“Buzecky, Militich, Rodgriguez, Kowalak,
Thousands of Somebodies
From all over the planet.
Names made them different
Blue shirts and steel made them family.”
Robert Buzecky, Steel City, Stone City”
Mike Olszanski and I began our Steel Shavings issue “Steelworkers Fight Back” (volume 30, 2000) with Robert Buzecky’s “Steel City, Stone City.” Here is the rest of the poem:
Steel threads suspend
Giant sea hooks from overhead cranes.
Steel coils sharp as razors reach out
To slice the unwary,
Rumbling railroad cars and dump trucks
Carelessness and exhaustion
Strike others down.
The burial grounds not far from the mills
Now hold the steel men.
Their dates are carved in stone.
Between the dates is blank space –
Where they labored
At handwork, double shifts, sweated through
Their blue shirts, inhaled coal-dust air, smelled
The stench of burning coal,
And endured monster machines
And hammered pounded rendered hauled iron
This is not chiseled in the stones.
1979 Inland Steel photos by David Plowden, "Open hearth" and "Slagging ingots"
For my Calumet revisited talk on steelworkers I picked out quotes from interviews. The first two are from “Steelworkers Tales.” Growing up in the Block and Pennsy neighborhood of Indiana Harbor, Jesse Villalpando heard workers say, “Some day you’re gonna be in the mill. Everyone goes into the mill.” He graduated from high school in 1950, served in the marines, and became a welder at Inland Steel. He made good money, but it was a dirty job. Jesse told me:
In those days welders crawled around in grease. I’d crawl under the hot bed on repair jobs. You’d come out and be just full of grease and dirt. You’re in all the rat holes. You never got rid of the grease. It was just packed in. My mother would have to soak my clothes in bleach in a separate container before she washed them. That grease would mess up washing machines. A lot of people would send their clothes to industrial laundries. Later on, you would rent your clothes.
Pete "Chico" Fernandez described to me working in the foundry and tapping heats in the blast furnace:
It was great in the summer but cold in the winter. On the north end there’s nothing out there blocking the wind. Switches would freeze up. In the rain you had to slog through the water, come out of the engine, and throw that switch. Sometimes I was so wet I wouldn’t bother to dodge puddles. Once you’re saturated, you’re saturated. Some of the switches were underwater, and I’d jump into the puddle.
Then I got to the furnace floor. That’s the hardest place to work. It’s all physical, and you’re always doing something. There’s no lunch hour. You eat when you have time. Eventually I moved up to first furnace man. I was tapping heats, which is a great job except for the sulphur heats. Of 25 guys up there I was the only one who wore a respirator. The others would wear a handkerchief, and that didn’t do shit. Here it is, everyone’s coughing, and I’m just standing back there like nothing, except it would bother my eyes. The melter told me one night, “Chico, you’re the only sissy up here that wears a respirator.” And I told him, “Jerry, I’m the only sissy up here that ain’t coughing.”
This is how Chico ended our interview:
It’s an honor to be called a steelworker. When I put my occupation on a form, I enjoy writing down “steelworker.” People know what a steelworker is. That’s what I am. I am proud to be part of the steelworkers union, too.
Valerie Denney, a millwright at a Gary Sheet and Tin Pickling mill in 1977, told me:
I didn’t get outright sexual harassment like touching. It was more like, “Well, I’m going to get you for my partner and then we’re going to go down in the basement.” Millwrights have sort of a cowboy image. It’s a very macho outfit. It’s really just an act, but at first I had no method of evaluating how serious it was. As a millwright you carry a crescent wrench and a pair of channel locks all the time in your pocket. I’d thing, “Well, I’ve got my wrench if anything happens.”
Clearly there’s a pack mentality that goes on. You have a few outspoken people who set the tone. With the guys, the most outspoken leaders try you out and determine your mettle and then it’s fine. With a woman every single person has to try you out. That’s part of the reason it takes so long to get comfortable because you’ve got to run through everybody’s game. Everybody runs a game on you.
For example, one guy’s game consisted of first talking dirty and then putting up a Playboy pin-up. I thought, “Should I make a big deal about this? Is it just going to encourage him?” I waited until he was out in the bullpen and took it down and threw it away. He never put up another one. He probably knew I took it down but wasn’t faced with it directly and forced to respond.
Then he started reading dirty books out loud. I wasn’t morally offended but realized that it was some kind of attack on me to make me uncomfortable. So I said the first thing that came to my mind: I didn’t even mean it but it worked. I said, “Sometimes I get the idea that you guys are all homosexuals.” He stopped and never did it again.
I interviewed Mike Olszanski (above) about chairing Local 1010’s Environmental Committee at Inland that became very active once rank-and-file leader Jim Balanoff won election in 1976 as president, concentrating both on water and air pollution. Olszanski recalled:
Coke oven workers were dying ten times as often from lung cancer and seven and a half times as often from kidney cancer as other workers. So it was a health issue. For the first time in this area, steelworkers stood up against the company’s environmental blackmail.
Elaine Kaplan of Purdue Calumet invited me to be on a panel with John Brough, the head of pollution control for Inland. I asked Balanoff and some others to come for moral support. Brough was talking about what a great job his company was doing when Jim got up and said, “Brough, you’re killing people at that god damned coke plant.” Brough wanted to leave. It was all they could do to keep him from walking out in a huff.
When U.S. Steel closed their open hearths, they claimed that if it wasn’t for pollution regulations, they wouldn’t be laying off so many people. District Director Ed Sadlowski went to the papers and said, “Hey, wait a minute. They closed the open hearths because the BOFs are about to go on line.” It wasn’t the EPA that shut down the open hearths but labor-saving technology and corporate greed.
During the early 1980s the fathers of Vicky Rae Dickerson and Sam Hamilton were laid off or forced into early retirement. Vicky’s dad, a 20-year veteran, had been earning more than $30,000 a year. Vicki wrote:
My mother had never worked before in her life. She found a job at Harvey’s in Lake Station. She disliked every minute of it, and her salary was only $3.35 an hour, but it supplemented the unemployment and subpay (totaling less than $300 weekly).
Exactly one year after he was laid off, my father began subbing as a Portage school bus driver. Two months later, my mother quit Harvey’s and became a substitute driver, too. Eventually they became regular drivers, and the family was able to get on its feet again.
Sam Hamilton wrote:
My dad had been working for U.S. Steel since the 1950s but [was forced] into early retirement. As this process was unraveling, I noticed family changes. We had eaten out a lot. Now it was “No more McDonalds.” Family vacations were shorter and not as much fun. My mother started working, and my father began worrying aloud. He seemed always to be yelling at my sister and me and fighting with my mother. At times he'd come home drunk and end up passed out on the couch. After he got used to retirement, things improved. Actually many families were in worse shape than ours. I knew people whose utilities were turned off and who relied on food stamps. Many moved away to places like Houston.
In the Editor’s Note to a Steel Shavings issue covering the 1980s (volume 38, 2007) I wrote about the diminution in clout of organized labor exemplified during the record-long US Steel lockout of 1986-1987. Several of my students interviewed family members about how the lockout affected them. George Mandich told daughter Emily:
A few months into the dispute I'd come home from the picket line and lie down on our living room couch. You were just 18 months old and would climb up on my chest and promptly fall asleep for your afternoon nap. I, too, would doze or wonder how everything would work out. The saddest time was Christmas, not being able to give my family things like in years past and worrying that the company was going to make good on its promise to hire replacement workers. Fortunately the ladies group at our church helped out with a very generous Christmas basket.
During the lockout Norman Bikoff found occasional jobs with an outside contractor and worked part-time at a liquor store. He told Jim Lehr that nobody else wanted to hire him because they knew that as soon as there was a new contract, he’d go back to the mill. Lehr wrote:
At the liquor store Norman stocked the shelves, cleaned up, and carried boxes to customers’ cars. He wouldn’t get home until 11:30. At times his knees buckled on him when he was pushing himself too hard. His wife and two teenage children often stayed at his mother’s for days at a time. He was so exhausted from working two jobs that he’d just come home and sleep.