Collapse of the Steel Industry, 1982
In And the Wolf Finally Came, McKeesport native John P. Hoerr examined the collapse of the American steel industry. Focusing on the industry's struggle to remain competitive after World War II, Hoerr tells epic tales of strikes, plant shutdown and negotiations, as well as interviewing restless mill workers, union representatives and managers, and finds the roots of steel's collapse in an untenably adversarial relationship between labor and management.
In this section, "Collapse of the Steel Industry, 1982," Hoerr recounts his return home to the Monongahela Valley.
It is a trip weighted with shock and nostalgia. I am driving east on Second Avenue in Pittsburgh, heading out of the city and up the Monongahela River. Behind me stand the eminences of steel and glass, bunched in the heart of the city, where management makes decisions for its far-flung steel empire. Ahead lie the mill towns and steel plants, strung along the winding river artery, where labor produces molten iron and steel and finished steel products. Once vital parts of Andrew Carnegie's wondrously profitable linkage of mines and mills, most of these plants now sit idled and empty, soon to be churned into rubble.
Times are hard in the Monongahela Valley. The most devastating business slump since the Great Depression has eviscerated the steel industry, causing plant shutdowns and widespread unemployment. On my right, the black metal siding of the cavernous old plant of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation looms over the street, as intimidating as ever, forcing me instinctively to lean away from it as I drive past. A large "For Sale or Lease" sign is posted on one end of the building. It is a bold stroke on someone's part, advertising a mile-long steel plant for sale as one would a corner grocery store. The plant had been expiring slowly for years, the victim of foreign steel's relentless attack, as well as capital starvation and an ill-suited merger of J&L with the LTV Corporation. Across the river, J&L's Southside plant is still working, though at a low level of operations.
I have flown in from New York to take a reporter's measure of this destruction. But I can make no pretense of objectivity. This is my home. I was born in the valley, grew up here, went to school, played, worked, and was part of a family here, and I dread the sight of silent mills and dying mill towns. I have made this trip up the valley from Pittsburgh hundreds of times over the years, in automobiles, commuter trains, trolley cars, and once or twice by boat. It has always been for me the prototypical journey home, coming from the harsh outer world into the mysterious inner world of earliest memories and first thoughts. The further I penetrate the valley and move into the shadows of the river bluffs, the more I shed journalistic indifference.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh always puts forth its best front, aided by the spectacular juxtaposition of hills, rivers, bridges, and architecture. The city lies at the "forks of the Ohio," as early settlers called it, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio. A visitor driving in from the airport first sees the city upon leaving a tunnel that cuts through a high ridge on the south side of the Monongahela. At night, emerging from the tunnel is like bursting into a dazzling new world of light and form. The skyscrapers, with row upon row of floors lit for the night cleaning crews, give off a white glow that shimmers on the dark rivers. This spectacle, you might think, must surely radiate outward, projecting strength and prosperity into every corner of the surrounding countryside.
The October day is cool and bright. There is still plenty of green foliage on the steepest parts of the river bluffs, where not even the craziest house can safely perch. For all that we have done to the Monongahela Valley over the past century, the wooded hills and bluffs retain the primitive look of the dense forests that once blanketed the region. When times are bad, and no plumes of sooty smoke drift across the bluffs, that appearance of rusticity distracts one from what man has made of the valley's narrow flatlands by the river. The industrial detritus of a fading culture stretches for mile upon unrelieved mile on these riverbanks: abandoned furnaces, mill buildings, railroad tracks and bridges, storage yards, pumping stations, pipelines, transmission towers. The American steel industry lies dying in its cradle.
I am a labor journalist, and I have come to report on relations between labor and management in the steel industry. As of now, the United Steelworkers union (USW) has refused to grant wage concessions that the industry says it needs to become competitive. There is a standoff. Both sides have displayed an obduracy to change that is all too common in American industrial relations.
Indeed, the steel industry is the best example of what has gone wrong with union-management relations in the United States. Such poor relations are one reason why organized labor is declining in most industries, and why American companies have lost their competitive edge in the new international marketplace.
I can see that an immense tragedy is unfolding in the "Mon Valley," as it is known to the people who live here. The industry is now operating at only slightly more than 30 percent of capacity, close to the record low of the Depression. Some twenty thousand steelworkers, or about two-thirds of the work force in the Mon Valley, are laid off. Most will never work again in a steel plant. The almost legendary mill towns in the valley—Homestead, Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton, Monessen—are being drained of their life's blood. The same is true of many other mill towns: The Southside and Hazelwood sections of Pittsburgh, Aliquippa on the Ohio River, Johnstown on the Conemaugh, Youngstown on the Mahoning, Bethlehem in eastern Pennsylvania, Lackawanna in New York, Cleveland, Gary, South Chicago, and others.
I grew up in McKeesport and have vivid memories of the way it used to be. In the late 1940s, when I was a teenager, a dozen great steel plants lined the banks of the Monongahela, extending forty-six miles up the valley from Pittsburgh. The mills worked twenty-four hours a day and provided jobs for nearly eighty thousand men and women, not counting employees in the companies' Pittsburgh offices. They were enormous steaming vessels, clanging and banging, spouting great plumes of smoke, and searing the sky with the Bessemer's reddish orange glow. The narrow brick streets of the mill towns were filled with streetcars, automobiles, workers going to and from the plant, and shoppers carrying big brown paper bags. There were two or three saloons to a block on the main street near the mill, and almost as many churches scattered through each town.
And, yes, noondays were often as dark as night—as awed visitors usually reported, when inversions trapped great clouds of smoke close to earth, and the downtown sidewalks were so thick with ferruginous dust from the open hearth and Bessemer furnaces, that they gave off a metallic sheen. Smoke seemed to seep out of the very pores of the mill buildings. Every morning housewives all over town put on babushkas and swept clouds of dust off their front porches.
The activity in the plants was never frenetic, but always intensive. You would see diesel engines hauling long strings of tank cars filled with molten iron along the riverbanks; heavy trucks heaped with smoking slag grinding out of the plant gates to dump their loads on the huge, incessantly burning slag piles; skip cars laden with iron ore crawling up cable hoists on the 100-foot tall blast furnaces to feed the vessels from the top; crane buckets dipping into mounds of coke on barges tied up along the river wall. Crane sirens were always screaming out in the depths of the mill, diesels were honking, pipes were banging against pipes with a resounding, hollow noise. Workers moved about everywhere. From outside the plant you could see them strolling on the plant roadways, or hooking up loads on cranes in the storage yards, or striding out of plant offices with blueprints under their arms, or lined up just inside the plant gates, awaiting the siren for shift change.
Now those giant sprawling places of enormous energy have become rusting hulks: silent and lifeless, like obsolete dreadnoughts sunk to their stacks in shallow water. This image occurs to me as I turn left off the bridge and drive south through Homestead on East Eighth Avenue, the town's main street. The Homestead Works, the largest plant in the valley, is a few blocks to my left.
Twelve thousand people once were employed here; a few thousand are left. There is little traffic on Eighth Avenue, where it once took fifteen minutes to drive four or five blocks. Gone are the retail emporiums, the movie theaters, most of the bars, the crowds of shoppers. Amity Street, which leads down to the main plant gate, is deserted. Farther south, where the plant crosses into the Borough of Munhall, the mill buildings extend right up to Eighth Avenue. Their open ends face the street, but they are dark inside. Nothing moves. At one of the half dozen entrance gates, I see a sign: "This gate closed. Use Amity St, gate." Now there are so few working that all gates except one are closed.
I drive on through Munhall and up the steep four-lane highway that cuts across the face of a high bluff. At the top is Kennywood Park, where three generations of steelworkers, and everybody else in the valley, have spent the traditional end-of-school holiday riding roller coasters and picnicking. Just before getting to Kennywood, I pull into a cinder parking lot and walk to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Monongahela.
The cliff is at least a hundred feet high and makes a sheer plunge down to railroad tracks on my side of the river. Directly across the river is Braddock and the Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel. In 1872 Carnegie and a group of investors bought 107 acres of farmland in what was known as Braddock's Field (where the French and Indians ambushed and slaughtered General Edward Braddock's army in 1755) and built Carnegie's first steel plant. Its two Bessemer furnaces and rail mills, representing the latest in steelmaking technology, began operating in 1875. The early success of this plant launched Carnegie in an enormously lucrative steel business which set the pattern for all other steel companies in terms of commercial and production practices, formed the core of the future U.S. Steel Corporation, and forever changed the face of America.
The plant extends about a mile along the riverbank and consists of a score or more of different structures—furnaces, tanks, metal buildings, brick buildings, all of varying sizes. It is dominated at the northern end by a huge, pale blue building housing the basic oxygen furnaces. Nearer the river is a two-story, red brick building with high arched windows that have been bricked over, which looks like a turn-of-the-century structure. I see nothing moving in the plant. No trucks, no trains, no people, no smoke. The river locks adjacent to the plant, where strings of coal barges would be lined up awaiting passage over a five-foot change in water level, are vacant. After a while I hear a faint sound of metal beating on metal. It seems to come from the old brick building, as if someone were pounding a sledge on an anvil, pounding for no reason but to proclaim his existence in that vast and empty place.
I drive on, glancing wistfully at the arching curves of Kennywood's three famous roller coasters, the Rabbit, the Racer and the Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt, which used to be called the Pippin, was the most exciting. It dived over the side of the cliff toward the muddy river and zoomed back up again as our cries of thrill stretched out behind like a flyer's scarf. The park is closed for the winter. Across the street, showing more life than anything I've seen so far, is a large McDonald's where once stood a row of brick homes. A big red sign in the parking lot says: "McDonald's. Billions and billions served. Drive through." Cars are queued up at a red light, waiting to drive through.
Now I'm going down the hill into Duquesne, where another U.S. Steel plant dozes in the bright sunlight. The pride of the Duquesne Works is Dorothy Six, the largest blast furnace in the valley, 125 feet high and swathed in piping that looks like rippling muscle. As I drive past, a cloud of steam envelopes Dorothy's cast house at ground level. Is she tapping iron or just blowing steam? A number of friends from high school days work in the Duquesne plant—if they still have their jobs, I remind myself.
A half mile beyond the Duquesne Works, I turn onto the bridge that crosses the Monongahela to McKeesport. Now am really coming home. McKeesport's National Works lies on the riverbank just south of the bridge. From my viewpoint on the bridge, I note that the plant gives off a pale blue glint hinting of fresh paint, and the dashing USS logo is prominent on one of the mill buildings. This neat, fresh look is an optimistic sign.
At the end of the bridge, I turn south once again on Lysle Boulevard (named for a mayor who for years banned union meetings) and drive past the plant. On the town side, it looks completely different, old and worn out. Nothing is painted. The blast furnaces, long unused, are piles of dirty rust. The buildings housing the finishing mills expose to McKeesporters ancient, yellow-brick facing and rows of broken windows. It's as if the plant promoted itself as a sleek, modern mill to the outside world across the river but revealed its obsolete, abandoned face to its own community.
The mill buildings look the same as they did thirty years ago. Like most young men of my generation who grew up in steel towns, I worked in the mill during summers and other time off from school. One job lasted a year. Going to and from work every day, I walked past the buildings on the mill roadway and took a short cut through a dark storage building where electric motors, steam engines, pumps, generators, and unopened crates of forgotten equipment lay heaped in dusty rows. Great age was stamped on everything in the mill, including the lined faces of older men who still wore narrow-brimmed hats with grease spots in the finger hollows near the peak. I dreamed of finding footprints of an ancient steel-worker in the dirt of the mill grounds, like the arrowheads still reported to be buried in Braddock's Field. I worked then for a construction company that was building a new boiler house in the plant, but I felt as much a part of the mill as a steelworker. The boiler house is still there, looking weary and depressed but still spouting little puffs of steam now and then.
But I am wrong. There is no siren. Now it is only a faint tinkling sound. The mill doesn't want to embarrass itself by proclaiming an enormous change of shifts, I think, when in fact only a fraction of a normal day turn is now working. In the old days, indeed only a year ago, it would have taken ten or fifteen minutes for the entire day turn to file through the gate. Now the exodus takes a total of one and a half minutes. Only 150 hourly employees, out of 4,200, are still working.
I begin to walk away. Someone calls my name. I turn and see a straggler coming out of the gate. He is Manny Stoupis, an acquaintance since the 1940s and now chairman of the grievance committee of USW Local 1408. I always remember Manny (nobody used his full name, Manuel) as a slight, wiry kid who was good in solid geometry. He has grown a bit thicker since I last saw him a few years ago, and his black hair is graying above the ears. Manny has the same earnest look, though now it is more knowing and verges on the bitter. He has been a grievance committeeman for the better part of twenty years. Anyone who survives this long as an elected local official will have experienced more than the normal share of human conflict.
After we shake hands, I ask what it is like to work in the huge plant with only I150 fellow workers. "It's eerie," he says. "You don't see anybody. You don't hear anything. There's no security. The company closed the two gates at the lower end of the plant and laid off the guards. They canceled the roving guard who used to drive around in a jeep. People are breaking in at the lower end, climbing over the fence, and stealing brass and iron scrap." He laughs. "Two foremen down at the lower end lock themselves in their office all day."
Manny was an ambitious young man who, like so many back in the early 1950s, got caught in steel's good times. For young men in the mill towns of those days, there was a very tangible sense of having to make an implicit bargain with life from the outset. There were two choices. If you took a job in the mill, you could stay in McKeesport among family and friends, earn decent pay, and gain a sort of lifetime security (except for layoffs and strikes) in an industry that would last forever. You traded advancement for security and expected life to stick to its bargain. Or you could spurn the good pay and long-term security, leave your family and the community, and take a flyer on making a career in some other field. In a sense, everybody growing up in America must decide whether to stay or move on. In the Mon Valley, however, the very presence of the mill on the riverbank, its gates flung open to young men (though not women and not blacks in the better jobs), forced you to make this choice.
Manny could have moved on, but his ambition trapped him in McKeesport. He started working part-time in the mill in 1947 during his junior year in high school and never stopped. His steelworker wages carried him through college and graduate school, and by the time he received a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1958, he was making too much money as a steelworker to leave the mill. He had accumulated seniority by then and was grossing $4,000 more a year than he would have received if he had gone into biophysics. Manny stayed in the mill and got into union politics. I had talked to him many times in the 1960S and I970S when he held a variety of local union offices.
We walk slowly toward the Local 1408 hall. Manny talks in hard, curt sentences. He doesn't complain, but I can guess. The way things are going, he will have to take early retirement before he is fifty-five ... and then what? There is plenty of anger in him, but it comes out only a little at a time. "Most of our people will never see the inside of this plant again," he says. There is a long pause. "National Works is just about done for."
The Local 1408 hall is a two-story, pale green building fronting on Fifth Avenue, McKeesport's main business street. Several men in the lobby are discussing recent layoffs; somebody with forty-two years of service has just lost his job. I leave Manny and walk down a narrow corridor, passing a committee room where more men sit around a table and talk about layoff benefits. I find Dick Grace, the local president, sitting behind a desk in his tiny office. There are three chairs and a bookcase containing union brochures. On the wall are color photographs of John F. Kennedy, the five current International officers of the USW, and Grace himself competing in various road races. In his late forties, Grace took up jogging and has run in several ten-kilometer races. Now fiftyish, he is trim around the middle and wears a brush moustache that is turning gray.
I've known Grace for several years. Sometimes he is evasive about union business, but not today. He pulls his baseball cap advertising "Local 1408" more firmly down on his forehead and throws his feet up on the desk, ready to talk. He is angry. The company wants to padlock the unused locker rooms in the plant and has been calling laid-off workers and telling them to come in and pick up their clothing. "They call them at home and just say, 'Come in, empty your locker out,' That scares the hell out of them. These bastards have no finesse."
We talk about local negotiations. The company has asked the union to approve changes in the local agreement which would enable management to move workers from one department to another inside the plant. Grace doesn't like the idea. I ask a demurring question: If the union wants National Works to continue in business, doesn't it make sense to help management reduce labor costs?
Grace drops his legs behind the desk and straightens up in the chair. He has called off negotiations, he tells me angrily, upon discovering that the company has sent a letter to all employees ordering them to take their vacations in January so the plant can shut down for two weeks, It's not the policy that angers him so much as the fact that management negotiators failed to tell him about the mailing (purposefully, he suspects) even as they were asking him for concessions. "I haven't talked to them for two weeks," Grace says, "My relations with them are at the worst level I've ever seen."
Tragedies are made of such things.
I drive back to Pittsburgh after dusk. There are no stars out, and the valley is dark and silent. I feel as if I am in another country, or another time. The Man Valley that I have known, a socioeconomic system that for a hundred years provided that labor for America's industrial explosion, is slipping into the past. Perhaps it should. Perhaps it is time to discard that culture and build another someplace else. What's one century in the sweep of progress?
Excerpt from And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry, by John P. Hoerr, copyright © 1988. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.