By Kevin Werner, News Staff
U.S. Steel and the federal government rejected an invitation fromHamiltoncity councillors to sit and talk about the future of the steel giant in Hamilton and surrounding area, leaving area MPs and MPPs scrambling to determine their next move.
U.S. Steel officials, in a letter dated March 6, stated a “civic forum is not an appropriate venue” to talk about the company. Instead, U.S. Steel stated that if anything develops “we will communicate and engage appropriately” with all stakeholders.
The federal government was also equally blunt in its message as it stood up city officials and politicians. A letter by James Moore the federal minister of industry that was received by Mayor Bob Bratina’s office March 7 defended its actions to preserve the steel industry inCanada, while off-loading the delicate issue of pension benefits onto the shoulders of the Ontario government.
“I’m not surprised,” said Bill Ferguson, president of United Steelworkers Local 8782, who attended the March 7 steel subcommittee meeting at city hall. “The Conservatives have constantly and consistently evaded any scrutiny over this. U.S. Steel the same thing. They ain’t talking.”
Politicians, though, suggested that if U.S. Steel won’t talk to them publicly, then they may be willing to hold a private meeting with Bratina and Councillor Scott Duvall as their representatives. Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla, who chaired the meeting, said the idea is to engage U.S. Steel officials first, and if it can be done privately, then the city has no other choice to initiate some dialogue.
“(The discussions) will eventually become public,” he said.
Wayne Marston, Hamilton East-Stoney Creek NDP MP said an initial effort should be built.
“Ground has to be broken,” he said. “The goal is to get into the public realm. Pensioners are walking in fear.”
Although politicians agreed that a private meeting should be held, Hamilton East-Stoney Creek NDP MPP Paul Miller said it still causes some concern after years of government and U.S. Steel secrecy.
“Private meetings tend to make people disbelieve,” he said. “(People) don’t like private meetings. There is too much secrecy.”
Since U.S. Steel and the federal government signed their agreement in 2007 allowing the company to take over Stelco, the contract has remained private, and the federal government has defied all attempts by freedom of information requests by Chris Charlton, Mountain NDP MPP to see the details, and how it impacts pensioners. The contract is scheduled to expire at the end of 2015.
“It’s almost impossible to hold the federal government and U.S. Steel to account,” she said.
U.S. Steel made promises to employ an average of just over 3,000 employees for three years and produce 13 million tones of steel. But the federal government took the company to court after U.S. Steel started closing down operations. It dropped the suit in 2011 when the company promised to keep producing steel in Hamilton and invest $50 million.
Last year the company shut down its blast furnace, and now there are about 600 union workers and 228 salaried positions at the Burlington Street facility.
Ferguson welcomed the potential for some contact with U.S. Steel after years of receiving nothing but a “smirk.
“May be we can get somewhere,” he said. “We are very hopeful.”
Some politicians did direct their fury at Hamilton area Conservative MPs for ignoring the potential problems U.S. Steel will create if it ends operations.
“The federal government has let us down miserably,” said Miller. “They’ve broken so many aspects of their own system,” he said. “I really want to see some action.”
Hamilton Centre NDP MP David Christopherson said ultimately, all local politicians will be responsible for what happens to U.S. Steel, its employees and about 10,000 pensioners.
“Somebody has to account for the lack of information,” said Christopherson.
Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, a member of the subcommittee, didn’t blame local Conservative MPs for not appearing at the gathering. They are merely pawns in the prime minister’s grand scheme.
“I know David Sweet and Mike Wallace (Burlington MP). I can tell you with certainly it’s not their decision (not to come). This is coming from the PMO. Sweet and Wallace are wearing that decision,” said McHattie.
Also taking part in the meeting was Liberal cabinet minister Ted McMeekin, NDP Mountain MPP Monique Taylor and NDP leader Andrea Horwath.
Whatever happens to U.S. Steel’s operations inHamilton, it will have a “significant” impact on the economic future of the community, acknowledged city economic staff.
Neil Everson,Hamilton’s executive director of economic development, is preparing an economic impact study on the potential closure of U.S. Steel. Although, not an academic study, city officials will partner with McMaster University professors to study the effects it will have on the community. He estimates the study could take two to three months to complete.
For instance, Mike Zegarac, corporate finances general manager revealed earlier that U.S. Steel won a decision against the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) that will see its assessment on itsBurlingtonproperty reduced by 32.1 per cent for the 2014 budget. That means the company will save about $2.25 million in property taxes, or about $9 for each homeowner.
The third-largest property owner in the city had in the past paid $9 million in taxes, with about $7 million going to the city. The property has been assessed at $110 million. More troubling Zegarac said is U.S. Steel is still looking to get its taxes reduced further by appealing assessments made by MPAC from 2009 to the current year that could further add to homeowners’ tax burden.
Ferguson, who endorsed the idea of an economic study, said it was necessary for the community to understand the impact a shuttered U.S. Steel company will do to the Hamilton, Haldimand and surrounding area.
“It is going to be significant,” saidFerguson. “The government seems oblivious to this, turning a blind eye to it. (U.S. Steel) is an economic engine that drives the city.”