Skip to content

U.S. Steel Bets on a New Technology—and the South—to Survive

Unlike the company’s other operations, its new “mini” mills in Arkansas and Alabama can produce more metal with fewer, nonunion workers.

Big River can produce 3.3 million tons of steel a year.

Big River can produce 3.3 million tons of steel a year.

Photographer: Houston Cofield for Bloomberg Businessweek

On a winding country road about 45 minutes north of Memphis, a series of hulking, blue, almost windowless buildings suddenly appear at a bend in the Mississippi River. The facility is Big River Steel, which can produce 3.3 million tons of raw metal a year. That’s almost 15% more than the mill’s new owner, U.S. Steel Corp., can make at its venerable Mon Valley Works just outside Pittsburgh. Even more important, Mon Valley employs about 3,000 unionized workers. Big River has fewer than 700 employees; none are in a union. “This could be the beginning of the end of Mon Valley,” says Tom Conway, president of United Steelworkers.

U.S. Steel, which completed its purchase of the mill last year for almost $1.5 billion, has big plans for the site: It aims to pour an additional $3 billion into the operation by 2024, doubling capacity. That would make the steel plant the country’s biggest—and the heart of the company’s operations. The area “is becoming the steel capital of the United States,” says Dan Brown, the plant’s chief operating officer. “We’re a much different company today, and we’re headed in my mind in the right direction.”