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Whose Steel? | The Nation

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Whose Steel?

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Lynd points out that eminent domain efforts ground to a halt in the mid-1980s because while communities could demonstrate a public interest, they could never meet the other requirement of the law: to pay a fair market price for the property. But there is an argument, he says, for not paying compensation. "One can calculate that the corporation owes so many kinds of debt to so many people and entities that you're doing it a favor by taking the plant for free. In seeking to acquire a plant without compensation, the taker of course expresses, on other grounds, the deep feeling of workers that those are 'our' jobs, in 'our' plant, which the company never owned outright in the first place." Of course, Lynd cautions, "this strategy would only get you to second base," because operating capital would still be necessary.

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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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"There's got to be the possibility of a radical alternative," Stout says. "Look at the history: In the absence of doing something radical, nothing radical happens." What would it mean, as William Greider has written, "to imagine an economy in which labor hires capital" and "claims ownership of the final product"? Might the story of steel be different today if over the past two decades, in addition to organizing for universal healthcare, labor and communities had devised a coherent strategy for capitalizing public ownership of basic industry where the private sector was failing the people? If for every concession the union granted over the years, it had demanded some ownership? If it had mobilized for specialized regional or national lending institutions to support worker/public ownership? If it had pushed for legislation giving worker-community cooperatives preferential bidding on government contracts? If organized labor collectively had invested some of its $400 billion in pension funds not on Wall Street but in establishing its own "bank" to support communities and workers who wish to exercise their right of eminent domain as something other than a default strategy?

Such actions by themselves might not have "Saved Our Steel," to borrow the chant that USWA members were raising for tariffs, but it's hard to imagine they would have been more of a dead end than the decades-long fight against foreign competition. As John Logue of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center points out, even with the strong dollar and the retiree costs, "if American steel producers could borrow at Japanese interest rates [0.1 percent, compared with the US prime rate of 4.75 percent], none of them would be filing for bankruptcy." If the government's Emergency Steel Loan Guarantee Board actually lived up to its mission and used its $1 billion fund to support private loans; if there was a federally backed industrial bank, akin to existing agricultural lending institutions, there would be more room, not just for companies but crucially for communities and workers, to maneuver. If right now retiree benefits were funded by a small excise tax on every ton of steel regardless of its point of origin, operating costs would drop significantly. Alternatives would emerge, and that is the point.

In the great might-have-been, one other question emerges. What if the workers in Cleveland had refused to leave the mills? USWA president Leo Gerard threatened as much at the AFL-CIO convention last December. On November 28 Cleveland's then-Mayor, Michael White, had sent an extraordinary letter to LTV CEO Bricker, warning him that the city would hold him and his staff "personally accountable in both criminal and civil proceedings" if anyone in management were to "take any precipitous action likely to result in civil unrest, disobedience or violence" at the mills. The word among workers was that if they occupied the works, the police would not intervene for the company. By then, however, LTV had already destroyed its customer base and supplier relationships. But what if workers had seized the operations before things became so desperate?

When city planners were considering a takeover of the property, it was unthinkable that they could hold it "for more than a nanosecond," in Warren's phrase, partly because once furnaces are idling and customers have scattered, it requires huge amounts of working capital--tens of millions of dollars--just to restart, with no hope of collecting any payment for at least three months. Timing matters enormously. "Cleveland could have been different," a person who preferred not to be named but has long experience of steel crises told me. "If the workers had said, 'We're not leaving.' If they had been willing to live in the plants for two months or however long it took, I think it could have been different. Someday, some group of workers at some point in the United States are going to do that, and people will rally to them."

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