The day that destroyed the working class and sowed the seeds for Trump

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CAMPBELL, OHIO — Forty years ago, on Sept. 19, thousands of men walked into the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube along the Mahoning River before the early shift.

Like every fall morning, they were armed with lunch pails and hard hats; the only worry on their minds was the upcoming Pittsburgh Steelers game on “Monday Night Football.” The only arguing you heard was whether quarterback Terry Bradshaw had fully recovered from the dramatic hit he took from a Cleveland Browns player the season before.

It was just before 7 a.m., and the fog that had settled over the river was beginning to lift. As the sun began to streak through mist, the men made their way into the labyrinth of buildings where they worked.

In the next hour their lives would change forever.

From then on, this date in 1977 would be known as Black Monday in the Steel Valley, which stretches from Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio eastward toward Pittsburgh. It is the date when Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly furloughed 5,000 workers all in one day.

The bleeding never stopped.

Within the next 18 months, US Steel announced that the nation’s largest steel producer was also shutting down 16 plants across the nation including their Ohio Works in Youngstown, a move that eliminated an additional 4,000 workers here. That announcement came one day before Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. said they were cutting thousands of jobs at their facilities in the Mahoning Valley, too.

Within a decade 40,000 jobs were gone. Within that same decade, 50,000 people had left the region, and by the next decade that number was up to 100,000. Today the 22 miles of booming steel mills and the support industries that once lined the Mahoning River have mostly disappeared — either blown up, dismantled or reclaimed by nature.

If a bomb had hit this region, the scar would be no less severe on its landscape.

“The domino effect of Black Monday went on forever,” said Gary Steinbeck of nearby Warren, Ohio. Steinbeck was working up the river that day from the rolling plant at H.K. Porter, which also later went out of business. “The word spread quickly. Back then there weren’t any cellphones or social media. Good news travels fast, bad news travels at the speed of light. We knew within the hour the guys down the river were hurting, we knew within a day families were hurting, we knew within a week the whole region was suffering,” he said.

“Those numbers only reflect the jobs that were lost in the plant; the ripple effect was equally devastating. Grocery stores, pizza shops, gas stations, restaurants, department stores, car dealerships, barber shops all saw their business plummet and they started closing,” said Steinbeck.

Labor activist Staughton Lynd (left) led a drive in the 1970s after steel-factory closings to pressure DC to stop imports. Gary Steinbeck (right) is a former steel worker.Justin Merriman for The New York Post

Steinbeck was only 25 on Black Monday — but he said he knew then that the blow to his hometown would not be felt the same way in Washington.

News reports from the days and weeks following Black Monday showed that the White House, larger business community and economic experts were detached from the potency of what was happening here. They thought the overall economic impact was exaggerated, that it would not be the calamity Steinbeck and everyone else in Youngstown knew it would be.

“No one never calculated the cultural tragedy as part of the equation either,” Steinbeck said. “They didn’t just dismantle the old mills, they dismantled the societal fabric of what made Youngstown, Youngstown.”

The Manhattan radical

At first the Mahoning Valley did not give up hope, none of them did. In fact they did something remarkable: The entire community fought back by forming a local initiative that consisted of faith leaders, local politicians and even a couple of radical activists, most notably Staughton Lynd, a formidable figure in the ’60s social justice movement.

“The response in this community took the country and the community members themselves by surprise,” said Lynd from his basement in his Niles, Ohio, home in Trumbull County.

On the night of Black Monday, Lynd remembers an emergency meeting was called by the Central Labor Union and a plan was endorsed to send petitions to President Jimmy Carter encouraging him to stop steel imports and put an ease on regulations that were hurting the industry. At the time, newer plants in China and Japan, which had better technological capabilities, were outstripping American production.

“By Friday over 100,000 signatures had been collected and chartered buses went to Washington to deliver them to the president,” said Lynd.

Three hundred men, local elected officials and faith leaders all traveled on five buses to the White House. The mood on the drive was somber, and the late Sen. John Glenn stood on the US Capitol steps, along with other elected officials, as the men waved signs that read “Save the Steel Industry.”

Carter never even bothered to send out an aide to receive the petitions when they arrived. Amazingly, the president who was a well-known supporter of the working class never even acknowledged them.

Lynd is flanked by hundreds of labor movement and anti-war buttons on the wall behind him. At 87 he is trim, soft-spoken and humble. As if in reflection of his Quaker upbringing, his home is modest, and so is he. He really doesn’t look the part of a ’60s radical.

‘The history of Youngstown cannot be told without saying we gave them one hell of a fight.’

 – Staughton Lynd

Lynd came to Youngstown unconventionally. The son of noted sociologists, he grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attended Harvard and taught at Yale, but his path here was never through an elite bubble. He was considered a radical peaceful protestor who traveled to North Vietnam with the activist Tom Hayden at the peak of the war to object to it, lived in communes after he was asked to leave the Army and made a difference during the fight for civil rights in Mississippi by coordinating an alternative education system for blacks called the Freedom Schools.

Despite his academic pedigree, his radical outlook placed him in Chicago right out of law school with a wife, who he’d met at Harvard, three small children and no job.

“We met some steel workers from Youngstown, Ohio, who were like people I’d never met in my life. They were active in the American Civil Liberties Union. They opposed race prejudice, which was a very serious thing in that industry both on the shop floor and in the community at a time. My wife, Alice, and I felt that we were probably never going to meet people like this again in our lives. Why not move there, try to be helpful?” he explains.

Lynd, the Manhattan-born academic from Harvard, immediately became part of the fabric in the working class community as a labor lawyer.

“I can remember it as if it were yesterday, the phones in the office were ringing before we even got in the door,” he said of Black Monday.

By the next day, the community had put together quite an effort with the so-called Ecumenical Coalition, which was local churches and six local unions. “Not much help from the national union,” Lynd said.

In the end, after years of fighting everything, they tried but failed, said Lynd. “All of these things we did just came together — not in a victory, but we gave them a hell of a fight. The history of Youngstown cannot be told without saying we gave them one hell of a fight.”

Youngstown sure died hard

Scant remainders of the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube still stand. Where 20,000 men once worked at its peak, now just 19 employees grind out a living in the vast cavernous buildings along the river.

The old Campbell works is now Casey Industrial, and Paul Ulam manages the crew. To step inside the old rolling mill is to step back in time; almost everything is still intact. The machines are still standing, so are the men’s lockers, the cranes are still overhead and old wooden block floors are still lining the vast footage of the buildings.

“We have the original lathes. A lot of these machines were all original,” Ulam said. The 57-year-old lives right over the state line in New Castle, Pa. He applied to work here at the mill right after high school.

Working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube was a source of pride.

“I came down here for my interview on September 19, 1977. The guy at the guards desk told me to ‘go home kid, it’s all over,’ ” he said.

It was only in 2001 that Ulam was hired to work at Casey Industrial. His 19 men rebuild motors for the cranes that cling to the roofs of steel mills like giant praying mantises across the country.

“We do it for customers who still use them,” said Ulam who supervises for the operation.
Outside, the only thing you hear is the long-long-short-long whistle of a CXS train as it approaches a cross signal — all of the other tracks that crisscross the compound are so overgrown with weeds the rails are nearly buried.

The visual is haunting, the silence eerie. If you grew up around here you still expect to see the dozens of smoke stacks fill the skyline with plumes of white, you still expect to catch the scent of sulfur, you still expect to hear the roar of men and machines working or catch sight of the sparks made by the welders or the orange glow of molten iron.

The events of Black Monday forever changed not only the Steel Valley, but her people and eventually American culture and politics. Just last year the reverberations were felt in the presidential election when many hard-core Democrats from this area broke from their party to vote for Donald Trump, a Republican who promised to bring jobs back to the Heartland.

Even today, after the election, the Washington establishment still hasn’t processed or properly dissected its effects. Economic experts predicted that the service industry would be the employment of the future. Steel workers were retrained to fill jobs in that sector, which was expected to sustain the middle class in the same way that manufacturing did.

It did not. According to a study done by the Midwest Center for Research the average salary of a steel worker in the late 1970s was $24,772.80. Today, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics, the medium household income in the Mahoning Valley is $24,133.

There was also a push for Americans to be more mobile. Lose your job in Youngstown? Fine, move to Raleigh or Texas. No one calculated that the tight-knit people of Youngstown didn’t want to leave their town.

They liked Youngstown. To Washington and New York that seemed odd.

“At its very heart were the tight knit communities and neighborhoods that made up the Mahoning Valley. For generations families lived within blocks of each other. I am the grandson and son of steel workers, I took so much pride in everything I did at my job,” said Steinbeck.

“We all did. We had decent homes, maybe had two cars, we went on vacation to Lake Geneva or Lake Erie, as we made more money we bought boats, we went fishing and we traveled more broadly. We gave back to America’s economic engine what it gave us — a dignified way of life and investment for the future,” he said.

That way of life has been dismantled, he said. “People fell out of the unemployment statistics, they lost political power, they lost their juice,” he said.

Today the regional chamber lists the largest employers in the Mahoning Valley as the Catholic Diocese, the GM plant in Lordstown, local government agencies, regional hospitals and Youngstown State University. An estimated 64,321 people live in Youngstown, nearly 100,000 less than in the late 1960s.

Even so, “Youngstown’s decline is not a story of the decline of the people. They never gave up, even when they gave up. Not in their heart,” Steinbeck said.

For a man who has spent 40 years of his life trying to bring jobs back, Steinbeck has only one wish: “That young people understand what happened here, so the same mistakes do not happen again to their kids, or their kids’ kids.”

For a man who has spent 40 years of his life fighting for social justice, Lynd, too, only has one wish: that it be noted in history that Youngstown didn’t take this lying down.

“A steel worker named John Barbero once told me, ‘Youngstown sure died hard.’ It should be noted he said it with pride,” said Lynd.



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