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Whose Steel? | The Nation

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Whose Steel?

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Youngstown is one of those places where talk turns easily to the used-to-be's. What used to be one of the biggest steel cities--the mills laying claim to twenty-five miles of the Mahoning Valley--is now a place of naked ruins, junk heaps of indiscernible provenance or pint-sized industrial follow-ons, including a few steel processing plants and one "mini-mill," which doesn't make steel but simply melts scrap metal into reusable form. "Hungry Shredder Needs Scrap," a handwritten sign declares from a fence enclosing part of what had been the mighty Brier Hill Works. Recycling! But the tired frame houses pitched along the streets up from the valley that once sustained them reflect none of the sparkling promise of that word.

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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About 10,000 people worked in the mills before first one, then another big steel company shut down, until US Steel struck the final blow in 1979. Now the mini-mill employs about 430. Newer landmarks throw different shadows across the future of the city's working class: a steel and labor museum, a private prison, a Supermax prison, a bankruptcy court. Lawyers for many of the thirty-three steel companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection since 1998 have trooped through that court. LTV, which had been the nation's third-largest steel producer, was sold off there amid considerable drama in February. Back then there were worker protests, out-of-town reporters and excited demands for tariffs on imported steel. The tariffs came, courtesy of President Bush, in March, and the press bus left. Attention shifted to the potential for international backlash and--once Bush signed the farm bill, with weighty subsidies of the kind denounced as unfair when applied to steel by other countries--to political opportunism in anticipation of November's elections.

Now in nearby Cleveland the 5,200 people who toiled for LTV there await the outcome of negotiations between the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the new owner, W.L. Ross. They just buried their third suicide. Elsewhere, as at the bankrupt Republic Technologies mill in Lorain, Ohio, workers are shed without benefit of national headlines. Steel prices have shot up thanks to the tariffs and to stalled production, but no one is more secure. In Youngstown the uneasy peace of irrelevance has settled back in. Memories persist, however: not just of the high days but also of the decline, of the marches and last stands, of the nativist rhetoric and--most important for our story--of the moment in time when workers proposed a radical departure from the strategy of begging and foreigner-bashing; when they said, simply, Why don't we control the mills that our labor has built?

It is a question that only a few ask today but that, given the dismal prospect of security-through-tariffs, deserves revival. Youngstown and LTV stand as mile markers in the twenty-five-year crisis of American steel. Along that route are other signposts, labeled Lackawanna, where my uncle spent his life in the mammoth Bethlehem mills, Hazelwood, Homestead, Duquesne, Midland, Warren... Farther ahead, other communities await the disposition of twenty-nine steelmakers currently in bankruptcy. In 2001, 14 percent of the country's steel production was idled or silenced. The USWA reports that 50,600 workers have lost their jobs in the past five years, and the health and pension benefits of 600,000 retirees and family members are now at risk. Experts will point out that the past quarter-century in steel has not been a story of unbroken decline, and that the forces that doomed Youngstown's open-hearth furnaces are different from those that landed LTV and its more modern facilities in bankruptcy court.

Among its several problems, the steel industry is the collateral victim of US superdominance, with its emblem the strong dollar. The same global system that makes the dollar the currency of choice among finance capitalists worldwide, that demands export-driven strategies of development abroad, that makes foreign assets and labor so desirable to US multinationals (and foreign imports as retailed through the Gap and Wal-Mart so affordable to US consumers) has driven up the price of American steel relative to that of every other country. The same domestic system that binds healthcare and old-age pensions to employment, and that for decades encouraged the steelworkers union to take wage concessions in exchange for retirement benefits, costs US steelmakers $3.7 billion a year, a competitive disadvantage against companies in Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, anyplace where such costs are socialized.

In the popular telling, however, a simpler narrative has predominated. As industry and union proclaimed in the 1970s, "The threat is real from foreign steel," a slogan that remains resilient in 2002. "While we have been playing by the rules, other countries have unfairly subsidized their industries, and we're paying the price," a Cleveland LTV worker said, reciting a common union argument in support of tariffs. Yet American steel has not been without government emoluments. In the time between the big shutdowns that began with Youngstown, numerous protections were applied to steel. Before Bush's action, 120 countervailing tariffs were in place, with forty more on application. Since 1977, the jobs disappeared anyway, more than 350,000 of them.

Outside the LTV bankruptcy hearings before the tariffs came down, Kim Shaffer, the wife of an LTV worker, expressed a considered impatience. At a meeting early in the crisis while a union rep was going on about unfair competition from foreign steel, she recalled, she had nudged her husband and whispered: "It's the same rhetoric we heard twenty years ago! What happened in all that time--did we get complacent? They're the same words coming out of different mouths." The same industry, the same union, the same region, the same scenario of shutdown, the same rhetoric. Where are the alternatives?

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