For more than a century, Pittsburg’s steel mill — the city’s longest-running business — has employed multiple generations of East Contra Costa families. But with all production lines shuttered in recent weeks, it appears the end of an era is near.
Though the USS-Posco Industries (UPI) warehouse is still open this week as workers pack and ship out final orders, all operations at the steel finishing mill at 900 Loveridge Road are expected to cease by March, according to Councilwoman Shanelle Scales-Preston, mayor in 2023, who cited a recent letter to the city from the mill’s owners. Some 474 workers were told that they would ultimately lose their jobs, and only about 100 are now still working.
Coils of steel are shown at the USS-POSCO plant on Monday, Nov. 7, 2011 in Pittsburg, Calif.(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff Archives)
Calls and emails to the company — the West Coast’s only producer of tin plates for the canning industry, among other products — were not returned.
“It’s part of our legacy, the fabric of our city,” said Scales-Preston, a Pittsburg native, noting that the city is named after the East Coast industrial city of the same name.
Generations of Scales-Preston’s family worked at what was one of Pittsburg’s largest private employers, including her father, uncles and cousins — and she, like many others, is sad to see it leave.
“Of course, we would want someone to come there that is already doing steel — that would be a way to keep and hold jobs,” she said. “But if that’s not the case, you want someone to come there that will be providing jobs to the community.”
The iconic 122-year old U.S. Steel parent plant headquartered on the East Coast — which owns the California UPI mill — is now being sold to Nippon Steel, Japan’s largest steelmaker. The $14.1 billion deal retains the company’s name and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, headquarters but still needs to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a regulatory panel that reviews for potential national security threats.
Pittsburg’s steel mill first opened in 1910 as Columbia Steel, a 60-man foundry. By 1920 it expanded to include the West Coast’s first nail plant and later the first hot dip tin mill west of the Mississippi. In 1930, the company became a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, later one of two general contractors for the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and by 1960 it was the first manufacturer of galvanized sheet and thin-gauge tinplate in the West, employing more than 5,000 workers at its height in the 1950s.
In the early days, steelworkers toiled in extreme heat, catching steel hot rods with cotton gloves and tongs. But by 1986, as U.S. Steel became UPI, it entered into a 50/50 joint venture with Pohang Iron and Steel Co. of Korea and embarked on a modernization program to upgrade the processes and equipment. In recent years, it has produced cold-rolled steel used in furniture, building and automotive components, galvanized steel for construction, and tin products for canning.
By 2020, U.S. Steel had acquired Posco’s shares of the UPI steel mill and regained sole ownership of the facility. Only two years later, the steel mill announced it would close.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, is one who is still hoping for a late-hour save. He urged the company last fall to continue operating the local steel mill as well as support facilities to keep workers on the job.
After Nippon Steel’s acquisition of U.S Steel was announced on Dec. 18, Garamendi also joined the Congressional Labor Caucus in urging the Biden Administration to ensure a comprehensive review of Nippon’s acquisition, noting the importance of domestic steel production.
Steve Berendsen, financial secretary for United Steelworkers Local 1440, and other union members met with Garamendi in recent weeks to discuss the situation.
“If the Japan deal goes through, they could potentially decide to reopen this,” Berendsen said. “They’re buying U.S. Steel as a whole, and since we’re the only mill that does things we do west of the Mississippi, it could be a possible asset that they would be interested in starting back up, but I don’t really know anybody that would come back.”
Retired USS-Posco Industries UPI steel mill workers Dave Kehler and his son Justin Kehler, left, at “The Steelworker in Pittsburg” sculpture by Frank Vitale on Railroad Avenue and East 5th Street in downtown Pittsburg, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. Both have retired as the mill prepares to close. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Dave Kehler, 66, worked for 25 years before retiring in early December when production ended. His son, Justin, also worked there for 23 years as did a son-in-law and father-in-law.
“I enjoyed the job. It was very challenging, and you did you have the opportunities if you wanted to move up,” said the former foreman, facilitator and assistant operator.
That said, Kehler said conditions were sometimes tough, with the mill’s being cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Wearing the required wear of steel-toed boots, long-sleeved clothing and hard hat made it seem even hotter, he said.
Son Justin Kehler started at the mill at 19 and recalled working long hours with few weekends off.
“(Being young), everybody hated the long hours and hard labor,” the now 43-year-old said. “But I ended up having a family and kids to support, so it was kind of a bigger motivation to stay with it.”
The last day of work in early December “was hard,” he said. “It’s something I’ve done for over half my life.”
One thing both Kehlers will miss are their coworkers, whom the father said were like family. “I’ve come across some some great people,” the elder Kehler said.
Martin Mendez, a 37-year employee and Oakley resident, also worked on the annealing line and recently retired, a bit earlier than he wanted to at 58. He said it was a good place to work that allowed him to “live comfortably” and put his children through college.
But safety was always a “big concern,” he said, recalling a tragic incident in the early 2000s when a woman was crushed to death by a rolling mill that slipped out of its holdings.
For the last five years he worked 12-hour shifts because there weren’t enough workers on his line, he said. In the final days, Mendez and three others produced 750 tons of processed steel per 12-hour shift, he said.
The longtime steelworker said he is hoping the Nippon Steel will find a way to keep the Pittsburg mill open but that only about 100 workers remain. Many have retired early or found work elsewhere at places like BART and PG&E.
“Right now we’re just shipping out the last of what’s left in the warehouse,” he said.
Berendsen first learned of U.S. Steel’s intentions to close the Pittsburg plant in January of 2022 and sell the property to a warehousing firm, a deal that later fell through. He said they didn’t learn why but said environmental concerns might have been part of the reason.
Though the company was left in an “idling position,” meaning it could be started back up, Berendsen said it would take a lot to do that since there hasn’t been “real maintenance” of machinery in the last couple of years.
“It’s been run on bubble gum and baling wire for the last couple years,” he joked.
Jordan Davis, Pittsburg community and economic development director, said that while the city doesn’t know what the future will bring for the Pittsburg mill, it hopes to create jobs at the 450-acre property.
“We are fully committed to maintaining the industrial nature of this land and making sure that this is a job center that can employ people and continue to carry this forward for the next 100 years,” he said.
Train cars of coil from U.S. Steel Mill in Pittsburg, prepared by train engineer “Coach” Mike Orlando, are readied for pickup by the Pittsburg BNSF switchyard team on a recent morning in December. The steel mill has shut down all production and is now being put into inoperable status following the recent sale to Nippon Steel Corp. (Mike Orlando)