Men of Steel

LTV’s Cleveland Works once employed 15,000 of our neighbors, family members and friends. Today, 1,700 workers still report to the Industrial Flats to make what has defined Cleveland as a manufacturing town for the better part of the last 100 years.
From atop his perch on a rail car, Don Whipkey gives an overflowing heap of scrap metal a glance. Behind him is a mountain of junk. Old car doors. Appliances. Piping. Unidentifiable shards of discarded items that will again become useful once melted and processed.

He’s looking for rubber or combustible containers or other objects that could harm the environment or the workers who will melt it down. But this look will be quick. Leaving bad scrap on top of the stack is rookie stuff. He’ll examine it more once the giant, magnet-equipped crane removes a few feet of material. That’s where the nefarious scrap peddlers stuff less than pristine materials.

This steel mill is where Whipkey belongs. His shoulders are just a little too burly to be an autoworker. His hands look too bulky to be a precision machinist. Accountant? Tax attorney? No way. At first glance he looks like the kind of guy who would tattoo the Tasmanian Devil on his arm. After talking to him for even a short while, you see he’s the kind of guy the Tasmanian Devil might tattoo on his own arm. There’s no question what this 50-year-old does for a living. Don Whipkey is a steelworker through and through.

In his job as a scrap inspector, Don works in a building that looks like an airport hangar. No season is comfortable. In the winter, it’s a wind tunnel, with cold air ripping through. In the summer, nothing sops up the sweat.

But that’s OK, because this is a good job with a good wage — $18.03 an hour, with production bonuses bringing it up to $24. Really, it goes beyond that. Many of us go to work each day, and at the end of the day we can point to a report we’ve written, things that we’ve sold or a budget we’ve balanced. Working conditions are relatively comfortable. Compare that to Don, and guys like him.

“We make good money, but we take a lot of chances,” he says. Don used to work on the pouring platforms, where hot metal is poured into a container. “With all the fire around, sometimes you can’t believe that real people work here.”

And maybe that’s why you can’t just glance at the mill. You stare.

Even during the day, the mill is a portrait in black and white, angular and dark with a skyline all its own. Like in an ancient castle, steel bridges stand as sentries over the hulking buildings. At its center, the triangular lines of the Corrigan, McKinney Steel Co. blast furnace are the anti-Rock Hall, solid and black rather than airy and white.

“The mystique is there,” Don says. “There are a lot of people who know a lot of people who work in the steel mill, but they don’t really know what goes on down there.”

Don doesn’t just make a product. Steel is strong — nearly unbreakable. And he makes it from scratch. Rocks that contain iron, coke that’s baked from coal and things people throw away are transformed into tanks, missiles, planes and ships that have protected our country. Steel is almost elemental.

Down at the mill, guys like Don can point to the Veteran Memorial Bridge and say: Steelmakers made that, and 24,365 cars passed over it today.

Walk through Dave’s Supermarket and look at all the cans of green beans or peach halves in heavy syrup or minestrone soup. They’re all made from steel. Between 60 and 70 percent of the steel produced in the Industrial Flats is shipped within 150 miles of Cleveland.

Steel is everywhere, and we make a lot of it here. Just at ArcelorMittal, we make more steel than the entire city of Pittsburgh.

Even the mill’s waste isn’t waste. Slag separated from the metals used to create steel helps make concrete for roads and buildings. It’s the world’s most recyclable material. It’s enough to make you wonder what you’ve been doing all day while people like Don created something that will be around forever — if not in its current form, recycled in another.

Six-and-a-half years ago, this all almost disappeared. LTV Steel was bankrupt, and for the first time in nine decades, the mill went dark. It’s the echoes that Don remembers most vividly. As his voice bounced around one of the cavernous buildings down in the Flats, it settled in.

“Nobody wanted to believe that this place was gone. I was one of the last guys there,” Whipkey recalls. “That was just spooky. That was the quietest it had ever been. Did we think it would ever restart? No we did not.”

Few others did, either. Some even said it would be a good thing for Cleveland to let go of its roots as a steel town. Our dependence on this dirty industry made us not think creatively about how to redefine ourselves. Steel no longer mattered. The future was in medicine or technology or with something ending in dot-com.

But, remarkably, the steel mill rose from the dead. International Steel Group restarted production in June 2002, and now, after a merger, the mill is owned by the largest steel company in the world. Granted, only a fraction of the workers are at the scaled-back facility, and a strip mall with nonunion employees sits where steelmaking buildings once stood west of the Cuyahoga River.

ArcelorMittal Cleveland, however, has become the most efficient steel mill in the world. Though it employs just 11 percent of the workforce LTV employed at its height, the steel mill is the 31st largest employer in Cuyahoga County, and the 12th largest manufacturer, according toCrain’s Cleveland Business.

Steel, again, matters in Cleveland.

Don Whipkey is confident he’ll be able to eventually retire as a steelworker, as he had always planned. But his visions of having a steel family, working alongside his boys, may stay a dream.

Don has a teenage son, Casey Whipkey. He’ll turn 17 later this month. The way he talks, you wouldn’t mistake him for something other than a steelworker, either.

Casey says it has been hard to know that the once 15,000 steelworkers from Cleveland Works have been reduced to 1,700 or so. “More Americans are losing their jobs,” he says. “Kids my age leaving school, they won’t have a lot of good job opportunities.”

Casey says he might like to try steelworking, but he doesn’t think it’s a long-term option for him. He’s leaning toward software design, but he wants to work in the mill, if only for a summer or two to help pay for his education.

Though Casey says his dad has never talked to him directly about working in the mill, Don wants him there because making steel is about more than a good paying job.

“If you come to the mill, you’re going to work,” he says. “Steel builds character. Something about working in the mill makes you a man.”

Fire shoots from the stacks that rise from the center of our city.

No other big city in the country has such an intimate relationship with its steel mill. It is at our core. Nearly 400,000 people live within five miles of the stack, more than any other plant in the United States.

Anyone who grew up here has some kind of connection to the mill. Maybe a neighbor or family member who worked there. Maybe they drove supplies down into the Flats. Or maybe it’s more detached, like seeing the stacks out a car window on the ride home from grandma’s house.

“Cleveland’s pilot light,” Congressman Dennis Kucinich once called the flame spewing from the stacks.

The roads leading to the buildings are crumbly. The potholes have holes. Giant trucks drive on the roads, dwarfing SUVs. Mountains of stone grow on rented lots. The river winds right through the mill, where some ships still pass through.

The steel mill is dirty. You can feel the grit settle on you, and though it’s not a thick enough layer to be visible, without a mirror you’ll assume you look like one of the workers from a black and white photograph, soot smudged everywhere and a stoic expression on your face.

The winding roads are a maze. If you’re driving down there, it’s assumed you know where you’re going.

As modern as some portions of the mill look, others appear straight out of the 1920s. Even away from the flames there are dangers. No one who cares about Don should ever see him climb the mountain of scrap that’s piled in his area. With each step, he stomps, but does so carefully. The metal is jagged and sharp and ubiquitous.

“We have a unit here called The Pits. It’s called The Pits for a reason,” Whipkey says. “To this day, there are still dirt floors. It’s dirty and it’s hot.”

Some of the areas of the mill will make you believe in the primordial soup that Darwin says life sprung from. The fiery beginnings of the earth no longer seem implausible. Molten iron pours through a tunnel, looking like lava. Dark slag is separated from the glowing metal. Men wear flame retardant suits and masks. As the liquid metal is poured into a rail car, their faces are colored orange by the light. Sparks shoot from the pit, as if the metal itself is angry it’s being handled so easily.

The air cools the splashes of metal and they turn into little gray snowflakes that you’ll find in your hair for a day or two, despite wearing a hard hat.

The neighborhoods surrounding this mill were once defined by its presence. Much of Slavic Village used to be inhabited by steelworkers, and tiny homes built cheaply and stacked close still stand there. Once they scraped enough cash together, they’d move to a nicer house maybe over in Old Brooklyn, where they could live next door to cops and firemen.

Steel made this town. “Manufacturing at one time represented 30 to 35 percent of the jobs,” says regional economist Jack Kleinhenz. “A large portion of those jobs were steel related.”

But steel, and this mill in particular, impacts the city well beyond the gray-faced people who work next to the fire. There are those who transport materials, who run mom-and-pop grocery stores nearby, who harvest materials for steelmaking. There are those who work at the utilities that provide gas and electricity to the massive facility that covers 950 aces of land. Before LTV closed, Kleinhenz estimated for every steelworker, 2.5 other workers had a job solely because of the mill’s existence.

Now, even with a reduced workforce, ArcelorMittal pays $36 million in taxes. The company says it puts more than $400 million into the economy each year.

These days, the mill produces 3.6 million tons of raw steel each year. It’s stronger, lighter and all-around better than any steel previously made in Cleveland.

The steel produced is generally flattened and stored in giant rust-proofed rolls, that look like smooth, metallic hay bales left by an extraterrestrial farmer on the surface of Mars — a tossed out scene from a long-forgotten Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick.

It’s a stable force, but Kleinhenz says that doesn’t mean it will be around forever. Could an 18-year old leave high school and work at the steel mill for his whole career? Sure, it’s possible.

“The better question is, ‘Should they even consider it?’ ” he says. “I would say no. We all need to be flexible and be able to adjust. It would be wrong-headed to think that way.”

Though the global economy is helping Cleveland right now — a weak dollar contributing to the company exporting its steel to other countries — it places much more importance on performance. And the folks at the Cleveland mill do a great job. ArcelorMittal brings people to Cleveland from around the company to learn about efficiency. But the Cleveland mill isn’t here because of anyone’s particular affection for this city.

The owner is a guy named Lakshmi Mittal. He’s the fourth-richest person in the world, worth $45 billion, according toForbes magazine. To put in perspective how rich that is, consider this: When his 23-year-old daughter, Vanisha, was married in 2004, he spent $60 million on the wedding. If, in 2008, there’s a man who could be called a “steel baron,” he’s the guy. And steel barons were never known as sympathetic softies.

The steelworkers seem overwhelmingly happy with their new ownership. But Cleveland’s operation is just a blip on the radar of such a large company. Or, as Don Whipkey says, “We’re just a pimple.”

Don Whipkey hates staring down through to the other bank of the Flats, where razed buildings that used to be a part of LTV Steel once stood.

When he talks about things he doesn’t like, he talks in shorter sentences. And he does not like Steelyard Commons, the suburban-style strip mall with stores such as The Home Depot, Target, Marshall’s, Payless Shoes and Wal-Mart. Some people call that place progress, as one of the biggest sources of job creation in Cleveland since LTV shut down.

“That’s all union ground over there,” he says. “It’s a shame that Wal-Mart’s there.”

The steel mill doesn’t just produce metal, it builds men, too. And Don has tried to instill in his son what the steel mill built into him.

Don is a leader in the Local 979 of the United Steelworkers. Being a union member is about as important to Don as being a steelworker.

His son Casey won a drawing at his school, rewarded with a $25 gift certificate to Wal-Mart — not a small amount of scratch for a teenager.

But Casey Whipkey never brought it home. No way would he shop at a place that is so reviled by the unions. Don tells this story with pride (“What 16-year-old do you know that would do that? This kid is so smart.”) and Casey speaks as though there were never really any other option.

You probably know a guy like Don Whipkey. He makes a good living, but he works hard to do it. He likes his job — not so much that he would keep working it if he won the Mega Millions jackpot, but as a way to pay the bills, it ain’t bad. He talks about his wife in terms of finding true love, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to hear she’s dying. Don doesn’t mention that when he talks about her, though.

Sure he’s tough, his talk is peppered with vulgarity, and his eyes can look a little wild when he tells a story, but he’s soft, too. He apologizes for delaying a meeting because he’s setting up hospice for his wife. And later for having to excuse himself to attend to her funeral.

Now, he’s no saint or anything. He had a failed first marriage, and it’s tough to tell if the jokes he makes about his ex-wife are enhanced for comedic effect or to numb the pain. He has strained relations with one of his three sons, and it seems they’re both waiting for the other to make the first move toward reconciliation.

His favorite band is Insane Clown Posse. Music critics would describe them as raucous, vulgar, heavy hip-hop mixed with creepy circus music. Don’s teenage son Casey says they’re loud, which is also how Casey describes how Don prefers his music. Don likes the fact that he listens to his music louder than his son.

Steelworking instills hard-working values. When Don wanted a new television, he worked extra hours to save up for it. He never thought about putting it on a credit card and paying it back. Things he buys (American made products, by the way —he wants to support other guys like him in other industries) are calculated by hours worked. Because work is hard.

Steelworking has afforded him a good life, too. He owns a good house in a quiet neighborhood. He’s raised three sons, and he takes his youngest out for hunting trips. His last trip to West Virginia wasn’t really for himself. More than anything, he wanted to see his son bag a buck. He didn’t get the buck, but he did nab a deer.

Many of Don’s laments about Steelyard Commons are echoed by other steelworkers.

“You spend 33 years there, well, the steel mill is in my blood,” says Ron Yandek, 54, who left the steel mill and is on disability. “I look back at the days when it was like a big city. We had more than 10,000 workers in the Flats. It kind of hurts to see that there now.”

But things have changed.

It’s apparent just walking through the mill. The mill is divided over several huge buildings, mostly on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, near Slavic Village. The west bank is largely not in use anymore.

The buildings are cavernous, and, unless you know where to look, you can walk through a whole room and not see a single worker. There are spots where it looks like someone should be standing, but there’s no one there. The echoes Don describes earlier would still be occurring if it wasn’t for the noise of the machinery.

Much of the work has been mechanized. While there used to be men and women on the floor doing work, now they’re behind a partition monitoring and adjusting equipment from behind a computer screen.

On the floor, it feels like the inside of a car on a July afternoon. Fire cuts through red-hot steel on this giant machine called a Continuous Slab Caster, which is as large as the building. As the steel moves past, you can’t stare at it or your face starts to feel sunburned. Up near the ceiling, a man in a giant crane picks up the thick pieces of metal, stacking them before they’re flattened into long strips and rolled.

The management and the workers are both proud of their most-efficient-in-the-world tag: 6 tons of steel produced per man every day of the year.Neither miss a chance to bring it up. For management, it says they’ve created something stable and sustainable in Cleveland. For the workers, it says they’re working hard. They’ve contributed ideas to make things work better. They’re a big part of the reason that this operation runs so smoothly.

The equation, though, is tons of steel divided by workers. So being the most efficient also means the mill needs fewer men and women to operate.

The workers have been through so many threats of closure over the past few decades, though, that they seem at comfort with the fact that their jobs could disappear. Mostly, they remain confident — “I’m not going to worry about this job disappearing,” Whipkey says. “I won’t worry about it until it happens.”

Charlie Terkun says he’s been prepared for fortysome years to call it quits. He started working at the mill in the early 1960s when Republic Steel owned it. “Back in the early ’60s they said it wasn’t going to last 30 years, you should go find something else. Even back then,” he says. “Will it be around another 30? Another 5? Who knows? It was supposed to be gone already.”

Maybe that’s why the steelworkers don’t like to talk about the longevity of their jobs. They’re on borrowed time. They’ve been on borrowed time their whole careers. And the only thing it’s taught them is that no one knows what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to how long a steel mill will be around.

Leave a car parked in Tremont for a few days. Don’t touch it, and a thin layer of grime will cover the windows.

Sides of homes in this neighborhood, as well as Slavic Village, the Industrial Valley and Old Brooklyn are regularly shaded gray from soot.

Downtown buildings in the 1970s were shaded dark in soot, too, when the mill pumped even more pollutants into the air.

Sometimes a nasty smell lingers, and some attribute that to the mill, too.

It’s always been part of living near a steel mill. But after the mill shut down for half a year, some folks began to realize exactly how much they’re impacted. Though many have complained about these problems for years, they’re now receiving help from an environmental nonprofit with a downtown headquarters. Ohio Citizen Action has made the steel mill the center of an effort to clean up the area. Liz Ilg, the Cleveland area program director for the group, says neighbors have had little success dealing with noise and pollution, no matter who the owner has been.

“We found a lot of neighbors complaining of rotten egg odors, soot covering homes and cars, migraine headaches and breathing problems that they thought were linked to living next to the mill,” she says. “The steel mill is also putting out fine particle pollution, which is the most dangerous type of pollutant to human health. They are so small they can penetrate through your lungs and cause heart and lung damage.”

The group has had hundreds of doctors and nurses write the mill. Ilg hasn’t had much luck with company brass. She had one meeting with management and has since been pawned off on public relations staff.

The group wants to work with the mill. “The neighbors aren’t looking toward shutting the mill down,” she says. “The neighbors and the owner have similar goals. Both want the mill to produce steel and produce it with less emissions.”

A big part of what Don Whipkey does, sifting through scrap, is searching out materials that will pollute the environment. Things have gotten far better than they used to be, he says. In the old days, he submitted many complaints about flagrant flouting of environmental concerns, he says. Now, when he points out a problem, management reacts to remedy it.

“She should see the way it used to be,” he says.

Retired steelworker Ron Yandek says it used to be really bad. Ron has cancer, and he can’t help but wonder if all the chemicals he used to haul before environmental laws were strengthened didn’t have something to do with it.

The environmental problems go deeper than what employees can control, Ilg says. She’d like to see equipment installed to mitigate some of the junk pumped into the air. She says she estimates it would take about $60 million of equipment to take a big chunk of emissions out of the air. While that may sound like a lot of cash, she points to the identical wedding price tag of Lakshmi Mittal’s daughter. Where is the priority, she asks.

Don Whipkey acknowledges the mill may not be perfect environmentally, but he says he thinks Ohio Citizen Action may be blowing things out of proportion.

After all, Don had asthma for years. “I don’t have it any more, and I still work down there.” So, he asks, how can you explain that?

If you’ve never read a story about the steel industry, here’s a little background: Union workers hate management. Management hates the union. The union asks for too much money and puts financial strain on companies. Management treats its workers unfairly and violates numerous laws in the process. It’s just the way the arguments work.

But something is different at ArcelorMittal Cleveland right now. The world has turned upside down.

The general manager, union chief, everyday workers and just about anyone you ask down there expresses confidence in the future of Cleveland steel.

The head of the local union chapter, Mark Granakis, and the general manager of the Cleveland mill, Terry Fedor, seem downright chummy.

Fedor, sitting across a table with Granakis, says: “We pay attention more to the employees. We walk around and ask people what they’re thinking, and why they’re thinking that. There was definitely a culture of us-versus-them.”

At this point, you might expect Granakis to laugh, guffaw or pound his fist dramatically on the table. Instead, he nods. And later, when talking to rank-and-file steelworkers, they nod, too.

Though it’s not written in a contract, Fedor says, they have an unofficial rule that shows how much they respect the workers’ knowledge and experience: “Nobody gets laid off. We may work a little overtime to cover it during busy times. We will do training during the slow time periods.”

The union has also made big concessions to the management.

“We used to have 16 pages of the employee handbook explaining how to take a vacation,” he says. “We always wanted more jobs and better paying jobs. We lowered the number of job classifications. When we first came on board, we had questions of whether this could work.”

And, he says, this period has been a small portion of the 90 plus years that the mill has been in operation, so let’s not declare a truce yet, but things seem to be working pretty well right now.

What’s unsaid is why this is so important. They are working well together, in part, because they have to. If the old fights between management and the union arose, they might not be so efficient. And if they aren’t efficient, there’s really no reason for ArcelorMittal to keep them around.

Guys had grown immune to the economic complaints by LTV, Granakis says. “After a while, it was always, ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling.’ We were sure it was bullshit. Then it fell.”

When work resumed at the mill, Granakis says fear motivated for a short time, maybe five or six months. But then that feeling went away. Ultimately the question of “What will I do if the mill closes?” was already answered. The mill did close. Most of the guys found something to do.

“You can’t depend on fear to keep workers motivated,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s work.”

And there’s some joy in that. The tensions have begun to subside. The workers and management are growing accustomed to this new world. Still, they look for ways to feel like it’s still the good old days.

The men and women at the mill are close, but not like friends. More like family. When Don Whipkey’s wife died in May, he expected a relatively small turnout at the funeral. It was packed. And when he returned to work, his desk was filled with cards. “If something happens to someone, everyone is there to help out,” he says. “When one hurts, we all hurt.”

Of course, just as with family, that bond also allows you to razz the hell out of each other. It’s unrelenting, but all in fun.

Don came back from a surgery late last year. When he went into his office, a rickety shack near the giant mound of junk, he saw his hard hat had been tinkered with.

Instead of “Don Whipkey,” his buddies had assigned him a nickname. Looking as professional as any name printed on a helmet, Don’s read “Do Little.”

Don acted mad, but he still wears that hat so long as management isn’t looking.

It’s good to feel normal again.

To see our photo gallery, Why Steel Still Matters, click here.
Share this story: