Steel Can Lead the Green Revolution

Author: Bill Peduto 

A former mayor of Pittsburgh and a grandson of steelworkers makes the case for environmentally sustainable steel production.

“I am honored to be in a room with steelworkers who see the future.” I had just heard a presentation from Stephan Ahr, head of the workers council at the Saarstahl Steelworks in the Saarland Region connecting France and Germany.

Joined by other union members, Stephan laid out the workers’ aggressive efforts to lobby their government and the European Commission to secure the more than €3 billion necessary to move completely from high-carbon to zero-emission green steel production in some of Europe’s biggest steel-making complexes. When asked how he felt about making such a monumental and risky change in his industry, he said, “We have to do this! The change is necessary, and when we do make the green transition, we will show the nation and we will show the world that the Saarland can secure the future of the industry. We will show the way.”

I was with a delegation of fellow leaders and economic development officials from the U.S. Midwest visiting Europe as part of a transatlantic dialogue on industrial heartland transformation, organized with the help of the German think tank Das Progressive Zentrum. We were visiting regions across Europe with a similar history in mining, steel-making, and manufacturing as Pittsburgh, my home, to trade ideas about managing economic structural change in industrial communities and successfully navigate the move from the old economy to the new. In particular, I was interested in comparing the actions being taken by post-industrial regions of Europe compared to the policies and programs outlined in The Marshall Plan for Middle America – a comprehensive economic strategy for the Ohio Valley and Northern Appalachia. MP4MA provides a green and just transition for the communities and workers that built America.

We marveled at the optimism and determination of Saarland workers to lead the green transformation. These were workers whose jobs were immediately at risk due to fast-breaking changes in the auto industry (the Steel works’ major customer, carmakers were now demanding carbon-neutral steel) and the much more aggressive goals for carbon-neutrality set by the European Union. Their optimism stood in sharp contrast to our own steel makers back home. But, it wasn’t the first time that I witnessed union steelworkers embrace the transition to a green economy.

As a Democratic Mayor of Pittsburgh, I had pushed the few domestic steel makers left in my region to embrace similarly ambitious climate goals. They claimed it could not be done. They claimed they could not even come close. Even though we talked about the need to adapt energy and industry over 15 years ago and created the BlueGreen Alliance in 2007. The BGA was created by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers to find common ground and unity with a mantra of “Good Jobs, Green Jobs.” 

In the years since, I watched as the economic strategies of “Green Recovery” and “Green-Collar Jobs in America’s Cities” introduced at the first national conference in Pittsburgh collected dust while my region doubled down on fracking, extraction and petrochemicals. For a region that learned the hard truths of the stranded assets of heavy industry, left to us for 30 years by not recognizing and ignoring changes in the global marketplace, it seemed that the inevitable hard lessons would decimate us once again.

I had also watched with growing dismay the movement of disgruntled and disaffected union steelworkers—the brothers and sisters of the workers we met at Staarstahl, frustrated with diminished prospects for work and visible deterioration of our steel town communities—move from Democratic stalwarts to an ever closer embrace of Donald Trump and his anger and resentment driven politics. I had seen among my own constituents and among the residents of neighboring communities in Western Pennsylvania that had not seen the economic rebound we have in the city of Pittsburgh, the damage done by leaders like Trump, who promises to bring back the past, deny the need to change—and deliver nothing.

I was joined once again by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club in one of the few times where I stood in opposition to the Obama administration. As Mayors, the White House recruited us to publicly support, speak in favor and lobby our representatives in Washington for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. To those of us who had been left behind in the prosperity of the 1990s and early 2000s, to those who watched as our friends and family were forced to leave home because of the economy, to those who lived in areas where the quality of our air and water still had the scars from the era of building this nation, the TPP was a giveaway to large multinational corporations. It went in the opposite direction of everything we were trying to do in order to protect and enhance workers rights and our environment. It would have moved us backwards by abandoning Anti-Trust Laws that guarantee people and cities to pass laws that protect our workers, our citizens and our environment. The combination of the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the polarization of the Democratic Party between Globalist Capitalism and Democratic Socialism did not reflect the values and the needs of workers in post industrial regions.

What I saw in Germany told me that the inevitable decline of the steel industry and the proud and mighty steel town communities and their residents was not a given. In the Saarland and across Germany and Europe, we met leaders at all levels moving the big changes they needed to enable green steel manufacturing, including developing the multi-billion dollar infrastructures to support green hydrogen as a clean energy source to power the mills.

In their determination to drive change, the Saarland workers union organized a community march of 10,000 workers and rallies to hold politicians’ feet to the fire to deliver the promised multi-billion dollar funding necessary to make the green transition.

The workers, including the young ones, shared the determination and positivity of their leadership. When pressed on whether young people would want to enter what is often considered a dying industry, the Workers Council’s youth representative replied, “We are proud to be part of the transformation.” 

This was even though the transformation would idle 300-400 workers in facilities geared to produce steel for electric cars versus today’s gas-powered ones. “Of course, we will deal with workers in a socially responsible manner, retraining for the new skill demands, ensuring a supportive safety net,” union President Ahr reassured. The much more fulsome guarantee of support in Germany for workers dislocated by changes in their occupations and industry was on full display.

Upon returning to Pittsburgh, the news broke of the sale of the iconic U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel of Japan. As expected, the news was not well received. For many the 1980s were a time when we hid the truth of why American industry died and found convenient victims to place the blame. For Steel it was Japan. However, Nippon Steel has the ability to change the course of American Steel production. If they can learn from the transition in Germany, utilizing the resources, infrastructure and innovation found in our region, there is no reason that the people and places that built America once cannot do it again. This requires a different perspective of what can be instead of what was. The worlds marketplaces are rapidly moving to decarbonization. By 2050 industrial products produced from fossil fuels will be extinct. Nippon has the opportunity to create 21st century mills powered by green hydrogen that can bring Pittsburgh back to the world stage in advanced and heavy manufacturing. It could mean better jobs, better air and water and the redevelopment of industrial communities. 

Through the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Biden Administration has put our nation on a path to lead this next industrial revolution. But, there is more that can be done. Stronger emphasis must be created for place based investment. Funding is needed not only to be set aside, but prioritized for those post-industrial areas that will be left behind in the great transition. During my administration we adopted a “p4” philosophy for urban economic development. People, Planet, Place and Performance became our quadruple bottom line. But, we went further and created Performance Measurements – a quantifiable way to measure our success in a transparent way. That is what is needed to complement the Acts the Biden Administration have created. The spending cannot solely be measured in jobs, money and development. Prioritization must go to those grant applicants that can prove they are raising the standard of living for the workers, improving the environment, investing in the areas where it is needed the most and creating models that can be replicated in other regions that share the legacy of being knocked down and standing back up.

At the end of our meeting, I was moved to speak, “Both my grandfathers worked in the steel mills during the industry’s height in Pittsburgh. One grandfather, Serafino Zarroli, voted to create the United Steelworkers Union at Columbia Steel in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. My other grandfather, Guy Peduto, died in the J&L Steel mill on Pittsburgh’s South Side at just 50 years old. As the son of steelworkers, I take great pride in the future you workers are forging today.”

I was also more determined than ever to do what I could to help our workers back in Pennsylvania find the same hope and optimism. I believe strongly that western Pennsylvania can once again rise to the challenge and compete on the global stage in the production of Green Steel. As we left the meeting, I pocketed the keepsake key chain proffered by the workers. The inscription read in German: “Heart of Steel.”

Bill Peduto is a Distinguished Executive in Residence at Heinz College of Information Systems & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and the former Mayor of Pittsburgh.

©2024 Washington Monthly Publishing, LLC | Reprinted with permission of Washington Monthly.