A story of steel in Western New York

I live in Western New York, an area decimated by de-industrialization. In 1983 Bethlehem Steel Corporation ceased steelmaking operations at its Lackawanna facility, and the fallout from this catastrophe is still felt to this day.

Over 20,000 workers lost their jobs that year, and the area suffered its first major setback. Thousands of families picked up and deserted the area for better opportunities out west and down south. An entire city, which based its very existence on the plant, was reduced to shell of its former self.

Only three facilities remained: The Coke Ovens, Galvanized Products and a Hot Rolling Mill. The Hot Rolling Mill shut down in 1992 and was purchased by Republic Technologies in 1997.

I was hired by the Coke Ovens Division in September of 2000, and worked there for one year; they closed in September 2001. I have seen the evil and uncaring face of capitalist exploitation first hand.

Over 50 percent of our workforce was comprised of men from Eastern Pennsylvania, who were forced to relocate here when their plant was closed in 1998. We did everything possible to keep the Ovens producing in an efficient and safe manner, and yet in the end it mattered very little, for imported steel and Coke strangled the lifeblood out of our domestic producers.

Bethlehem’s management team was quick to point to the fact that over 70 percent of the employees were eligible for early retirment benefits, but that only glossed over the remaining thirty percent who were left without a job and little hope of finding comparable employment in a severely depressed economy.

These were men with families, homes, mortgages and other assorted bills that now were in jeopardy of not being paid. I can attest to the anxiety, depression and fatalistic demeanor that invaded and consumed us in those last few weeks of employment. Many were reduced to tears, turned to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain, or simply gave up all hope.

Frequently we made jokes about being greeters at the local Wal-Mart, knowing well that it really was not a joking matter, and that it was entirely possible that many of us would be employed in such a capacity.

I was out of work for about two months when I landed a job at the Hot Rolling Mill down the street. Republic was in the throes of a Chapter 11 reorganization, but still needed people to fill the positions left by retirements and such.

After having been there for one month, the company petitioned the union asking for a six-month decrease in wages amounting to fifteen percent. Furthermore, there were serious cutbacks on benefits (with health care being the first target). We agreed to the concessions in order to keep our jobs, and stay off the public assistance rolls.

Our dignity was damaged for sure, but faced with the potential closing of the facility we were forced to swallow our meager pride and concede.

Unionized steelworkers in every corner of this nation are faced with the same dreary outlook: take a wage and benefit cut or lose your job! And when in a year or two down the road the company asks for more concessions, give them what they want or they most surely will close your plant and leave you standing in the soup kitchen line – family in tow!

They care not for the thousand of men and women who devote their lives to working hard for the company, showing up everyday and giving 100 percent! They care not for the thousands of families and retirees dependent upon the company for a roof over their head and food on the table, for the community that provides them with top-notch workers.

No, they refuse to take these concerns into consideration, callously pointing to the “bottom line” when deciding who gets to eat and who starves. All the while they pay themselves outrageous salaries and bonuses for decimating entire communities through plant shutdowns. What kind of society permits such an egregious display of heartlessness? Oh yeah, a capitalistic one.



Sean Birmingham is a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 2603 in Buffalo, N.Y.