Small-town social fabric is as tough as the steel it makes

BUTLER, Pennsylvania — Initially, Rep. Mike Kelly’s (R-PA) staffers thought they’d need around 250 seats to accommodate the number of people who would attend their town hall meeting.

The event was designed for constituents to hear from union officials from the United Autoworkers Local 3033 and company representatives from Cleveland-Cliffs, and for Kelly to discuss the fate of the Butler Works facility down the road.

Within a few minutes after setting the chairs up, a line formed outside and they quickly realized “they needed a bigger boat.” So they added more seats, a lot more, but it still wasn’t enough. By the time the town hall started, more than 100 extra seats were added, with a couple hundred more people standing shoulder to shoulder in the hall and scores unable to get in.

Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), of Butler, Pennsylvania, held a packed public town hall with union officials from the UAW Local 3303 and officials from Cleveland-Cliffs Butler Works to discuss the pending status of the plant. (Courtesy of Rep. Mike Kelly)

Jamie Sychak, president of the UAW Local 3303 that represents the nearly 1,500 workers who are employed at the plant, said the outpouring of support is a testament to the sense of community in Butler and the surrounding small towns.

“It is true when they say the Butler Works is ingrained in the community here,” Sychak said. “You’ve got generations that have worked there, retired from there, have multi-generations working there together, fathers, sons — you see the plant isn’t just a place to work, it is part of who we are.”

All around him sat fellow union workers, retirees, wives, children, grandchildren, pastors, schoolteachers, and small business owners — a visual pushback to the narrative that our small-town societal fabric had frayed beyond repair.

In short, small-town America still hasn’t come unraveled or fallen apart at the seams.

Yet if the Department of Energy does an about-face on the previous about-face it did two weeks ago when it adjusted its ruling that would have shut down this plant, then indeed, this town too would become one of those Rust Belt towns of used-to-be.

As Sychak explained, a little over a year ago, he was shown a draft letter about an Energy Department rule proposal on efficiency standards for distribution transformers that would force a transition from the steel made here for the transformers to amorphous steel that would be imported from China, Japan, and Vietnam.

Last week Gov. Josh Shapiro (D-PA), who engaged with the federal government on its behalf, told the community during a visit the jobs here would be saved. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during congressional testimony at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing late last month that “adjustments have been made” to the rule that would have shut down this plant.

Kelly said in an interview that his plan is to keep the pressure up, with the help of fellow Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-PA), to make sure the rule change doesn’t fall by the wayside.

“The people here are the heart and soul of our country — they’ve been showing up and doing this for generations,” he said.

Kelly said both Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are also on top of this on the Senate side.

“We can’t just keep shipping jobs overseas — there is no upside for any of us for that to happen,” Kelly said.

Sychak said the workers of this plant are ingrained in the community, “and I think that is the part that people miss in measuring impact it would have. Not only is it family upon family and generation after generation who have ties to the mill. In other words, if you don’t work here, your brother, your brother-in-law, your cousin, nephew, uncle probably worked there or works there now.”

He continued: “Our local, we don’t do it … for the publicity sake of it, but we have a pretty good stretch of charitable donations. We financially support the YMCA, Children and Youth Services as well as making donations and volunteering at youth sports, scholastics, bands, and the football teams, wrestling programs, and school dances.”

It is that connection to the community, not just financially but also as volunteers, that enriches the region. While so many large cities have do-goody nonprofit organizations or government programs that help support small youth and community organizations, it is often unions such as the UAW, or the Elks, Rotary Clubs, and Kiwanis, that keep these smaller towns cohesive and a reason not to leave.

“So if we weren’t here, it would be hard-pressed to find another place that would do that and that is when you see small cities and towns, which once had a robust industrial base, start to crumble,” he said.

All throughout Butler County, Pennsylvania, “Save our steel” signs were everywhere in support of the Cleveland-Cliffs Butler Works. (Courtesy photo)

Sychak said that is what happened when Pullman Standard, which used to sit where Butler Works does today, closed in the early 1980s and all of the millions funneled into the Butler economy collapsed.

“Our local economy crumbled,” he said.

He’s not wrong. The county unemployment rate hit 17.5% almost overnight and the population in the region plummeted.

Sychak said he believes ultimately they are going to prevail in this.


“We have to,” he said. “I think anybody that sees this, hears this, and becomes aware of it sees the common sense answer is not that original rule that was proposed and that we have to be here. … And this product has to be here, and our company and our workforce has to be here. It’s good for us. It’s good for the community, good for the country, good for our national security, for our electrical grid’s reliability. … It’s not rhetoric. It just happens to be the fact.”

Sychak said Monday night was a shining example of what happens when people come together, “And it is a shining example, I think, that not a lot of people pay attention to, but it’s very potent and powerful.”

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