'Making Stelco great again': A Hamilton steel company changes its name back

Flags bearing a new, but familiar, name went up at the Hamilton Works steel mill on Wilcox Street on Friday.
Stelco flags were raised alongside a new sign at the Hamilton Works on Hamilton's waterfront on Friday morning. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Just over 13 months after the U.S. Steel flags came down at the Hamilton Works steel mill, new flags bearing a new — but century-old — name went up Friday, heralding new jobs and a hoped-for new era of independence. 

The ceremony was intended as a sunny boost of optimism in the storyline of a beleaguered company that has been in lengthy bankruptcy proceedings twice in the last 12 years.

Today is about taking another step forward towards a brighter future, and making Stelco great again.- Mike McQuade, Stelco GM  and president

The current round has left retirees to scrape by without their contracted medical benefits since October 2015.

During the flag-raising ceremony, trucks honked as they roared across the roadway above. A fourth-generation Stelco employee recalled her family's ties to the company.

An MP extolled the continued relevance of smokestacks in Hamilton's economy. And workers appeared in various stages of name-switched uniforms — some with USS-stamped orange jumpsuits but Stelco hard hats. 

Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MP Bob Bratina said he welcomed back the Stelco name.

"We missed it," Bratina said. "It was always hard to be talking about the other company. It's important to Hamilton that we are able to identify with a company once again that made us so proud, the great steel city."

Some workers at Friday's announcement already had switched hard hats to reflect the company's new identity. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

'Today is about ... making Stelco great again'

But some at the ceremony pointed to a more mixed history attached to the name. The event also attracted a few retirees with signs decrying the company's broken promise to them.

Mike McQuade, Stelco's general manager and president, addressed them directly in his remarks.

"Joining us today are some of our retirees, who represent those who went before us. And they helped build this great company. Naturally, they're quite concerned about their pensions and benefits, and justifiably so," McQuade said.

"But today is about taking another step forward towards a brighter future, and making Stelco great again."

Afterward, one of the retirees, Steve Kucha, challenged the company to honour the workers who made Stelco great to begin with. 

"When they have a kumbaya meeting like this … and they talk about the history of the workers here, and it's been around how long? 100 years? Are they really dedicated to that history, or aren't they?" Kucha said. 

Bringing jobs back to Canada

The new name signifies an era of independence after a particularly nasty and contentious chapter of foreign ownership by U.S. Steel.

The Canadian arm is not out of bankruptcy protection yet, but as a rebranded entity, its president announced the company would be "repatriating" some jobs that had been drained to the U.S. over the last decade, especially from areas like finance, sales, operations and IT. 

Steelworkers attended Friday morning's announcement and flag-raising, many already wearing hard hats with the new logo on them. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The name change is intended to boost confidence in the company even as it remains under a court-supervised restructuring process. McQuade didn't pledge specific numbers, but there are about 50 jobs currently posted on its website. 

The company employs about 750 people in the Hamilton plant and 1,400 in Nanticoke, Ont. A similar ceremony is planned for Nanticoke Friday afternoon.

"A lot of people think these smokestacks are a thing of the past. They're not," Bratina said. "They're part of the future."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett