Mill workers at Zug Island steel themselves for the end

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
The bridge at the upper left in this recent drone photograph doubles as a railroad trestle and is the main entrance to Great Lakes Works on Zug Island. The two tall structures beyond the bridge are the A and B furnaces, idled respectively around 2000 and last summer. The similar dark tower to their right is blast furnace D, which may have produced its last iron in late March. The bridge at the lower right, known as the Gap Gate, is rarely used.

River Rouge — There were three blast furnaces roaring when Milio Rinna started at the steel mill, and when he blew his nose, his handkerchief would turn black.

He was 18 years old, a star high school athlete only weeks before, and now he was on Zug Island and he couldn't stop hacking.

An historic photo from Great Lakes Steel.

"All you did was cough, cough, cough," he says, "until your lungs got used to it," and then all you had to worry about was explosions, accidents and spattering molten metal.

As Rinna turns 90 on Monday, his memory a cast iron link to the past, layoff notices are going out at Great Lakes Works. Ultimately, a thousand union steelworkers will lose their jobs and the fires will bank, probably forever.

The hope was tariffs would keep the plant alive, but a 25% surcharge on Chinese steel can't turn an aging, sprawling, coal-fired work of industrial art into a slick, sleek, modern electric mini-mill.

"It's sad," Rinna says. He can tell harrowing stories about toxins and the days when the company wouldn't even supply work gloves. He knew people who died in the mill. But there was a bond among those who shaped the metal into a livelihood.

Iron ore has been set aglow on Zug Island since 1902. The iron became steel and the steel became the foundation for families, communities and even a region.

No more. U.S. Steel, owner of the steelmaking and finishing plants that make up Great Lakes Works, announced just before Christmas that reductions were coming. The last cast was March 30, and the first 300 notices went out April 1. More came last week and the rest are looming, mixed with offers of buyouts.

The company says the workers and the mill will be "indefinitely idled," a phrase that can't help but sound like "permanently abandoned" to the membership at United Steelworkers Local 1299 on West Jefferson Avenue.

"We're all trying to decipher that," Local 1299 president Andrea Hunter says. "The company's response is, 'We have no idea.'"

Off the island in River Rouge, a hot strip mill that thins steel slabs is scheduled to close by the end of the year. At what's known as the main plant for Great Lakes Works in Ecorse, the finishing facility that receives 2,700-degree molten iron by rail in bottle cars will remain open, the company says, "in line with customer demand." Ultimately, the union and non-union toll could reach 1,545 paychecks.

The steelworkers are going quietly, but not meekly. On Tuesday, in a show of pride, defiance and whimsy, a platoon of them hoisted a pirate flag atop the 220-foot D furnace, and trained a spotlight on it so it's visible from I-75.

A pair of historic photos from Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island, Thursday, April 9, 2020.

When Rinna hired on in 1948, he says, there were 16,000 employees, if few buccaneers. Into the 1970s, there were 12,000. Writing his master's thesis in 1977 on the formation of Local 1299, a Wayne State student named George Colman worked the math and figured out that at the dawn of World War II, 25% of all employed males in River Rouge, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Allen Park and Wyandotte worked at Great Lakes Steel.

"In the mid-'60s, the '70s, the '80s, all the kids' dads worked at the steel mill," says River Rouge councilman Daniel Cooney, 68.

He took a different path: after high school, "I started out behind a garbage truck," and he hung on with the city long enough to become the director of streets and alleys.

He also stayed in River Rouge, even as steelworkers rented U-Hauls. "As they gained seniority," he says, "they started looking for bigger yards and a place to store the boat, and they pretty much established the rest of Downriver."

Truth is, he says, there are more retired steelworkers than active ones among the city's 7,500 residents. They remember the boom times when the union's Christmas party for members' kids had to be staged across three days.

There was a different feel to the city then, says Dolores Swekel — and a different aroma.

An historic photo from Great Lakes Steel.

She's 79, the director of the River Rouge Historical Museum, "and I've only been on the island once," she says. Her late husband, Arnie, "didn't want me going across the bridge because it smelled so bad."

The smell did not respect the boundaries of Zug Island anyway, but after awhile, the locals largely stopped noticing. Other things, they couldn't ignore.

"You'd wake up and your car would be shiny," Swekel says. "Graphite would get on it from the mill."

It's the yin and yang of the clang from a factory. Jobs, stability, pollution, uncertainty. And now, irony.

Great Lakes Works has stayed open throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

"They say we're essential," says electrician Wheeler Marsee, the union's grievance committee vice-chair. "But they're laying us all off."

The Roosevelt connection

The union hall opened in April 1946 and was named for Franklin Roosevelt. The story goes that Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the dedication, exactly a year after her husband died.

The story is wrong. Bob Kemper checked. But she came for a rededication in 1959, a sign of the importance of labor and steel when Cadillacs still had tail fins.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Local 1299 in River Rouge in 1959. She rededicated the building, named for her late husband Franklin D. Roosevelt when it opened in 1946.

"She stood on this same stage," says Kemper, 44, of Lincoln Park. He's the grievance chair and unofficial historian, leading a tour, pointing out the oil portrait of FDR and noting the entire building is modeled after Independence Hall.

In the auditorium-sized meeting room with the stage, there's a mural along one wall recalling historic attacks on labor. It was painted in 1969 by Local 1299 member J.J. Janiec, whose grandson also makes steel.

The grandson only has two years on the job, so he's going or gone. Kemper and Hunter have 24 years and Marsee has 20, so they're on the official list of the potentially unemployed, which includes everyone with 25 years or less.

Kemper's father retired from Great Lakes Works, known as National Steel until a bankruptcy and sale to U.S. Steel in 2003. His grandfather was a steelworker in Kentucky.

Kemper grew up in Wyandotte, where the orange glow of the mill was almost his nightlight.

"It lit up the entire sky," he says. "I thought that was pretty cool."

The United Steelworkers Local 1299 in River Rouge was modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Thursday, April 9, 2020.

He chose steel over Ford Motor Co., figuring rightly that it would take him less time to become an electrician.

"What you think of as a steel mill, this is what it is," he says, loud and violent and outsized. "You're dealing with huge machines. When someone says, 'Bring a wrench,' it's as tall as you."

The jobs pay well: $80,000 or more including mandatory overtime if you're in what the car companies refer to as skilled trades, maybe $65,000 otherwise.

But it's not easy money.

Kemper used to chat every day with a worker in the shipping department named Heather Warren. She died five years ago Saturday when a semitrailer loaded with steel coils backed over her as she was spotting for a different truck.

Bob Kemper, grievance chairman of United Steelworkers Local 1299, poses for a photo at the local in River Rouge, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Mr. Kemper is a 24-year Great Lakes Works employee.

In 2014, a worker died when a crane flipped. The year before that, someone died in an explosion.

At least those have come to feel like rarities, and there are precautions. Rinna hired in at $1.20 an hour and showed up in tennis shoes and a baseball cap. One of his early tasks was insulating pipes.

"The asbestos came in 40-pound bags," he says from his home in Allen Park. "You'd wet it and then wrap it around with asbestos belts."

He ponders for a moment, then skips ahead.

"If you lived to 65," he says, "you felt like you lived a long life."

Life without a mill

McLouth Steel had a mill then in Detroit and was building a massive plant in Trenton. The foundry at Ford Rouge was roaring.

Things are quieter now.

The Detroit operation, long closed, was demolished in 2018. Trenton is coming down, with crews finessing their way through steel dust, asbestos, chemicals and sludge. Amid a bankruptcy and multiple sales, Rouge has modernized and become AK Steel, represented by UAW Local 600.

A modest sign along a pitted stretch of West Jefferson marks the entrance to Great Lakes Works on Zug Island in River Rouge. The Zug Island Road is reflected in a rain puddle, Thursday, April 9, 2020.

Now comes Great Lakes Works. Or, now goes.

Environmentalists will not miss it. Last fall, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy assessed Great Lakes Works a $380,000 penalty for air pollution. Across the previous five years, EPA records show fines of $2.2 million.

Mini-mills make better neighbors. "Mini" is a relative term, but they're smaller and they don't burn coal. They melt and refine scrap steel, and SSAB Americas operates one in Iowa that within two years is supposed to run on renewable energy.

U.S. Steel announced in 2018 that it would pour $750 million into revitalizing its seven-mile-long complex in Gary, Indiana, where the annual capability of 7.5 million tons is almost double the output of Great Lakes. Whatever River Rouge and Ecorse used to make that still needs making will largely be produced there.

"The company tells us it's the market," says Hunter, the local president. "We're strictly automotive. They tell us they don't have the orders."

Hunter, 52, used to work at Kids "R" Us. She turned to steelmaking for benefits, better pay and stability. The plant has run continuously across her quarter-century except for 10 months during the recession of 2008-09, a hiatus that pummeled River Rouge.

"When we came back, a lot of bars and restaurants had shut down," she says. The KFC vanished. The Burger King on West Jefferson near the Ecorse finishing plant closed, and it only reopened a few years ago.

Swekel, from the historical museum, remembers a glorious childhood "with everything you needed" along the avenue: "drug stores, shoe stores, dress stores, tinsmiths."

Then came malls, more alluring suburbs and a three-year traffic chokehold after a drunken operator dropped the West Jefferson Avenue-Rouge River Bridge onto a passing freighter in 2013.

The growth opportunity of late has been marijuana, with half a dozen licensed dispensaries, including one across the parking lot from Local 1299.

Up the road, a fourth-generation hardware merchant is figuring out what comes next.

Piles of coal stand in front of the excess gas pipe at EES Coke, a DTE facility on Zug Island that makes a crucial ingredient in iron. Workers at the Great Lakes steel plant call the pipe “the Zippo.”

The laid-off mill workers aren't necessarily his customers, says Scott Lozon, 41, of Lozon True Value Hardware. But the contractors who service Great Lakes Works have accounts at the store.

"They do cleaning, or maintain the rail lines or the rail cars," he says. "They've always known we have most of the stuff they need."

Lozon Hardware, he points out, survived the Great Depression. It has moved within the city twice. He'll figure something out, maybe with an extra push online. "But it's definitely going to be tough."

River Rouge Mayor Michael Bowdler has said the idling of Great Lakes Works will put a $1 million hole in the 2021 budget. The next year, DTE Energy Co. says, it will close its coal-burning plant in the city.

"We've worked so hard to balance the budget the last few years," says Cooney, the councilman. "We've almost 100% funded the pension system. We've cut to the bone, and now we're going to have to find more."

He's seen a lot, he says, "but we did not see this on the horizon."

Into the flames

For his part, Samuel Zug could not have seen any of it.

Zug came to Detroit from Pennsylvania in 1836, went into the furniture business, earned a fortune and spent some of it on a marshy 334-acre peninsula below Fort Wayne.

There, the devoted abolitionist intended to build a manor for himself and his wife, Ann — but didn't. Too damp, they decided.

Historic photos from Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island, Thursday, April 9, 2020.

In 1891, he sold the land for a robust $300,000. By then, the peninsula had become an island, with a 60-foot-wide canal cut through the south end to connect the Rouge and Detroit rivers.

Henry Ford enlarged the channel in the 1920s to improve access to Ford Rouge for larger ships, and both he and the steel mill profited. Had the Edmund Fitzgerald put those 15 more miles behind her half a century later, she'd have ultimately docked at Zug Island.

DTE owns a plant on the island called EES Coke, producing a key fuel and reducing agent to be fed into blast furnaces. It will remain open. There are warehouses on the island as well.

Mostly, though, Zug Island is about iron, flames and grit.

The EES Coke quenching tower erupts with steam as water is dumped on hot coke fresh from the ovens on a typical Zug Island day. The coke battery, once part of National Steel, is now owned by DTE.

Dark mountains of coal and coke line the Rouge riverfront. The girders soar, and the pipes are big enough to stand in. Three blast furnaces stretch the skyline — one idled around 2000, one last summer, one probably still warm, all monuments to the minds that conceived them and the hands that pieced them together.

When he was a young man, Rinna usually walked the two miles to work, but he remembers once when he'd pulled the midnight shift and his wife drove him. They came across the single-lane bridge that doubles as a railroad trestle, and she gasped as she saw the molten metal lighting the sky.

He was used to it by then, but on that night he saw it through her eyes. It was majestic and intimidating, and beautiful and terrifying, and now the fire is going out.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn