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Georgetown steelworkers laid off, but SC mill's future still uncertain

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Liberty Steel Georgetown (copy)

Liberty Steel Georgetown has laid off more than 100 workers as the plant remains idled since April. File

GEORGETOWN — More than 100 workers at this city's aging steel mill have been laid off in a move the Front Street plant's owner says is permanent, but neither the owner nor the union representing the idled employees are calling it quits.

James Sanderson, president of the local United Steelworkers, said the corporate owners have assured him Liberty Steel Georgetown eventually will reopen, "and that's all I need to be positive and remain positive."

Andrew Mitchell, a spokesman for London-based GFG Alliance, which owns the mill, was less hopeful, saying the company still is "evaluating the capital, market, supply and cost considerations that could support a sustainable restart plan at Georgetown."

The 50-year-old mill shut down six months ago after the COVID-19 pandemic cut into U.S. demand for steel products and hurt manufacturing activity. A notice filed with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce last week said mill employees will no longer report to the plant as of Oct. 28, but they will receive pay and benefits through Dec. 28.

"This action will be permanent," Karen Smith, Liberty's head of human resources, said of the layoffs.

Sanderson said use of the word "permanent" was required under federal labor laws because the plant has been closed for six months. It doesn't necessarily mean the workers will never be recalled, he added. 

Mitchell said the laid-off employees will be offered employment at another GFG Alliance location. The company also operates a steel mill in Peoria, Ill.

A handful of employees remain at the Georgetown site to maintain the property, and Mitchell has said there is no timetable for a final decision on whether the plant will reopen.

"All union contractual obligations will be honored by Liberty Steel and we continue to work closely with the city, state and other stakeholders on the future for Georgetown," he said.

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Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber did not respond to an email seeking comment.

An agreement between Georgetown and GFG Alliance states that if the mill is idled for 365 or more days the city can rezone and redevelop the property for a mix of retail, office space and other uses. Sanderson said that window could be extended because of the pandemic's impact on the mill's operations.

The Georgetown plant had been shuttered for nearly three years under previous owner ArcelorMittal when British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta took over the site in 2018 following President Donald Trump's promise to revive the nation's steel industry. The plant never reached full production before shutting down in April.

Gupta's GFG Alliance recently announced it's looking to reduce its global costs by 30 percent as well as an unspecified number of layoffs at its metals plants worldwide to put the firm on a "firm economic footing," according to The Australian newspaper.

"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand from steel-consuming sectors in certain regions has dropped by between 20 percent and 40 percent — an impact which is likely to continue for 12 to 18 months, compounding an already challenging market," Gupta told the newspaper. "The market for aluminum globally has been impacted, too, with inventories climbing."

Liberty acquired the Georgetown property in a stock purchase with Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal. The restart put about 125 workers back to work, with long-range plans to hire another 195.

Liberty said last year it planned to invest $25 million in the mill including a new electric-arc furnace and an extensive overhaul of the melt shop, but those improvements remain on hold. Jim Moore, manager of the Georgetown mill, told a city news website that he has recommended the plant remain closed if the proposed upgrades are shelved.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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