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This Day in Labor History: September 19, 1977

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On September 19, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company shut down its operations, laying off approximately 4100 workers. This event, which became known as Black Monday, was emblematic of the deindustrialization decimating the Youngstown economy and dooming it and cities like it to long-term decline and entrenched poverty it has not recovered from today.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube opened in 1900, one of many heavy industries establishing themselves throughout cities in the Midwest and Northeast in the Gilded Age. This company helped make Youngstown a steel town. U.S. Steel had large operations there. Republic Steel did as well. These steel mills made Youngstown. It was only a small town before the Civil War, growing from 3000 in 1860 to 45,000 in 1900 and 167,000 in 1940. Youngstown soon became the nation’s second biggest producer of steel, only behind Pittsburgh. The city became a home to thousands of immigrants, particularly Italians, Croatians, and Slovaks, who migrated for the brutally hard but comparatively remunerative work, at least compared to their home nations. But that doesn’t mean they were satisfied with their low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, and lack of a voice on the job. The fight to unionize these and the rest of the nation’s steel factories had been a long, hard, and even deadly struggle. But the success of the United Steelworkers of America in the 1940s transformed this hardscrabble town into one where hard work was still central to its identity, but where hard work also paid good wages with benefits that would raise workers into the middle class. It also increasingly attracted an African-American and Latino workforce; by 1977, 23 percent of Youngstown Steel and Tube workers were racial minorities.

Republic_Steel_Corporation_Interior

By the 1970s, the jobs were disappearing from Youngstown quickly. Youngstown Steel and Tube was sold to the Lykes Corporation, a shipping conglomerate based in New Orleans and who had little interest in running a factory that was struggling in the face of international competition. On September 19, 1977, the 4100 workers showed up on the job, only to be told they were being laid off. Over the next several weeks, they experienced their final day on the job and for many, their final day working in a steel mill. That was the end of not only an era of work, but of a way of life and a community identity. Throughout this period, the USWA continued representing its members as well as possible. But in the aftermath of the 1959 strike, the government and the industries that relied on steel began looking for international competition to make up the gap for the periodic shortages caused by frequent strikes. At the same time, American allies in Japan and South Korea began producing a lot of steel in modern mills for low prices. Soon, not only was the USWA cowed from more strikes, but the steel companies found themselves in a rapidly declining industry. American steel mills innovated and remained quite productive, but between 1969 and 1978, employment in American steel declined by 17 percent, a loss of 95,000 jobs.

If this was the only factory to close, Youngstown might have recovered. But the combination of foreign competition and newly unrestrained capital mobility meant it was repeated over and over. In 1979, the Brier Hill mill closed. In 1980, U.S. Steel closed its Ohio and McDonald Works. In 1985, Republic Steel shuttered its Youngstown mill. 50,000 workers in Youngstown lost their jobs during these years, in steel, other industries, and the stores and shops that relied upon steel wages for an economically healthy community. By 1992, only about 1000 people worked in Youngstown steel mills, compared to 40,000 after World War II. With companies able to close at any time without giving workers any time to prepare, it could be devastating. George Chonock was 62 years old when Youngstown Steel and Tube told him on a Monday that his last day would be Thursday. He had 3 days to prepare. Of course there was nothing he could do in that time. Companies also started letting workers know plants were closing by announcing at the bargaining table for the next contract negotiations, forcing USWA officials to spread the news, a last slap in the face of the unions they always hated.

As has happened more often than you’d think, local community members, in this case led by churches, tried to buy one of the old steel mills and run them as workers’ cooperatives. But this failed pretty quickly as the federal government refused to give the effort funding. People fought in other ways. When U.S. Steel shut its operations, workers occupied the company headquarters in Pittsburgh. But all U.S. Steel really had to do was wait them out. The companies had all the power here. A coalition of religious and union leaders filed a lawsuit, arguing for a new form of eminent domain that prioritized community property over private property that would stop plants from closing immediately like this. This went nowhere but is a really great idea and is part of the package of ideas we need to stop the New Gilded Age with extreme capital mobility.

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Conservatives, including the business leaders of Youngstown, responded with contempt for the workers. Local business leaders invited conservatives like Michael Novak and Irving Kristol to come give talks about how what the workers were really experiencing was creative destruction that they would soon overcome if they were deserving. Major news publications basically reported the same story. Business Week took the opportunity to blame environmentalists, even though pollution controls had nothing to do with it, despite the EPA telling steel mills to stop dumping wastes into the Mahoning River. Meanwhile in the real world, community decline set in fast. Between 1970 and 2000, the population of Youngstown fell from 141,000 to 82,000. Today it has about 65,000 people. By the mid-1980s, Youngstown had the nation’s highest arson rate. Enormous stretches of the city are abandoned. The sewer system does not work properly because it was planned for growth and decline means not enough water flows through to wash the wastes away, and then when heavy rains fall, the dilapidated system discharges into lakes in the city’s parks. The steel companies and their descendants have not taken responsibility for the long-term pollution they inflicted upon the city. And of course, this all inspired the famous Bruce Springsteen song.

I borrowed from a few different sources for this post, including Steven High, Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rustbelt, 1969-1984 and the essay by John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon in Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, eds., Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization.

This is the 158th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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