again. "Everything and everybody around here is tied to that plant."

North of Lone Star, in Dangerfield, Janice Bryant says her gift shop, Something Special, would have "many zero-dollar days" if it weren't for bridal and baby registries.

"My customers and my friends, they're like, 'Janice, what are we going to do?'" she said. "We're all going to have to buckle down and work together."

The steel pipe plant, opened by investors in a mothballed World War II military foundry, has seen tough times before.

In the early 1980s, more than 8,000 people worked at the sprawling complex, but the oil bust came and so did repeated layoffs starting in 1982. The town lost half its businesses and 20 percent of its population in the bust.

The plant was bought by U.S. Steel in 2007 for about $2 billion.

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