Fausto Casagrande, trade unionist: “We’re going to die”

The meeting is arranged at the “Le France 2” café. Fausto Casagrande is there waiting for us; Gino Russo will join us shortly. They are both SETCA trade unionists. The former, previously a research technician, sits on the European works group of steel manufacturing corporation ArcelorMittal, the latter is a union representative in Liège. Fausto Casagrande read our editorial on 1 October and couldn’t help but lose his temper: “What I took away from it was that the man in the street thinks that shutting a large part of the Liège basin was inevitable. That made me jump out of my seat, because nothing that’s happened to us has come by chance. The script for this was written in 1998 when Usinor took over the company then known as Cockerill Sambre. I could talk to you about it all day.”

 

Casagrande is keen to recount his tale in order to “unburden” himself, but also so that people know what actually happened. The blast furnace is just a stone’s throw away, almost taunting our interviewees. “In 1998, Usinor bought Cockerill Sambre from the Walloon Region. I was based at the research center and saw the world’s steelworkers parade by at one point or another. They would all stop by at the research center, which was an exceptional tool. From time to time, you hear people say that we should stop paying for the steel industry. I remind them every time that the Region earned €670 million at the time. Back then there was talk of a “stand alone” possibility, and history has shown that we should have pursued the idea – it was completely feasible. But some people already had doubts.”

 

Mittal didn’t seem that reputable to you anymore?

F.C.: Mittal’s takeover bid for Arcelor dates back to 2006. We met old man Mittal. He inspired confidence, because back then he used industrial language, but because we would have sold a kilo of steel anywhere in the world, at any price. That’s why he restarted blast furnace 6, which is right in front of you there. But at the end of 2008, when the financial crisis hit in the United States, and austerity plans followed, the Mittal Group began to really watch their money, under the influence of Mittal Jr., who oversees things in Europe. They reduced their debt and with each passing day we realized that they were withdrawing from our continent. For three or four years, the R&D budget was reduced in comparison with our rivals – that was already a sign that Mittal didn’t plan on staying. The messages were clear at the time. Since January 2009, the group has lost parts of its market share and done absolutely nothing to get them back.

 

And then it all fell apart?

F.C.: On 14 October 2011, they announced during a European works council in Luxembourg that they’d decided to put a definitive stop to the liquid phase in Liège. It was a real bombshell. Although we had had our suspicions: in July, the blast furnace B had been stopped for maintenance and had never been restarted. At the start of January, Mittal’s son was supposed to visit the Liège site for the first time, but he called it off the day before. We wrote to Mittal about our concern over the level of investment in particular, but we didn’t get a response until 14 October! The argument that the boss, Robrecht Himpe , came out with was: “We have to close the hot mill in Liège, as we’ll not regain the same steel consumption levels in Europe recorded in 2007 until 2017.” 2017! I almost fell off my chair! And I let them know what I thought. He also talked about the cost of the hot steel sector: “You’re €56 more expensive per tonne in Liège than the European benchmarks, Sidmar and Dunkirk.” We spoke to a specialized consultancy firm, and depending on the product, we were between €18 and €33 more expensive in Liège, and this “benchmark” that management referred to was fictional, according to them. The trust was then broken. Lying about something silly, that’s fine, but when you think about all of the repercussions of their decision; well, the region’s going to be decimated, destroyed!

 

G.R.: The plant is a backbone of the area. People from Brussels or Antwerp believe that the steel industry is like its coal equivalent, coming to the end of its time. But no, in fact, it’s not a heap of iron; it’s high technology.

 

F.C.: The man in the street doesn’t realize that he has steel products at home: washing machine, television, dryer, lamps, car, cans of food. On 14 October, Himpe lied again, stating to the RTBF that the group had made all of the necessary investments to reach the top. That’s absolutely false. At the end of 2008, we really started to hit the skids. Francis Degée, the head of the Liège basin, who cared for his region, called us in to say, “To remain competitive, we have no choice but to earn €100 per tonne by 31 December 2009. He put an early retirement plan on the table that envisaged 1,600 departures between 2008 and 2010 (which was executed fully), in parallel with an investment plan which never saw the light of day. In January 2009, Mittal put a stop to everything because of the downturn. If we’d made those investments, we would have become the benchmark.

 

G.R.: There was a strategy of planned closures.

 

F.C.: Throughout 2012, we tried to demonstrate that the group was making a big mistake by shutting the hot mill in Liège but Himpe told us to focus on the 2,000 jobs and the 12 cold steel lines. To finish us off completely, on 23 January 2013, they decided to close seven cold lines plus the coke plant and the rolling mill in Chertal, shedding 1,300 jobs in the process. Since 1998, key posts within the group have never been held by managers at the Liège basin. And all the important roles at the European level are filled by former Sidmar-based employees. That’s how they’ve destroyed us and dismantled us over the past 15 years. I’m incredibly disappointed: the Walloon Region knows that, as we told them numerous times.

 

G.R.: Since the new government came in, we’ve got the feeling that Community problems aren’t allowed to be raised any more…

 

What good does it do to talk about all this again now?

F.C.: So that, at least, the average Belgian knows that things aren’t as bad as they seem and that the closure is a distortion of the truth. You get the impression that all of Arcelor Mittal’s problems will be solved by closing the Liège basin. That’s false. European production levels are at 200 million tonnes of steel per year, of which the Liège basin and its blast furnaces account for 3 million.

 

Is there a regional alternative?

F.C.: Three studies showed that it was possible to go it alone in Liège with hot and cold steel, as well as research and development.

 

But where would the money come from?

F.C.: The first study claimed that we needed €700 million over five years. If you do the math, you’ll see that we’re losing 2,500 jobs directly, and three to four times more indirectly. That makes 10,000 people out of work – that’s going to cost well over €750 million! We did these calculations for the Region. We’re going to suffer and they all have to take responsibility!

 

Did Jean-Claude Marcourt, the Walloon government minister, not attempt a nationalization plan?

F.C.: We were the ones who asked for it in 2011.

 

G.R.: There are lots of reds in the unions, and so the Socialist Party didn’t really have a choice.

 

Was this project bungled?

G.R.: Not by Marcourt, but by the Walloon government, yes. They left Marcourt to flounder.

 

What’s going to happen now?

F.C.: We’re going to die.

 

BÉATRICE DELVAUX

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