Two flags with a newly designed Stelco logo were hoisted into the sky above the industrial bayfront Friday morning, a windblown message from U.S. Steel Canada that the company is returning to its independent roots.
Hundreds of employees, many wearing safety helmets featuring the new nameplate, were given time off work to witness the ceremony on the lawn off Wilcox Street.
One office employee talked about four generations in her family having worked at Stelco and how pleased she was to see the name return.
But not all was celebratory beneath the flags and smokestacks.
A few protesters on the sidewalk — with signs saying “U.S. Steal robs pensioners share” and “CCAA illusionary justice, screw workers and pensioners” — said the real issues are workers’ pensions and health insurance benefit payments for pensioners, not branding.
“This is just an illusion, the change of a name. What’s the difference? Nothing has changed. They talk a lot about history but they threw the workers out with the bathwater,” said Steve Kucha, 62, a retired Stelco worker who spent 37 years at the plant.
U.S. Steel Canada has been in creditor protection for more than two years under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). In October 2015, a judge granted a company request to stop paying about $3 million a month in health insurance payments — for prescription drugs, dental care, vision care and other items — to more than 20,000 eligible pensioners. USSC was also allowed to forgo tens of millions of dollars in financial obligations to the fund from which pension payments are drawn, as well as millions in municipal tax obligations.
“This is supposed to be a phoenix rising. But guess what? There are still 20,000 pensioners out there who don’t have benefits … and probably our pensions will get dinged somewhere along the line,” said Kucha.
One person conspicuous by his absence was Gary Howe, president of United Steelworkers Local 1005, the local that represents workers at the Hamilton plant.
“There is no way that I can go to any flag-raising with these issues not being resolved,” Howe said in a phone interview prior to the event.
Particularly troubling, he says, are recent financial disclosures by the company that show it has managed to accumulate more than $230 million in cash while under creditor protection.
“It is great the company is doing well. That’s fantastic. But what about the (health insurance benefit payments for pensioners)?”
Michael McQuade, general manager and president of USSC, acknowledged the animosity and anxiety among pensioners.
“Naturally they are quite concerned about their pensions and benefits, and justifiably so. But today is about taking another step forward toward a brighter future and making Stelco great again,” he said.
It turns out the name change is more of a nickname at this stage, something to use for marketing rather than on formal documents.
The company, from a legal point of view, remains U.S. Steel Canada. The formal change to Stelco will take place once the company emerges from CCAA protection, a spokesperson said.
It’s all part of a year-long effort to re-establish the century-old company as a self-contained entity, separated from parent company support.
Those efforts are continuing amid negotiations with American investment fund Bedrock Industries to take over the company. Bedrock could not be reached for comment.
On Wednesday, the creditor protection order was extended until March 31, by Justice Herman Wilton-Siegel in a Toronto courtroom, to allow those negotiations to continue.
At the Friday ceremony, McQuade said the company is recruiting for jobs in information technology, purchasing and in other areas currently being handled in the United States by U.S. Steel. However, McQuade would not be specific about numbers. Earlier reports said 50 to 150 would be hired.
Liberal MP Bob Bratina (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek) said the federal government is “working to ensure that the Canadian steel industry remains viable through all of the market changes.”
One issue being examined, he said, is “determining the best way to address unfairly traded steel.”
As well, the American landscape is being watched closely after the U.S. presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump has said he plans to implement protectionist policies to protect American manufacturers.
McQuade was asked how he thought an independent Canadian steel company would fare if Trump follows through with those campaign promises.
“That’s a great question. I do not know the answer to that.”