The future was bleak.
It was 2009. The auto industry was in tatters and demand for steel was weak.
In Cleveland, Ohio, less than five miles from downtown, employees at ArcelorMittal's (IW 1000/43) sprawling steel factory didn't know what tomorrow would hold.
For months that year, the plant was shut down, its two blast furnaces silent as the Luxembourg-based company slashed its worldwide steel production in half in response to flat lining demand.
Now, four years later, that same plant is ArcelorMittal's most productive site in the U.S. and one of the most productive steelmaking facilities in the world, capable of annually producing about 3.8 million tons of raw steel.
On Nov. 14, President Barack Obama heralded the plant as a "remarkable" example of the resiliency of American manufacturing during a visit to the facility.
In front of an audience of steelworkers, an American flag strung from a yellow crane at his back, Obama recounted the struggles of the plant.
"About 1,200 steelworkers punched out for what might have been the last time. And that already came at the end of a decade when the middle class was already working harder and harder just to get by and one in three American manufacturing jobs had vanished, a lot of them going overseas. And that could have really devastated this community for good. But we rolled up our sleeves we made some tough choices we rescued and retooled the American auto industry. It saved more than a million jobs," he said.
Betting on Innovation
"We bet on American ingenuity and American workers. And assembly lines started humming again, and automakers started to make cars again. And just a few months after this plant shut down, your plant manager got the call: Fire those furnaces back up, get those workers back on the job. And over the last four years, you’ve made yourselves one of the most productive steel mills not just in America but in the world. In the world."
The plant now employs about 1,800 employees and produces Advanced High Strength Steel, steel used by automakers producing higher fuel-efficient vehicles.
"The link between Cleveland’s success and our investment in Advanced High Strength Steel has been very important to our success. In the coming years we will help our automotive customers meet the demanding fuel-efficiency standards that will be required in the run up to 2025," said Lakshmi Mittal, Chairman and CEO.
ArcelorMittal this year alone invested $70 million in the 100-year-old Cleveland plant, creating 150 new jobs.
"The story of this plant is the story of America over the last five years. We haven’t just been recovering from a crisis. What we’ve been trying to do is rebuild a new foundation for growth and prosperity to protect ourselves from future crises. And because of the grit and resilience and optimism of the American people, we’re seeing comeback stories like yours all across America," Obama said.
The President said the country needs to do everything it can to revitalize American manufacturing, such as creating more manufacturing innovation institutes like the one launched in Youngstown, Ohio.
"Manufacturing is -- that’s the hub of our economy. When our manufacturing base is strong, the entire economy is strong," Obama said.
"A lot of service jobs depend on servicing manufacturing jobs. And, typically, manufacturing jobs pay a little bit better. So that’s been a path, a ticket to the middle class. So when we make steel and cars, make them here in America, that helps. Like I said, the work may be hard but it gives you enough money to buy a home and raise a kid, retire and send your kids to school."
Voices from the Plant Floor
Brittney Perkins, a crane operator who has worked at the plant for two years, was scheduled to work Thursday. Instead, thanks to the generosity of her boss, she was among the throng of workers in the shipping warehouse of the plant's finishing division hearing the President speak.
"It's definitely rewarding and it’s nice when someone takes notice of your accomplishments," she said of Obama's recognition of the Cleveland facility. "To be noticed, it’s highly commendable. It's appreciated."
She said working at a steel mill isn't always the safest or most fun job and to receive recognition for that work is "appreciated."
Tom Scott, a crane operator who has worked at the mill for nearly 40 years, is proud of what the mill has accomplished and its success story, but is more excited about its future.
"I'm unbelievably happy to see manufacturing coming back to America. I want to thank Mr. President for supporting the efforts to make it happen, to bring the jobs back home, not just for me, not just for us, but for our children, and our children's children," Scott said in his introduction of the President.
Tom Pituch, electrical maintenance manager of the finishing division who has worked for ArcelorMittal for nearly 30 years, said the President's address was "very uplifting," a sort of affirmation for the work he does every day.
"I like the fact that he kept on emphasizing that we are rejuvenating what we used to do. We're bringing manufacturing back," said Pituch, who advocated the necessity of having a country that makes things.