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They Had an American Dream

The steelworkers of the Monongahela Valley kept their part of the bargain

Foundry, worker, pouring, steel

Foundry worker pouring steel.

Photodisc/Getty

Last year Art Leibowitz walked to the middle of the bridge that crosses the Monongahela River here. From the railing, he looked downstream at the empty train yards, the huge, rust-red sheds of the Homestead mill, the blue-and-white insignia of U.S. Steel on its rooftop. Behind him, the towers of Carrie Furnace loomed like a seven-story pipe organ. The steelworks were quiet no smoke and flame, no heavy clanging as quiet as the still, brown waters of the river below.

“I went onto the bridge to jump,” the forty-one-year-old steelworker recalls. “I figured: This is it. Why go on? I did my best all my life, and there’s nothing left to do. Once before, I held a .38 special to my head, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger.”

Leibowitz stood there for a very long time. Friends found him later in his union hall depressed and incoherent. He spent the next four months at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.

Leibowitz is back home now. He lives with two other “bummed out” guys in a dingy brick row house on the side of a steep hill. He wears a black vest over a red T-shirt with a yin-yang button pinned to it. He says he is feeling better. “I used to do a lot of caffeine pills, speed and like that. Now I smoke some pot, but it’s not a problem it helps with the anxiety.” He talks vaguely about someday going into computers.

Art Leibowitz’s long journey to attempted suicide began nearly four years ago when he was laid off at the Homestead plant. At first, he wasn’t worried. Steelworkers were accustomed to periodic layoffs, even very long ones, but the mills always reopened. He threw himself into the spontaneous grass-roots organizing that had begun among unemployed steelworkers. Leibowitz and his friends organized political demonstrations including protests against American investment in overseas steel production as well as food kitchens and charity rock concerts in support of a local food bank.

“I got involved with all that stuff, and I wasn’t thinking too much about what would happen to me,” he says. “In the back of my mind, I always thought the mills were going to open again.” But, as time went on, and the mills closed one by one, the message gradually sank in: Big Steel was shutting down the Mon Valley.

***

Homestead, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton the string of mill towns along the winding river south of Pittsburgh once formed an amphitheater for the spectacle of steel making. For over a hundred years the show was the smoke and fire from the open hearths, the barge traffic on the busy river, the explosive thunderclaps from the mills that rattled windowpanes. The audience was the millworkers and their families, perched in the rows of modest brick houses on the steep hillsides of the valley. The bedlam reassured the spectators. “No soot, no work,” they told one another.

Five years ago fifteen blast furnaces were operating along this short stretch of river. Now there are two. Five years ago over 22,000 steelworkers were employed in U.S. Steel mills. Today 5000 jobs remain.

“At first, I was really mad at the corporation executives,” Leibowitz said. “At one time, I was thinking I was going to blow them away. I could have done it. After a while, I started blaming myself.”

In the Mon Valley, suicide is a staple of conversation. Everyone seems to know someone who is on the brink, an old friend from the mill or a cousin, a buddy whom they talked out of it or someone else who succeeded. Jack Cifone came home from drinking at four in the morning, sat in the car and fired a pistol in his mouth. He was out of checks, they said, a common expression that means unemployment compensation or other workman’s benefits have run out.

On a Saturday night, friends threw a rent party for Jimmy C. so he wouldn’t get thrown out of his apartment. On Sunday morning, he got up, put a .41-caliber Bulldog to his ear and blew his brains out. He was twenty years old. In Allegheny County, suicides are up eleven percent due, at least in part, to the economic blight in the Mon Valley. Gossip makes it seem much worse.

The city of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is celebrating its own prosperity. The talk there is of high technology, chic new restaurants and, most of all, Pittsburgh’s recent designation by Rand McNally as the most livable metropolitan area in the nation. Over the hill, in the Mon Valley, the talk is of suicide, divorce, foreclosures, welfare and dead-end jobs. While the media chronicle the rise of yuppie values, the young people of the valley have been stripped of their modest ambitions abruptly cut out of the American dream.

***

The Homestead Unemployed Center operates out of an abandoned storefront on Homestead’s main street. The center was set up by former steelworkers to help each other through hard times with groceries and hot lunches for children from the Rainbow Kitchen as well as job, financial and psychological counseling. Across the street is the best opportunity in town the air-force recruiting office.

Robin Craven came in to check out the programs at the center’s job bank. He jokes about the questions on an application form with the job counselor, Carl Redwood Jr., another unemployed steelworker.

“What did we use to make in the mill?” Craven asks. “I can’t remember exactly. I’ll just put down, ‘Big bucks.'”

He is tall and beefy, twenty-eight years old, wears a cut-off denim jacket and a yellow baseball cap that reads Andy’s Cafe. His untrimmed country beard and big snaggletoothed smile give the impression that he regards his adversity as merely temporary until Nashville discovers the Boot Hill Band, in which he plays guitar and fiddle.

The band plays $200-a-night lounge dates, and Craven works part-time driving a van for United Cerebral Palsy. The job pays $120 a week compared to the $300 to $400 take-home pay he earned in the mill, but it’s better than the money he was making cleaning carpets or working as a security guard.

“That was a fun job, watching the chipmunks at this hospital grounds,” he says. “I even got my 235 card. That’s the permit to carry a firearm on duty. I started at $4.10 an hour, then they started cutting us down $3.90 an hour then they cut my hours down to thirty-five a week. That’s when I left. I even tried selling some kind of glass cleaner. I was standing in this little booth in Sears, Roebuck, demonstrating this glass cleaner. I found out I’m not a salesman.”

Carl Redwood Jr., a slender man with a beard, thirty-two years old, tells his own history of minimum-wage jobs. He also worked as a security guard, then as a “meter maid,” issuing parking tickets, then as a counselor at a day camp for children. Recently, he lined up with more than a hundred other people when the Shop ‘n’ Save supermarket was hiring. “The first thing they tell you in the interview is, Do you realize this will be a part-time, minimum-wage job with no chance of advancement?” Redwood says. “They want you on call for fifteen hours a week. That’s how it started. Either you get angry and walk out, or you’re so desperate you say, Yeah, okay.”

Craven’s wife works as a nurse’s aide, and they are still able to pay their bills, though his two children don’t understand why they can’t have the new bikes and clothes that other kids have. “At first, I was bitter,” he says. “Now I’ve put it all behind me. It’s just past, it’s gone. You could stand on the corner and blame them yell obscenities down over the hill but it isn’t going to do any good. They could care less.”

Like many of the younger millworkers, Craven and Redwood attended college before deciding that their economic prospects were better in the mill. Now they are trapped. “I’ve got a family to support,” Craven says. “I’d sure like it if I had enough money to go back to school and pay the bills, but there aren’t too many folks doing that.”

Many younger workers, of course, have left the Mon Valley, and some have found good prospects in other cities, but some have also returned. “There are always these rumors floating around all the time,” Redwood says. “These guys came in and said they heard about crane operators making twenty-five dollars an hour in Virginia. For a long time, everyone was talking about the high-tech thing. I try to help them by giving them a realistic picture.

“No matter how you cut it, with all the people looking for jobs, there’re not enough jobs in terms of good steady work. We all have to compete with each other, unemployed people against each other for a shrinking pie. What’s happened in this economy is that higher wages have been busted down everyone pushed down to a lower wage, even a minimum wage. Yeah, there are people back at work, but what kind of money are they making?”

Redwood’s economic analysis fits the facts, not only for the Mon Valley, but for the nation at large. The plight of the steelworkers is dramatically visible because it is so concentrated, but the same erosion of jobs and wages is occurring all across the country. Despite the rhetoric of economic recovery, the United States still has 8.4 million officially unemployed workers plus 1.3 million discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work. Another 5.7 million, like Carl Redwood and Robin Craven, are forced to work part time and at wages far below their old income.

The suffering of these 15 million unemployed and underemployed workers thirteen percent of American workers benefits the rest of us. Slack labor demand, as Redwood described, forces other workers to settle for lower wages, which contributes to holding down inflation. Organized labor, in fact, has still not recovered from the recession of 1982. Union membership has fallen, 19 percent of the work force, compared with 35 percent in 1954, and major collective-bargaining agreements are averaging wage increases of only 2.8 percent well below the current inflation rate. Blue-collar workers generally are losing ground, not just steelworkers. Top corporate executives, meanwhile, will receive salary increases averaging 12.7 percent this year.

What we see in the Mon Valley are the first signs of a fundamental shift in the long-established balance of rewards between blue-collar and high-end white-collar jobs in America. For ordinary workers, income is shrinking, while for upper-income professionals and investors, who are often the same people, it is growing. In this era of high interest rates, the fastest-growing source of personal income is not wages and salaries but interest payments the income collected by those fortunate enough to own bonds and other financial assets. A decade ago wages and salaries made up sixty-seven percent of total personal income. In 1984, the wage-and-salary share fell below sixty percent for the first time since 1929.

“I don’t have to be rich,” Robin Craven insists. “As long as I can pay the bills, that’s good enough for me. But I’m tired of scraping around for a buck. My wife is the worrier in our family, so I have to stay calm.” He grinned sheepishly. “Then, when no one’s looking, I go in the back room and blow up.”

***

Mike Stout, a wiry and energetic steel-union activist, is one of the young workers who were contributing directly to the personal income of the wealthy paying 16.5 percent interest on his home mortgage. No more. He fell behind on the monthly payments, and the bank foreclosed. His marriage fell apart, and he now lives alone in an apartment.

“When I bought the house at sixteen percent, I ended up having a $610 monthly payment,” Stout remembers, “and I figured that would add up to $148,000 in interest over 30 years on a $37,000 house. But I figured I would at least get the tax deduction and, if interest rates came down, I could refinance it. Even if my wife lost her job, as long as I was working I’d be able to keep my head above water. Then the concessions contract came along in March of ’83 [when the United Steel Workers Union gave up $3.8 billion in wage concessions]. That took $400 a month off my paycheck. I went from bobbing along with my head just above water to sinking.”

Stout stayed in the house another year until the sheriff tacked the foreclosure notice on the door. Mortgage default is a common experience in the Mon Valley. Owning your own home had always been a big part of the steelworker’s vision of the good life. It was a means of accumulating modest financial security as well as possessing an important symbol of middle-class respectability. Their homes, despite all the talk about overpaid steelworkers, are quite modest snug brick bungalows with narrow yards and metal awnings. The older families of retired workers, mortgages paid off, had no problem holding on to their homes, of course. The younger families were caught between their falling incomes and rising interest rates. Many young people moved back in with their parents.

“I told the bank they were crazy to foreclose because they’d never be able to sell the house, and I was right,” Stout says with some satisfaction. “I’ll bet there are more than a hundred houses for sale in town, and nobody’s buying. The house is still sitting there, boarded up. In fact, a bunch of kids broke into it and tore it up. It’s a real mess.”

***

Happy hour begins early at Lasko’s bar in Duquesne, across the street from Steel Workers Local 1256. Inside, Tom Darby is sipping Iron City Beer with Chris McDonald, his buddy from the open hearth. McDonald is a thirty-three-year-old Vietnam vet who wears a Harley Davidson T-shirt (Put Your Ass on Some Class). Darby is twenty-nine but looks younger. They are swapping beery stories about their days in the U.S. Steel Duquesne mill. Five years ago Local 1256 had 3200 members at work there; today it has only five. Both Darby and McDonald were laid off. So was Darby’s mother, brother and two cousins.

“I’m dirt farming right now with my grandfather,” McDonald says, “but I’m thinking of moving away when my probation expires in November.” He was convicted of cutting down railroad-company telephone lines and selling the wire for copper. “I got in with a crazy bunch we were making about $600 a night, had a roller and everything,” he said. “I came down the pole and this dude was standing there. I thought it was my buddy I handed him my tools. He was a railroad man, and I did ninety days in the slammer. It wised me up, too.”

“I did thirty days on drunk driving,” Darby adds. “I was laid off, nothing to do but drink all day.”

Both tell war stories from the mill: the ingot mold that exploded and killed two workers; the locomotive Darby was running that derailed on worn-out track; the shower of sparks from the blast furnace that left a tattoo of scars on his shoulder. The proudest memory is from 1983: despite worn-out equipment and scaled-down crews, Duquesne set production records and won the company’s coveted Iron Master’s Flag. Every worker received a jacket with an Iron Master’s Flag patch. The following spring U.S. Steel began closing Duquesne. In the fall, it announced plans to dismantle Dorothy Six, the blast furnace that set the records.

“I miss it,” McDonald says. “We became so close in the mill, so many friends depending on you.”

“Not toward the end,” Darby says. “Toward the end it was like fist-fight city.”

“The pressure,” McDonald explains.

“We were putting out maximum tonnage, and we get ninety days’ notice,” Darby said. “Our job superintendent actually came into the office crying. And he was a company man, too. He put his heart and soul into keeping that mill running, and they shut his shit down. That big Greek was crying.”

***

U.S. Steel’s announcement that it would dismantle Dorothy Six roused the steelworkers in the Mon Valley a declaration of defeat that even the most faithful employee understood. If the company was prepared to destroy one of its best units, a furnace only twenty-two years old, then the predictions must be true. The valley of steel would never reopen.

Young activists like Mike Stout and Jim Benn of the Tri-State Conference on Steel had struggled unsuccessfully for more than two years to stir the conservative citizens of the mill towns. Now people began streaming to protest meetings. If U.S. Steel wanted to leave the valley, they said, then the valley itself would take over the mills and operate them as not-for-profit public enterprises. Four town councils Homestead, Munhall, McKeesport and Turtle Creek passed formal resolutions creating a public steel-making authority with the power of eminent domain. The authority hopes to condemn the mills, pay U.S. Steel a fair-market price for them, then sell them to another steel company to reopen. Five other communities, including Pittsburgh, are planning to join the enterprise.

In the Reagan era of Let Them Eat Laissez Faire, it sounds implausible that a handful of benighted mill towns could take control of their economic destiny. The political obstacles are certainly formidable. Yet the Mon Valley steelworkers, joined belatedly by union leaders, think their plan will work, and so do others. A feasibility study by the New York consulting firm of Locker/Abrecht Associates concluded that the Dorothy Six furnace could be rehabilitated for $90 million and, more important, that a ready market exists for the semifinished steel it could produce. The Wall Street investment house of Lazard Frères and Company is looking at financing options for a reopened mill.

U.S. Steel, not surprisingly, says this is all a pipe dream. But, if the company tries to tear down the Duquesne mill, it could face unprecedented civil disobedience at the gate as angry workers try to seize the plant “Our intention is to be totally nonviolent,” says Don Rudberg, an official of Local 1256. “We’re not going to be down there with baseball bats or anything like that. But we do intend to be in the plant and to make sure they don’t dismantle it.”

Adversity produces energy. Many of the young steelworkers who are organizing their neighborhoods find themselves awakening to ideas and talents they didn’t realize they possessed. “I was one of those people. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” says Jay Weinberg. He grew up in McKeesport, worked ten years in Homestead before the layoffs and is now organizing full time. “I used to be shy ask my wife and now I’m making speeches before groups. I’ve come to believe that one person working with a group of people, that your ideas can filter out and make a difference. Sometimes I step back and look at what I’m doing now, and I can’t believe it’s the same person who worked in the mill.”

***

“My hands are ice cold. I’m tore up. I’m going to have trouble talking about this.”

Joe Nestico, gray goatee and horn-rimmed glasses, thirty-eight years old, hobbles into Lasko’s leaning on a cane. In the booth, he rocks back and forth slightly, grips his coffee cup in both hands and tells his story. He dropped out of high school to join the armed forces, was wounded in the leg and stomach in Vietnam, returned to the Mon Valley, married, went to work in the mills. Eventually, he was earning $30,000 a year running cranes and directing work crews. Two years ago he was laid off. He went back to school last fall but had to drop out to take care of his baby. His story is the same as that of many of the men in the valley, but its outlines don’t convey the hurt and betrayal he feels.

“I got a nice wife and a beautiful child, but I feel like I’m in a fucking tunnel, just like in Vietnam. . . . We had a contract with the U.S. government, but the country today really doesn’t give a shit. . . .

“The thing that really crushes me my grandfather worked fifty-two years as a laborer, my dad worked thirty-two years building mills before his death. He had eight hernias. He was a labor organizer, too. His brother Frank had his brains beat in the Thirties. I was taught pride in the mill and respect for labor. Bullshit. I’m farther back than my grandfather was. . . .

“My father was a gunner in World War II; I was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. . . . Allegheny County has one of the highest ratios of combat veterans, one of the highest in the country. . . . The Mon Valley made the steel for World War II, made the steel for Korea, for Vietnam. . . . “

The scattered threads of anger come together to form a coherent complaint. In Joe Nestico’s valley, war and steel were part of the same bargain, the same obligation. Like their fathers, the young men went to war and made steel and expected a good life in return. They did their part. Now they realize, too late to make any difference, that the rest of the country has no intention of keeping its half of the bargain.

Joe Nestico’s anger is in focus now: “Give me what I fought for. My father went through it, I went through it. Give me back my life.”

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