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In Pittsburgh, some note the irony of U.S. Steel's expected sale to a Japanese firm

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Investors are cheering the news that Nippon Steel Corporation wants to buy U.S. Steel for nearly $15 billion. U.S. Steel's stock price surged 26% on the news and has largely kept the gains since last month's announcement. But in and around Pittsburgh, where U.S. Steel is headquartered and operates three plants, the shock is giving way to outrage. Member station WESA's Oliver Morrison reports.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: For decades, George DeBolt has given tours of former industrial sites around Pittsburgh. To understand why the proposed sale of U.S. Steel is causing such a firestorm, DeBolt suggested we drive to Homestead, just south of Pittsburgh. An open-air shopping mall now stands where the world's largest steel mill operated until 1986. There's little sign of the steel plant anywhere, just box stores, until we reach a tucked-away corner of a Lowe's hardware parking lot.

GEORGE DEBOLT: What's coming over to the left? - 12,000-ton press.

MORRISON: The 120-year-old press is a behemoth - two stories of crushing metal hydraulics. It was used at the end of the steelmaking process to flatten massive steel slabs into sheets. DeBolt reads from a small sign next to the press.

DEBOLT: Many World War II battleships were outfitted with armor plate from this press, including the USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese signed the articles of surrender that ended the war.

MORRISON: In those days, DeBolt says, U.S. Steel became synonymous with U.S. might. So it's not just that U.S. Steel announced it was being sold, but that it was being sold to a foreign company - and a Japanese one at that.

DEBOLT: How about that for irony?

MORRISON: Another explanation for the local backlash? Some feel it's history repeating. Mike Stout was the last worker out when the Homestead Works closed in '86. He was also the plant's union representative.

MIKE STOUT: Tens of thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs illegally, were denied pensions, were denied severance pay, and the result was the complete utter destruction of the Monongahela Valley.

MORRISON: Many towns in the valley never recovered from the economic decline and still suffer health problems from the last few operating steel plants. According to Stout, the company broke its promise to the steelworkers repeatedly. The most recent betrayal, Stout says, was just a couple of years ago, when U.S. Steel backpedaled on a promise to invest more than a billion dollars into its remaining Pittsburgh-area steel plants. Months later, U.S. Steel announced it was investing billions of dollars in a new non-union steel plant in Arkansas.

Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh, says U.S. Steel should have been investing in its Pennsylvania plants a half-century ago. U.S. Steel's new plants in Arkansas utilize electric arc furnaces, which are cheaper and cleaner than the massive blast furnaces still in use near Pittsburgh.

CHRIS BRIEM: It doesn't really matter whether it's retained by U.S. Steel or bought by Nippon Steel or one of the other potential competitors. Without a lot of investment, it probably isn't going to stay open.

MORRISON: United Steelworkers president Dave McCall is worried Nippon will further steer investment to non-union plants in Arkansas, and he says opposition to a foreign buyer is a matter of principle, even if Japan is now one of our closest allies.

DAVE MCCALL: We've got to be able to make things here in America and control things here in America.

MORRISON: Several Pittsburgh-area Democratic congressmen sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging her to block the proposed sale, arguing that core industries should not be dependent upon foreign actors. Even President Biden has called for scrutinizing the sale. Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Bob Casey says it's a matter of national security.

BOB CASEY JR.: You can't exist as a nation if you don't have a manufacturing base. And steel is a big part of that.

MORRISON: Casey voted for several laws to encourage manufacturing in the U.S. The laws offer billions of dollars in incentives for companies to build American factories for things like electric car batteries and computer chips. That is one reason why Nippon Steel says they want to buy the company in the first place - increased demand for American-made products. Charlie McCollester wrote a book about labor issues in Pittsburgh's steel industry, and he thinks that new Japanese owners might take a different approach to the roughly 3,000 plant workers who are left.

CHARLIE MCCOLLESTER: They had a certain responsibility toward their workers. And they are - they have been geniuses at involving workers in the production process from below.

MORRISON: McCollester thinks the sale might be the last chance for steel to regain its foothold in Steeler country.

For NPR News, I'm Oliver Morrison in Homestead, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Oliver Morrison