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Whose Steel? | The Nation

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Whose Steel?

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"As a nation we have made an ad hoc policy to pay for sports stadiums, but we're not willing to have the same policy to pay for our industrial base."
      --John Ryan, executive secretary, Cleveland AFL-CIO

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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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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

Early in the crisis, while top USWA officials were welding their interests to the company's, pushing for federal money, loan guarantees from private banks and public entities, tax breaks and tariffs, others were raising a qualitatively different question, about the possibility of public ownership. After all, over the past decade Cuyahoga County has put up more than $120 million to build homes for the Cleveland Indians and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as a small office building for the Indians' management and two condo units for the Cavaliers' owners, the billionaire Gund family, to use when in town for games. At the same time, the city has put up $150 million to build a football stadium, which the Cleveland Browns use eight times a year.

Financing sports stadiums and declaring eminent domain to take over steel mills are not exactly analogous, but they issue from the same proposition: that to protect a public interest, the state will intervene economically. Cleveland, which defied the banks in the 1970s to save Muny Light as a public entity, and which threatened the use of eminent domain just last year to prevent the closure of an inner-city hospital, is not new to such ideas. In February 2001, at a Steel Summit called by Representative Dennis Kucinich to convene community, union, political people, creditors and other business types, City Councilman Nelson Cintron proposed a set of goals for the group--keeping the mills open, keeping them union, protecting the environment, protecting retirees--and suggested that public ownership ought to be investigated as a means of meeting those objectives. While the goals were agreed upon, the public ownership idea went nowhere. The union, then embarking on its own negotiations with potential corporate buyers, was "clearly ambivalent," according to one high-level participant in the summits. Besides, as Councilman Roosevelt Coats, a former steelworker, put it, the prospect of eminent domain over basic industry "would challenge the political world in this city, and the political world doesn't like to be challenged."

Still, the question was raised, and the issue became part of the discussion, though only as a last resort. So as not to clash with union higher-ups, a rank-and-file group circulated petitions that got about 1,200 signatories advocating this last-resort position. In the end, that's exactly what it was. While union and government officials were scurrying to line up financing to save the company, LTV was cutting the floor out from under them, quietly telling its customers that it could not guarantee steel delivery. General Motors canceled its orders, as did others, and on November 20, LTV shocked its community/labor supporters by filing to liquidate its assets. A week later Kucinich got a call from workers at the mill saying there was not enough coke on hand to operate beyond November 30. Without coke, the blast furnaces would go cold and self-destruct. There followed a series of legal motions, court hearings and mass rallies that culminated in the decision to keep LTV's blast furnaces in Cleveland and Indiana on "hot idle" (warm but producing nothing) until an auction could be held this year. The city, meanwhile, prepared to use its power to expropriate the property--as Warren put it, "to assert its right as the only entity able to act in last resort to protect the public from an abandoned plant."

Ross's purchase on February 27 rendered such intervention moot, but given the persistent uncertainties of steel, some in city government continue to discuss the what-would-it-take of public ownership. At the height of the LTV crisis the plan never was for the city to get into the steelmaking business; rather it would hold the property until it could find a suitable operator. Acquiring the Cleveland works and getting it back to full capacity would have required a huge outlay in the first year. "It would have been very difficult for the city in forty-five days--because that's all the time we had--to demonstrate it had the wherewithal to buy the mill and operate it," Warren said. "Operating costs of the plant for one year would equal about two-thirds of the city's general fund. So if we wanted to lay off the entire police and fire departments and get rid of compulsory education, then we could do it."

Such is the straitjacket of limited options in which communities and workers find themselves in the world as it is, at the point of crisis. The space for action is always forty-five days or six months, maybe a year or more, but always in an atmosphere of imminent ruin. No wonder workers seize on the illusion of tariff relief and corporate saviors. It needn't have been so. A quarter-century ago, between 1977 and 1986, steelworkers and their allies began laying the road not taken, organizing for community/worker control of the mills. They formed the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley in Youngstown and the TriState Conference on Steel in Pittsburgh. In Youngstown, according to the activist and attorney Staughton Lynd, who argued in court for a community property right to industrial sites marked for abandonment, people were at the beginning of a learning curve, "and the USWA was to the right of the Catholic Church and the [conservative] Youngstown Vindicator...actively bad-talking what we were trying to do." In Pittsburgh, according to Charlie McCollester and Mike Stout, who were leaders in the TriState Conference, organizing communities around the possibilities of eminent domain, the USWA International softened its attitude but didn't make their work a priority. It gave lip service to universal healthcare--a natural issue, considering that health insurance is a major operating cost, with each active steelworker producing to support health and pension benefits of four retirees--but retreated from the demand along with the rest of organized labor in 1992-93. It has experimented piecemeal with employee stock ownership plans, or ESOPs, with varying degrees of success (for an interesting assessment of the record in Ohio, see The Real World of Employee Ownership, by John Logue and Jacquelyn Yates). But there has been no comprehensive vision, no long-range coordinated strategy.

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