2021 Season Begins

We are now just days away from seeing the vessels crewed by our members returning to service across the Great Lakes. Last year we saw our industry start off very strong, only to be broadsided by the COVID-19 pandemic just weeks after the season began, and several vessels laid up early in the season never to return to service for the remainder of the season. As we look forward to the 2021 season, we want to share some information about the outlook for the season ahead. 

The Steel Industry

The steel industry as a whole appears to continue its theme of cautious-optimism that we observed last fall. Cleveland-Cliffs, now the owner of the former ArcelorMittal steel mill in Cleveland is bringing its smaller No. 6 blast furnace back online to cover production lost due to an outage in Middletown. Once Middletown is back online, Indiana Harbor No. 7 (also owned by Cleveland-Cliffs) will go down for maintenance for an unspecified period of time according to the Cleveland Cliffs 4th Quarter Earnings call. Steel.org reports that as of March 6th, 2021, steel production reached 16,112,000 net tons at a capability utilization of 76.6%, down 7.6 percent from the 17,435,000 net tons produced during the same time last year when capability utilization was 81.5% - shortly after the time when the COVID-19 pandemic was first making news. As of right now, there are no strong indications that the steel industry will swing hard one way or another, but as we have witnessed in the past, the market is always volatile and subject to change. 


On February 1, 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin 02-21: COVID-19 Safety Requirements in the Maritime Transportation System to reflect requirements outlined in Executive Order 13998 by President Biden, and orders from the CDC. In short, the MSIB indicates that shipping companies, including those who employ members of USW Local 5000, must use their best efforts to ensure that any person boarding, disembarking, and while aboard the vessel is wearing a mask. Best efforts as required by MSIB 02-21 are defined as follows: 

  • boarding only those persons who wear masks;
  • instructing persons that Federal law requires wearing a mask on the conveyance and failure to comply constitutes a violation of Federal law;
  • monitoring persons on board the conveyance for anyone who is not wearing a mask and seeking compliance from such persons;
  • at the earliest opportunity, disembarking any person who refuses to comply;
  • providing persons with prominent and adequate notice to facilitate awareness and compliance of the requirement of this Order to wear a mask; best practices may include, if feasible, advanced notifications on digital platforms, such as on apps, websites, or email; posted signage in multiple languages with illustrations; printing the requirement on transit tickets; or other methods as appropriate.

We understand that there will be questions about how each of the companies will be implementing and enforcing new policies this season, and we caution our members to be mindful of the fact that many of the changes are being made as a result of federal law. However, if there are concerns about how policies are being applied, we encourage you to reach out to USW Local 5000 to discuss those concerns. As of this writing, none of the three shipping companies have reached out to union officials to discuss changes to or any new policies being put in place regarding this matter. We will be reaching out to all three companies this week and will pass on what we learn to our members. 

Central Marine Logistics

Welcome news from Central Marine Logistics is that the Wilfred Sykes along with the Joseph L. Block will fitout and return to service in the final weeks of March. Last year, the Wilfred Sykes sailed for a short period in the late spring season when it eventually laid up and never returned to service in 2020 while the Block sailed the entire season. 

Interlake Steamship Company

We expect to see all of the vessels owned by Interlake Steamship Company fit-out this spring as would be normal in a usual season. The Herbert C. Jackson and Kaye E. Barker will begin fitting out at the end of the week, with the remainder of the fleet set to head out within the couple following weeks, with the exception of the Dorothy Ann/Pathfinder who, according to the fitout schedule posted on the company website, has a listed fitout of "TBD". 

Key Lakes, Inc. (Great Lakes Fleet)

On March 5th, officials from USW Local 5000 and Key Lakes, Inc. participated in a conference call to discuss the outlook of the 2021 shipping season, where Key Lakes officials stated that there is a "90% chance" that the Philip R. Clarke, Cason J. Callaway, and Roger Blough would not sail during the 2021 shipping season. Just weeks ago, the Roger Blough caught fire while laid up at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Local news agencies reported early on that damages were in excess of $20 million, although this claim is said to be inaccurate by Key Lakes officials. Whenever there is a serious fire aboard a vessel, there is always a long process to determine the cause of the fire, the extent of damage, and the required repairs to return the ship to a seaworthy condition. This process can take several months to complete, and access to the vessel is severely limited. There have been concerns raised over personal belongings stored on the ship over winter, and we encourage members who have questions pertaining to personal belongings or questions about manning assignments to contact us. 

2021 Winter Conference

USW Local 5000 held its annual winter conference in the last week of February, stopping in Cleveland, Alpena, and Duluth. We were happy to see those who were able to make it to the meetings and take questions and discuss concerns. There were several motions made at these meetings where members were presented with information and followed up with a vote, including: 

  • Motion to terminate the lease for the existing Middleburg Heights office in favor of available space in the USW Sub-District 1 office in Warrensville Heights. PASSED
  • Motion to obtain a storage unit to store files and office furniture unable to fit into the new, smaller location. PASSED
  • Motions to obtain software services and VoIP phone system to replace existing landline phone system to obtain better pricing. PASSED

The above summary is not a complete listing of the business discussed. If you were unable to make the winter conference, or have questions about the meetings or local union business, please contact us for more information. 

Changes Coming to our Website & Phone

Within the next week, our local union web address will be changing. Instead of using an extension of uswlocals.org, we will have our own domain name where you can find us at www.usw5000.org. While we change over to the new address, there may be temporary interruptions to features on our mobile app and on our website. These interruptions will only be temporary and should last no more than a couple of weeks. 

In addition to our website undergoing changes, our phone system will soon be replaced with another provider. These changes will allow us to be more responsive to our members while saving the local union money. We will update you with any information on this change as necessary. 

Finally, we want to wish all of our members a safe sailing season in 2021, and we hope we all will have a better season than what we had in 2020. 

In Solidarity - USW Local 5000 

Photo Credit: Chuck Zentmeyer