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.
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.