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Steeltown USA

CounterPunch: 2016 


“With the specter of violent death hanging over each shift, workers relished the opportunity to sit back and watch the local boys fight it out on the field.” 



In 1954, Chuck Klausing became the head football coach at Braddock High School in Braddock, Pennsylvania, one of many steel mill towns in the Pittsburgh area. The outgoing coach told Klausing: "You don't want this job. The kids are undisciplined. The administration isn't in it. It's an unwinnable situation."


In the previous nine seasons, the Braddock High Tigers had won only 21 games while losing 54. Yet the new coach, using a combination of intense preparation, strict discipline, and a healthy dose of trick plays, guided his team to six straight undefeated seasons, winning the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship every year.


Approaching Klausing's sixth season in the summer of 1959, the city of Braddock was consumed by both a looming nationwide steel strike and the pressure of Braddock High's five consecutive undefeated years. If the team won its first seven games of the upcoming season, it would set a new national record. The story of this juncture between the mill and the gridiron is told in Striking Gridiron, a fascinating book by Greg Nichols.


"Braddock High was an integrated school, but racism still burned hot in the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania. The mills created a caste system, with black workers stuck at the bottom." 


"Braddock High had no black teachers," Nichols adds. "One government teacher discouraged black students from joining the debate club, maintaining that non-white students smelled funny."


One of Braddock High's black players, Jimmy Gilliam, had moved to town from Alabama after his father had been murdered by the Klan. Although Gilliam and other black residents could check out books from Braddock’s Carnegie Library, they were not allowed to use the library's gym, indoor pool, basketball court, or water fountain. This mirrored the situation at Braddock's US Steel plant, the Edgar Thompson Works, where blacks were restricted to the worst jobs such as the labor gang or the coke plant.


Much of Chuck Klausing's efforts in building a unified team took place off the field. Braddock High had separate school dances for whites and blacks until the coach was finally able to engineer an integrated one in 1958. 


Klausing, a white man from a small Pennsylvania town where his father was the mayor, was angry about the violent opposition to integration at Central High School in Little Rock and announced to a roomful of coaches at a football luncheon that he would welcome Central High students to Braddock. 


Even the menu of pre-game meals was used to bring the players closer together. "Klausing had noticed that his black players would scarf down roast beef, baked potatoes, and peas while the white players, and particularly the Catholics, preferred fish, big globs of mac and cheese, and buttered rolls. Klausing got the kitchen to serve two options at every meal. Presented with a choice, the boys started experimenting, nibbling unfamiliar side dishes and trading portions of meat. Before long, mothers all over town were fielding new requests for dinner items. On the advice of their Catholic counterparts, black players started staking out Friday fish fries at churches all over town." 


“When I started at Braddock, we had maybe three black kids on the team and by ‘59, about half the team was black,” Klausing told George Guido of SportsTalk. “We proved that blacks and whites could play together.”


One of those black players in 1959 was Ray Henderson, who caught the winning touchdown pass against bitter rival North Braddock Scott. He went to work in the local mill and in 1995 co-produced a documentary with Tony Buba about the history of racial discrimination in the mills entitled Struggles in Steel.


The film gives voice to black steelworkers from across the country, detailing steel mill apartheid and the struggles against it. It also describes the limitations of the 1974 Consent Decree, in which a paltry $30.9 million was distributed to tens of thousands of black steelworkers nationwide to compensate for the opportunities and pay they had lost over the years.


On the other hand, the Consent Decree did lead to the end of department seniority. This was a policy in which layoffs and job bids were based on a worker's status only in their own department. No worker from outside that department could ever get a job bid there no matter how long they had worked for the company. Department seniority was very contentious because the pay and conditions varied a lot depending on where you worked.


The Consent Decree, which was hotly debated in the mills as a strictly racial matter, actually opened up job movement in the mill not only for blacks but for the majority of whites as well. I know this from my own experience since I worked in a steel mill both before and after the implementation of the Decree. The end of department seniority allowed me to move out of the labor pool and up the ladder until I got a much more desirable job on a steel-pouring crew.


We have seen this movie before. During the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction and the rise of a Southern black electorate, black officeholders shaped new state constitutions and built thousands of new schools and expanded social services. These changes also benefited the mass of Southern poor whites, many of whom were, in addition, then able to vote for the first time.


"You can't hurt me without hurting America," steelworker Francis Brown says in the documentary Struggles in Steel. Absolutely. And if you flip this coin over it's still true--you can't help blacks without helping America.


On July 15, 1959 half a million steelworkers across the country, black and white together, went on strike over the issue of job elimination. This included 4,500 workers at Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, which had opened in 1875 as Andrew Carnegie's first major plant.


This was a continuation of a bitter history of labor relations at Edgar Thompson. Nichols writes:


"In May 1916 men and women employed at ET went on strike for an eight hour workday. Joining ranks with workers from nearby towns, they marched through the streets behind a local band. Steel companies had made money hand over first during the early years of the war, and workers thought the windfall might help usher in long-hoped-for labor reforms…Private guards amassed at the edge of the mill. Strikers surged toward the gates. Guards fired into the crowd, and three Braddock residents were killed. The governor declared martial law. Rather than arresting the guards, police rounded up dozens of strikers."


After the 1959 strike had been underway for a month, steelworker families began to go hungry. In response, the Allegheny County Surplus Food Bureau gave the strikers food, which was augmented by rations distributed by the Braddock union local. As tension increased from stretched budgets and little progress in the strike, the football team was central to keeping up town morale. The Tigers kept winning, drawing ever closer to the national record.  


In October the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania issued a Taft-Hartley injunction, forcing union members back to work without a new contract. The union's response was to challenge the constitutionality of Taft-Hartley. They lost in district court but were granted a stay of the injunction while they appealed. They lost at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and then went immediately to the Supreme Court.


The union case was before the Supremes when the Braddock High Tigers defeated Canon-McMillan on October 29 and established the new national record for an undefeated streak. On November 6, Braddock went on to defeat North Braddock Scott and qualified for the Western Pennsylvania championship game. On November 7, the Supreme Court upheld the Taft-Hartley injunction 8-1 on the 116th day of the strike. On November 20, Braddock High won the state title.


Braddock High would not have become a football powerhouse if its team were not so thoroughly integrated. Today we take this for granted, but doing it in the 1950s put the Tigers far ahead of their segregated time. As for the issue of racial equality in the mills, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2014 show that 10.3 % of steelworkers are black and 14% are Latino. This is significantly below their percentage in the general population and confirms that full job equity in the steel industry has yet to be achieved.


When I worked in the mill, there was a current of friendship between many whites and blacks. But there was also a widespread and vicious racism. I was heartened to discover recently that in 2008 Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kaufman went to the mill where I once worked in Warren, Ohio (two hours from Braddock), to interview union members about their feelings on race. Kaufman found attitudes were much improved. This was confirmed in 2013 when Darryl Parker was elected the first African-American president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1375 in Warren. That could never have happened during the time I was working there.


In Struggles in Steel, Leon Haley of the Pittsburgh Urban League notes that at one time the primary question in steel was one of race but that "today it's becoming more a question of economics and class." This might sound optimistic, since if you compare the social statistics of all whites to those of all blacks the disparity remains striking. But there is also a growing downwardly mobile common core, a biracial section of both the employed and the unemployed which confirms Haley's assessment.


During the 1959 strike, most U.S. steelmaking capacity went unused and foreign companies filled the vacuum.  Imports of steel doubled that year. A generation later, we were constantly bombarded with propaganda from both the company and the union about the evils of steel imports. The union made a film about it called Where's Joe? and the company required all of us to watch it. The primary causes of job loss--new technology and speedup--were not mentioned.


Ever since the 1959 steel strike, steelworkers and so many others have longed to return to an industrial Fortress America, an economy where the world buys our products but doesn't compete with them in the marketplace. Symbolic of this, in downtown Braddock there stands a twelve-foot high statue of Joe Magarac, a legendary Paul Bunyan-type figure said to have been born in an iron mine. He is portrayed bending a steel rail with his bare hands, reminiscent of a time when steel was made to a large degree by hand.


Today, steel is made by fewer and fewer workers utilizing higher and higher levels of technology. The U.S. steel industry now employs only 150,000 people, a drop of more than 300,000 since 1959. In the early 1980s, the average steel mill produced one ton of steel per 10.1 worker hours. The 2014 average was one ton per 1.9 worker hours, with many facilities producing a ton of steel in less than one worker hour. The director of research at Armco Steel predicted some years ago that by the middle of the twenty-first century steel would be made in clean factories without smoke and fire. This portends a shift to laborless steel production with robots and computers, following the inevitable template of our time. Meanwhile, the Braddock mill limps along with fewer than a thousand workers, kept marginally alive by an infusion of new technology.


The world has tremendous excess steel production capacity, even though world crude steel production decreased 3 per cent in 2015. Richard McCormack, editor of Manufacturing and Technology News, told me that "The U.S. represents only a tiny sliver of global output--and its output has been about the same for 40 years."


The industrial Fortress America now exists only as a museum of the mind. But not for a lack of trying to make it real. There have been hundreds of charges filed by companies with various trade organizations alleging that China is dumping low cost steel on the American market. The USW continues to support these efforts. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of steelworkers have seen their jobs eliminated not only in the United States, but in the rival steelmaking countries of Europe, Japan, and, yes, China.


It's tempting to be dismissive and simply point out that a single payer health care system in the United States would make the price of American steel more competitive by eliminating the heavy costs of employee health insurance. Yet the most important thing isn't whether we tactically fight imports or not, it's whether that's the limit of our thinking. The most dangerous aspect of the anti-import crusade, even worse than giving political cover to the likes of Donald Trump, is the alchemy it performs, making it appear as if corporations and workers have common interests. They do not.


Consider Lakshmi Mittal, the world's preeminent steel tycoon and India's second richest man. His empire employs 237,000 people, one sixth of them in North America. Mittal spent $60 million ($253 per employee) on his daughter Vanisha's wedding, flying 1,000 guests to Paris, where the festivities lasted six days. Mittal's net worth is $12.3 billion. Meanwhile, Mittal's American employees are battling concessions if they are working, trying to avoid foreclosure if they're not.


The USW was long ago forced to give up the right to strike and the loss of this important tool makes it harder for steelworkers to prevent the gap between themselves and mill owners like Mittal from widening even further. But company-imposed lockouts still happen. Last summer, Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), the corporate descendant of Allegheny Ludlum Steel, locked out a total of 2,200 USW members in six states. The workers offered to keep working under their old contract, even though it had expired but ATI literally locked the doors and has yet to reopen them. The company wants to force its workers to accept pay and benefit cuts, claiming they are necessary because of competition with China. Before the lockout, ATI's top five executives gave themselves $19 million in bonuses and salary increases of up to 70 per cent. CEO Richard Harshman now makes $8 million a year.


Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have listed ATI as the 26th worst corporate air polluter in the U.S., as company facilities release almost 600,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air annually. This has the greatest impact on the workers in the plant and the working class families who live nearby, while the coupon clippers who own ATI's stock live in splendor, far from the epicenter of the toxic stew.


Anti-union right to work laws have been pushed through by corporate interests in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. West Virginia, home to the United Mine Workers Union, passed a right to work law in February. Pennsylvania may be next.


In 1984, during the Pittsburgh stop of his Born in the USA tour, Bruce Springsteen connected with Ron Weisen, radical president of the union at US Steel in Homestead, just upriver from Braddock, and made a $10,000 donation to the local's food bank. But this time the food wasn't simply for survival pending a return to normalcy, as it was during the 1959 strike. Those days are over. In 1985, the Homestead mill was shut down and dynamited, leaving its workers constantly needing food while US Steel sold the land to a shopping mall developer.


Despite the popularity of the concept of the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent, most Americans believe they live in a classless society. This is only partly a result of the relentless promotion of the one big happy family message by the media and the schools. There is also something objective pushing our thinking in that direction--the fact that we live in a society based on corporations and that our fate is tied to them. When I worked in the mill I would frequently stop by the office just off the pouring platform to check on how many orders were on the books. I knew precisely what the numbers had to be if I was to avoid getting laid off. When it was below zero in January and my family gas bill was through the roof, I was hoping for the company to pick up orders like I was rooting for my high school football team.


This puts us all in a very difficult position. We need to get a corporation (or an entity dependent on corporate support) to give us a job at a time when few jobs are available and fewer will be available in the future. If we do have a job or are applying for a job, our fate is tied to the fate of that company. This causes our thinking about other ways society could be organized to huddle quietly in the back of our minds, as the need for simple survival boxes in our vision. Despite growing resentment of corporate greed, we want corporations to prosper.


The problem is that corporations don't see prosperity as a two way street. A company's profitability is tied to cutting our wages and benefits and, ultimately, to replacing us with some form of advanced technology. In our confusion, we end up bullied into accepting the maxim that "what's good for General Motors is good for the USA" and see ourselves as pitted not just against other people here and around the world, but against ourselves.


To break free from our straitjacket of co-dependent thinking, we need to reach across barriers, such as race, and challenge the entrenched wisdom that things can only be the way they are. That's what the Braddock High Tigers did. They dreamed of accomplishing things that had never happened before and didn't stop until those dreams came true.


Lee Ballinger:

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