Steeler Nation fights its way back

PITTSBURGH -- It was crazy here Thursday night. The sportscaster on the huge flat screen at one of the bars on Smithfield Street was talking about how the Steelers continue to amaze him, what with the huge following they have all over the country.

Outside, large groups were passing, yelling and cheering every time they heard a boat churning along the Mon (Monongahela) River signal that the Steelers had done something to bring Pittsburgh a little closer to victory. After a touchdown a bus driver stopped his fully loaded vehicle to stick out his head and holler. A cop slammed on the brakes so her partner could jump out and dash into a pizza shop to check the score.

I joined a group of about 15 Californians, all of whom were decked out in Pittsburgh Steeler black and gold, on their walk toward a bridge that would take them back to their hotel. I asked the 50-something guy who was acting like the group's patriarch why a bunch of Californians was so eager to spend the night roaming the streets here.

"This is where I belong," said Fred Walker. "I was here when the Homestead mill went down. I was one of the last. I had to leave. Those were my little boys," he said, pointing to two young men just in front of us, both clasping hands with their wives. "Those were my little girls," he said. There were three young women, two holding onto husbands and one shepherding five young children, just in back of us. "Those are grandkids," Walker said.

Fred's wife is gone. "She had a lot of health problems that were made worse by depression. She could never get over having to leave all our dreams behind. Between me and her, we had to spend years holding down five part time jobs. It was too much for her. I'm lucky my kids got through that as good as they did," he said, as he put out his arms, motioning to the front and to the back of us as we walked.

The next morning I talked to Mike Stout, owner of Steel Valley Printers in Homestead. Since Stout was the union person in charge of grievances at the Homestead Mill he was literally the last worker to go when the mill was finally totally shut down in 1989.

"It drives me crazy when I hear these sports announcers talk about the Steelers having fans all over the country and about how Steeler fans travel so good. All those clubs in California, Kentucky, New Jersey, Florida and everywhere else were started by our people who lost everything back here. Not all Steeler fans travel so good. There's not a day that I don't see what happened to those who didn't leave. You can't go into a parking lot, a fast food restaurant, or a mall, and not see folks in their 50s and 60s still working for minimum wage. They're all my friends. I represented many of them when they got in trouble at the plant. That's the truth about the Steeler Nation."

Stout took me and three other labor journalists, one from the Washington State AFL-CIO, one from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and one from Press Associates, the union news service, to a spot in the middle of a 5.6 mile long strip mall in Homestead. "This all was the biggest mill in America," he said.

He said U.S. Steel's shutdown operation was different than the operation that closed down Youngstown, Ohio. "There was mass upheaval in Youngstown, rebellion, plant takeovers and the like. So here they did it a little at a time, piecemeal if you will."

One of the most frequently used tactics, Stout said, was to eliminate workers just before they were eligible for major contractual benefits. "We had a rule of 65 where with 20 years in you could get an early pension. I knew 18 or 19 guys they threw out between their 17th and 19th years of service."

Thousands never saw it coming. Almost 20 years later Stout says he still has trouble controlling his anger.

"We thought we were the nation's pride and joy. We had all these commendations for doing a better job than anyone else producing what the nation needed. Surely, we thought, everyone else will be laid off before we ever lose our jobs. In the end, it didn't matter if you were a union radical or if you were a total butt kisser. They axed everyone. They were rotten and filthy."

Stout says that the Mon Valley needs "nothing less than a Marshall plan, a huge effort like the WPA, to re-build. We need to make stuff again here, stuff that is real and valuable. Paper shuffling jobs aren't going to do it. As a country we need an industrial policy to create the jobs we need."

A few miles away from where we talked sits McKeesport, another mill town displaying plenty of rust and abandoned buildings in place of the factories and thriving businesses that were once there.

The notable exception to that rule, however, is the old U.S. Steel Pipe and Tube Works, which has been cleaned up and modernized to house what many in the valley hope is the embryo of a bright new future.

The Steelworkers, the United Transportation Union and the Building Trades Council are partnering with U.S. Steel, Duquesne Power and Light, and Carnegie Mellon University in a venture called Maglev Inc., which started 19 years ago. The corporation, in which the unions hold a 50 percent stake, is ready now to begin building the nation's first magnetic levitation high-speed rail service.

Jay Weinberg, Maglev's vice president, had been president of the union local at Homestead for 12 years.

Happy about a $28 million federal grant Maglev landed only an hour before we arrived, Weinberg said it will take a lot more for the project to really get underway. He is hopeful, however, because the Obama administration has committed itself to help in the new company's effort to build a network connecting towns all over Pennsylvania with trains propelled by magnetic levitation. Eventually the network would grow toward Boston in the east and Chicago in the west.

Maglev has requested $2.3 billion from the $773 billion stimulus package. "With that money we could build from the airport to Pittsburgh and out east into the suburbs," Weinberg said, "creating many good paying union jobs for steelworkers."

The company has kept itself going, while it fights for funds, by fulfilling various contracts, many of them with the government. To go from its current staff of seven, however, into an operation that has the potential to keep steel mills buzzing for a long time to come, the Mon Valley just might need the Marshall plan Stout talked about.

jwojcik @pww.org

 

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