Real Steel: Striking a Chord for the Lost American Dream

Steelworker gear(Image: Steelworker gear via Shutterstock)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 ” >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 “%20″ >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 “%20″ >V&M Star, which casts pipes for natural-gas fracking (and which was ” >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 %20″ >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 ” >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” >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.