Caught between an unyielding corporation and crumbling solidarity, striking steelworkers in Ohio find history is both their ally and enemy as they ponder the uncertain future of organized labor.
Niles, Ohio - My childhood was made of steel.
In 1969 my family moved to Baltimore, where my father designed ships at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point Shipyard - what one historian notes "was once the largest steelworks in the world."
It was a place of forbidding grandiosity: miles of clanking mills, blackened smokestacks and hellish furnaces, armies of grimy workers and supertankers in dry dock that blotted out the sky. I took pride in the millions of tons of steel forged annually, lived in a stable (if racist) working-class neighborhood near the plant and spent summers frolicking in the Olympic-size pool at the Sparrows Point Country Club.
Sparrows Point shut down its blast furnaces this past June, perhaps for the last time. A workforce that numbered 26,500 when we arrived in the United States had wasted away to 1,975 employees when its latest owner threw in the towel. The story is the same for much of the country. The golden era of industry is gone, but it weighs on workers who lament the passing of the American Dream, while anxiously confronting a future that seems to be one of perpetual decline.
The ripples of history surface in areas like Ohio's Mahoning Valley, known as the "Ruhr Valley of America," for the 28 mills that once lined the region. This year, 2012, is the 75th anniversary of the "Little Steel Strike" that turned the valley into a battlefield as steelmakers violently quashed unionization efforts. It's also the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Steelworkers of America (USW) and the 35th anniversary of "Black Monday," when more than 5,000 workers lost their jobs after the demise of Youngstown Sheet & Tube's Campbell Works in 1977.
It's local lore that people would point to soot from steel mills dusting fresh snow and say, "That's gold," meaning that's what paid the bills. That's no more. The gigantic blast furnaces have long been demolished save for a few modern plants like V&M Star, which casts pipes for natural-gas fracking (and which was aided by $20 million in federal stimulus money). Steelmaking in the valley is otherwise limited to warehouse operations employing dozens of workers in jobs such as cutting metal parts.
One such facility is Phillips Manufacturing in the town of Niles, which straddles the Mahoning River. Workers there produce drywall and steel corner beads and studs used in building construction. Except Phillips is now using "replacement workers" to fill orders. On Sept. 13, 44 members of USW Local 4564-02 shut off their machines before noon. Instead of breaking for lunch, they walked out and struck over wage, benefits and seniority issues.
The dispute pits an emboldened corporation extracting ever-greater concessions from an ever shrinking-union. More significant, the history that shaped this area is in play as both sides try to turn it to their advantage. Organized labor often accepted racism in organizing, which enabled industrialists to divide workers along the color line.
In the Mahoning Valley, steel mill owners would employ blacks to cross the picket line. Today, Phillips is doing the same by bringing in African-American strikebreakers. As for the workers, who proclaim they are born and bred union, they have their own advantage: The city of Niles has dusted off a 1960s-era anti-scab law and invoked it against Phillips.
The stakes are higher for the steelworkers than the company. They must win this fight not only to retain decent-paying jobs with benefits, but to keep the local alive - one of the few institutions that can nurture a new generation of unionists.
Workers say since Phillips purchased the facility 14 years ago it has demanded concessions in every contract. David Hanshaw, a self-described "passionate Italian" and 30-year employee at the facility, is still angry about the givebacks Phillips extracted in 1998. "They took away our pensions, a weeks' vacation and we had a pay freeze for five years."
The current contract expired Aug. 9, and steelworkers walked out after management refused to budge on its demands despite 15 negotiating sessions. Local 4564-02 Vice President Tony Beltz says Phillips wants to hike workers' payment for the family health care plan by 21 percent to nearly $3,900 a year. The company also wants workers to pay for short-term disability insurance and it wants to terminate seniority rights for those who are out for more than six months, a serious concern for a workforce mainly in their 50's and 60's.
Beltz explains during contract talks management tried to split the union by offering skilled workers more pay while cutting wages for production workers. He says that gambit didn't work because "we're united."
When the union asked for a wage increase to lighten the burden, the company offered some production workers 3 cents an hour, or $62 annually. As for his situation, the 55-year-old Beltz says, "They want me to take a pay cut of 12 cents an hour, despite the fact I make only $15.71 an hour after 32 years at the plant. It's insulting."
The steelworkers understand that swirling around the wage and benefits dispute are the punishing currents of history. Hanshaw thunders that the strike "is about America. I want it back. We're sinking into a moral abyss."
Beltz sees a generational divide hampering the labor movement. He comments that younger strikers have not been on the picket line as much as the older crew. "Half of these kids don't know what a union is. They bitch about dues. But now they get it."
One factor in why younger workers may be less fired-up is their paltry wages. Beltz says new hires start at $9.90 an hour, about what a Starbucks barista earns. Hanshaw explains that because of low wages, "I've got two guys who ride bicycles to work. One guy can't even come out to the picket line because he can't afford gas."
Paul Dierkes, who at age 56 has put in 27 years at the plant, says "We just want to do our job, get a paycheck and spend time with our family."
But that's not possible because strikers are caught between an unyielding company and weakening solidarity. Dierkes says on Oct. 8, during the fourth week of the strike, the company brought in four vans full of scabs. "These kids are in a rude awakening if they think things are going to get better. We told them, 'Please don't cross the picket line.' But they don't listen. If these kids keep crossing the picket line, they're gonna eventually pay them nothing. You gotta keep the union alive and make sure people get paid fair."
Some wonder if that's the company's goal - to smash the union. Mary Smith, a stout African-American who hails from Tennessee, has worked at the Niles plant for 32 years. Inside the warehouse the size of three football fields, she drives a tow motor, hauling doughnut-shaped coils of steel weighing up to 18,000 pounds, which are cut into building materials.
Smith says, "I think they're trying to break the union. This strike is more negative than previous ones. They are playing hardball. They're taking scabs right over us." Smith says, "The scabs made sexually derogatory remarks to me, 'Pull your pants down. I want to see your cookie.' I tell them, if your mother were out here would you say the same thing?"
Smith is not one to back down, however. She arrives at Phillips at 4:30 a.m. every workday and stays up to 15 hours on the picket line. When asked about her devotion to the strike, Smith, a 62-year-old grandmother, says, "I'm fighting for my job and everyone's job."
Smith is referring to union jobs, not the category of "jobs" that has become an incantation. In the media, to speak of jobs is to invoke a mystical force that salves all social ills, but the ultimate source of which is unknown.
If there is a single reason why Obama is likely to be re-elected, it's jobs. Specifically it's because the bailout his administration enacted saved Ohio's auto industry. The steel industry is too decimated to bail out, but the USW claims the auto rescue saved the jobs of 350,000 of its members - from glass workers who construct windshields to rubber workers who make car tires to chemical workers who manufacture paint brighteners.
It's hard to deny that the bailout worked. By June 2009 the unemployment rate in the region that includes Niles had shot up to 13.5 percent. In August, it touched 7.9 percent, below the national average.
But the reason why Obama has not clinched the race is due to widespread anxiety among workers. The bailout saved thousands of union jobs in Ohio at the cost of forcing wages down, which impacts all workers. Average wages in Northeastern Ohio have dropped by nearly 9 percent since 2010. For many college graduates, a good job is working in a call center. One auto worker says for high-school graduates who can't land a spot on the production line, Walmart is a good option.
While these jobs are non-unionized, workers say they are treated better because of the spillover effect of organized labor. Local 4564-02 President Bill Irons stopped by the picket line one day with a crock pot of barbeque pork. A mountain of a man, Irons' bolt-like fingers are riven with cracks, as if the skin is straining to contain flesh and bone. Irons argues, "Unions keep companies honest. All the non-union guys benefit from safety improvements and higher wages that unions win."
Yet his local is in critical condition. Today it has 135 members at six plants. Twenty years ago, says Irons, the local had 800 members. A generation before that, it probably numbered in the thousands.
For companies like Phillips, and corporate America in general, even a handful of unionized workers is too many. After I finished talking with Irons, strikers pointed out that Phillips' president and CEO George Kubat was exiting the plant. I caught up with him at the gate and inquired about the status of negotiations.
Looking tense, Kubat said it was in the hands of a "federal negotiator." I asked three times if he foresaw the situation being settled anytime soon. After deflecting my question twice – "Email me" – he shook his head no.(I emailed Kubat as he requested, but received no response to multiple inquiries.)
Phillips is a privately held company based in Omaha. Workers fear it will shift production to its non-union facility there. Phillips doesn't publicize its vitals, but it seems to be thriving. Tony Beltz says, "There's been an increase in business." He says after four years with "zero overtime," workers regularly logged 60-hour work-weeks this year. Further evidence of the company's good health was Phillips' announcement in June that it had acquired the assets of Steel Drum Industries in Tampa, allowing it to grow its business in the Southeast.
When I mentioned to workers that Kubat did not seem inclined to settle the strike, no one was surprised, given management's intransigence during negotiations. Bob, a 67-year-old lathe operator, became distraught when talking about the strike. "It's disheartening as hell to be treated like this. They're telling the guys in there, 'We're going to starve them out.'"
Even though strike-breaking has been all but legalized, the steelworkers have home-field advantage. Union sentiment is still strong in Niles. Phillips workers mention their families have been union for generations and recall as children their fathers going out on strike. People driving by regularly honk and wave at the strikers. Two men in a pickup truck leaned on the horn and yelled, "Local 396, plumbers and pipefitters. Yeah, go boys!" The pro-union mood has also been boosted by a referendum last year that resoundingly repealed an Ohio law eliminating collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers.
The strikers' ace in the hole is the anti-scab law. According to local reports, on Sept. 28 the Niles city prosecutor "filed a criminal complaint against Phillips Manufacturing for breaking a city ordinance that prohibits the hiring of professional strike-breakers in place of employees who are involved in a labor dispute." Apparently the prosecutor did not know about the 1960s-era law. Niles City Councilman Dan Wilkerson, who has been a regular at the strike, drew the city's attention to it. Violating the law carries a minimum fine of $500 and a jail term of up to six months.
If unionism is part of Niles' legacy, then so is racism. And Phillips appears to be counting on it. At the end of one work day a van with half a dozen men, all of whom appeared to be African-American, pulled out of the lot as strikers yelled "scab" and "don't come back." Paul Dierkes says that the day four vanloads of strike-breakers came into Phillips, all but a couple looked African-American.
Thomas Sabatini, a professor of US History at Youngstown State University, says Niles used to be a "sundown town," which was the norm in the North. Historian James Loewen writes that many sundown towns "formerly sported at their corporate limits signs that usually read, 'Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on You in ____.'"
The racial divide pains Mary Smith. The only African-American in the workforce, she says, "Phillips hasn't hired any in the last seven or eight years. So to see them bring these African-Americans in there in the vans makes me angry." Not that she has sympathy for the scabs. Smith says, "They can't get jobs by doing the right thing, only by doing the wrong thing. I shouldn't be saying this but they all look like thugs. They rub their fingers at us, 'We're taking your money.' They're cold-hearted in there, both the owners and the scabs."
A hearing on the anti-scab law is set for Oct. 11. In the meantime workers spend their days sitting under canopy tents across the street from the main gate because an injunction has limited them to five pickets per entrance. They talk about the difficulty of staying out on strike because they live from one paycheck to the next. Smith says, "I've had to sacrifice a lot over the years, missing vacations with my children and grandchildren because I had to be at work."
Smith says she was planning to retire next year, but is unsure now because the strike might drag on. For Bob, enjoying his golden years is not an option. "I can't afford to retire because of my wife's medical care," he says. "Some of her arthritis prescriptions cost nearly $1,000 to refill."
One day they will all be retired. The question is who will replace them: a new generation of strike-breakers, or a new generation of organized labor? One that understands the fight is not only for jobs with living wages, but to bridge the racial and economic divides affecting all workers.