“People are losing their homes. They are losing hope,” Rivera says.
The Commerce Department on Jan. 11 sent President Trump the findings of its “Section 232” investigation into steel imports. Steelworkers and steel companies are now counting on Trump to act to defend good-paying jobs — and our national security — from foreign imports. In an occasional series, we catch up with steelworkers across the country to get their thoughts about the president’s impending decision.
Onika Rivera originally wanted to become a nurse.
But Rivera was forced to drop out of nursing school in 1997 in order to find quality healthcare for her eldest son, who suffers from hemophilia. So at the age of 28, Rivera’s manufacturing career began at Republic Steel in Lorain, Ohio.
More than 20 years later, Rivera is now working as an electrician at U.S. Steel’s Oil Country Tubular Goods plant in Lorain. She is also the first female president of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1104.
And while Rivera is grateful for the pay and, perhaps more importantly, the healthcare benefits she has received as a USW member, she also has watched the steel industry in Lorain dissipate around her.
Republic Steel ceased operations in 2016; the U.S. Steel tubular mill has trimmed its workforce from about 900 employees in 2001 to just 208 today.
The decline is a result of surging foreign steel into the American market. This steel is often government-owned or heavily subsidized and priced far below fair market value. Tens of thousands of American steelworkers have faced layoffs and dozens of plants have closed as a result; our national security is now at risk.
President Trump repeatedly has pledged to stand up for American steel, and in January received the Commerce Department’s “Section 232” investigation into steel imports that included recommendations for action. Trump now has until mid-April to decide what to do.
Rivera and her fellow steelworkers feel a positive U.S. trade ruling is long overdue, she said.
“Section 232, if everything was fairly put in place, where everybody could get a piece of the pie, our members would be happy,” she said. “Without this investigation and Trump not making any changes, it is devastating our people. People are losing their homes. They are losing hope.”
It’s no wonder why the people of Lorain have little faith. When Rivera was first hired at Republic Steel in 1997, the workforce was nearly 5,000 steelworkers; in the 1970s, the mill employed approximately 12,000 workers. The U.S. Steel tubular mill was always a much smaller operation, but consistently employed between 800 and 900 people for many years.
With the influx of cheap, Chinese foreign pipe, that number has dwindled down to about 200.
“Our laid-off workers are losing their medical insurance. We have a few people with cancer that now have to find their own health insurance,” Rivera said. “There is going to be a lot more people dropping from the books and they won’t have health care. The healthcare supplied to us through U.S. Steel is very good and covers a lot. Once people start purchasing outside of our group insurance, the price is going to be higher with less benefits.
“It’s hurting a lot of people. People want to retire. People want to have a future for their children and the way things are looking it seems more dim than if we could see the light.”
“People are disappointed because they were hoping that Trump was for the working man, and unfortunately it’s not looking that way for us.” Onika Rivera
Besides a well-paying, middle-class job, Rivera is particularly concerned with benefits such as healthcare and pensions because of her own personal story. She has been married for nearly 30 years and has three children, but both of her sons are hemophiliacs and need consistent, top-quality healthcare.
After nearly two years of working at Republic Steel, in 1999 Rivera moved to U.S. Steel to join an apprenticeship program where she learned how to become a certified electrician. At the age of 48, she still works her shifts in the mill and volunteers her time as the president of USW Local 1104. As the local president, a major part of her job is keeping her members apprised of the Section 232 investigation and what it means for their futures.
“We are drowning because of China,” she said. “Because their laws and rules with trade are so minimal, they able to flood the system with their steel, but there are so many rules on our side that we have to follow it kind of slows us down in the sense of producing more steel.”
It is no secret that many steelworkers voted for Trump, in part because he told campaign crowds in large steelmaking states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio that he was going to make American steel great again and require companies to “buy American, hire American.”
But with more than a year into his presidency and no meaningful action taken, many steelworkers are growing disillusioned with the President’s rhetoric, Rivera said.
“A lot of people are feeling that he’s not really proactive because he must have an agenda,” Rivera said. “He’s a businessman, and he has business in these foreign countries, and workers feel maybe that’s why he’s sitting on the 232 investigations. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his money.
“People are disappointed because they were hoping that Trump was for the working man, and unfortunately it’s not looking that way for us.”