Reflection: Staughton Lynd on Youngstown's steel mill closings
Posted on 02/26/19 by Zach Schiller (he/him) in Work & Wages
With the shutdown of the General Motors Lordstown Assembly plant looming, Policy Matters Ohio asked Staughton Lynd for his reflections on the fight against plant shutdowns. Lynd, a leading labor historian and Legal Aid lawyer, worked as an attorney and activist with those who tried to keep the steel mills open in the Mahoning Valley and Pittsburgh. A Niles resident, he is the author of the 1983 book The Fight Against Shutdowns: Youngstown’s Steel Mill Closings. He wrote this with the assistance of Alice Lynd and Mike Stout, grievance chairman at the Homestead Works.
Is there anything you can do if your employer says the plant will shut down?
The following are thoughts about what to do if a major employer in your community announces a shutdown of its plant. They draw on a series of such experiences since the late 1970s in the Mahoning Valley and Pittsburgh.
These include closing of most of the steel producing capacity in Youngstown and nearby Warren, Ohio, in 1977-1980; closing of most steel manufacturing in and near Pittsburgh, in the early 1980s; saving for several years the Pittsburgh Nabisco Plant; formation of a strategy to make abandoned industrial facilities public property by using eminent domain; the struggle to save or reopen other industrial facilities in the Pittsburgh area, including the Dorothy Six Blast Furnace in Duquesne, and LTV’s South Side electric furnaces, and the Switch and Signal plant that made railroad transportation equipment; several years’ involvement in the successful campaign of retirees from LTV Steel to retain their benefits; and the recent decision by GM to stop production at Lordstown.
Before a closing:
1. Based on the Mahoning Valley’s experience, is there likely to be any notice before a plant closing is announced?
The answer is Yes and No. Until just before the “Black Monday” in September 1977 when the first Youngstown closing was announced, the Lykes Corporation, which owned the Campbell Works, apparently intended to close the facilities formerly owned by Youngstown Sheet & Tube, in northern Indiana. However, only days before the public announcement, a new financial adviser was hired and the Ohio facility was designated for closure.
At a more down-to-earth level, five or six years before the Brier Hill works closed, a crane operator took it as a bad omen that the cranes were not being repaired. If the XYZ machine had broken down again, and new parts had to be surreptitiously cherry-picked from machines in other parts of the facility, one might be told that maintenance was wholly inadequate and the place was being held together by chewing gum. After a shift when work went smoothly sentiment was likely to revert to the basic feeling in the community that the mill would be there forever.
2. Do whatever you can to stop the employer from moving the machinery out of the work site.
There are several reasons for this.
Reaction to a plant shutdown announcement tends to be followed by an initial burst of protest. But it is essential that a protest campaign begin before affected workers give up on the possibility of a collective response and begin to seek individual solutions.
In protecting machinery, you are saying that a way of life on which people depended, that took up at least 8 hours out of every 24, was good and, perhaps can be salvaged, albeit in a somewhat new form.
3. It is also essential that the protest demand immediate action that is perceived as potentially effective.
Protecting machinery both by leaving it in place and by preventing rust and other physical deterioration is something that can begin right away. When U.S. Steel announced the closing of its new Dorothy Six Blast Furnace at the Duquesne Works, members of the local union voluntarily winterized the plant so as to preserve its productive capacity. Union members also set up a 24-hour watch at the gates so as to be able to obstruct the removal of machinery promptly and effectively, should that become necessary.
4. Resistance can take place outside the factories as well as inside.
In Pittsburgh, there was an effective boycott or threat to boycott certain banks or financial institutions the particular facility threatened with closure depended on. Passing out thousands of pledge cards to withdraw monies from Equibank forced the Nabisco Company to reverse course and stay open for another sixteen years. The withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mellon Bank forced Mesta Machine to reverse course and give some 1,200 workers their pensions and severance pay. Banks are particularly vulnerable because any depositor can just walk in, withdraw all of his or her money, and shut that account down. It is a radical but nonviolent tactic.
After the Mesta workers received what they were owed, the United Steelworkers of America and a coalition of ministers abandoned this effective tactic, opting to direct their efforts mainly at churches. Had protesters been able to maintain the boycott, and clearly communicate its purpose to the general public, a participant comments, “who knows what concessions or jobs or reinvestment could have been wrung out of the bank and closing company.”
5. Remember, these are emotional issues, not just dollars and cents calculations.
Workers are likely to feel that the jobs they are losing are “their jobs.” The law says that if you walk across another person’s property for many years, you can acquire a property right known as an “easement” to use that particular path in that particular way. Another part of this feeling is pride in the final product and affection for the specific tools required to make it.
6. A word of caution: Not all workers or groups of workers are similarly situated.
While younger workers may manifest readiness to lock themselves to their machines, and engage in other forms of dramatic resistance, older workers who are nearing retirement may oppose “rocking the boat” that might endanger their retirement benefits. Similarly, white and African-American workers may be connected to the endangered status quo in different ways.
7. A plant closing affects everybody and you may find yourself reaching out to potential allies you don’t know well.
In Youngstown such allies included the local Catholic bishop, James Malone, and the Republican Congressman. At one very large public meeting attended by steelworkers from Pittsburgh as well as Youngstown, Bishop Malone told how he remembered that as a boy growing up in Youngstown his father, a steelworker, came home with blood on his face. He had been on a picket line.
As for the Congressman, he was dismissed as a plaintiff from our lawsuit.
But the point had been made: this was the whole community standing up to a corporation that had forgotten its promises.
8. It can be challenging or even impossible to raise the required capital to purchase a plant, machinery and land.
A rough calculation of what was needed in Youngstown and Warren to acquire any one of the mills that closed in 1977-1980 was $20 million.
Jimmy Carter was president at the time we needed the money. After visiting Youngstown and hearing from local leaders, he apparently adopted the advice of the banker who represented the capitalists of the “new Atlanta” and refused any help to Youngstown.
9. In considering how much capital you need, consider whether there is need for new investment in order to be competitive.
The amount of capital needed to modernize was actually much larger than the price of purchasing what already existed when various steelmaking facilities closed. Unless production could be modernized, a re-opened mill would find itself in competition with much more up-to-date machinery in privately owned steel facilities, and would be forced to close again. Every ton of steel made in Youngstown was made in outmoded open hearths. What was needed was a complete do-over of the “hot end” of the mill: either a Basic Oxygen Furnace (BOF) or electric furnaces to make the molten steel, and a continuous caster. We estimated that the necessary new investment would amount to at least $200 million. This was at a time when the total amount of capital that the federal government had set aside for the steel industry as a whole was $100 million in loan guarantees.
10. The steel industry itself could have provided the necessary capital.
This was not a wildly impractical hope. Less than a week before our case against U.S. Steel was to be tried in Youngstown, I conducted a deposition with William Kirwan, who was in charge of all U.S. Steel operations in the Youngstown area. To my astonishment, he brought with him to the deposition a glossy brochure in which he presented a plan to modernize U.S. Steel facilities in the Mahoning Valley.
The plan projected was to build electric furnaces adjacent to the rolling mills situated seven miles upstream from the Ohio Works where the steel was then being made. And as Mr. Kirwan explained it, first at the deposition and then in the trial, the basic idea was simple. Instead of having to ship the raw steel upstream in railroad cars, reheat it, and roll it into finished coils, the electric furnaces would make the steel close to the rolling mills that I could almost see and clearly hear from our home nearby. This move would obviously save money for the parent company by consolidating the first and last steps in production of finished coils.
But this was never considered by top U.S. Steel management. After carefully “laying a foundation” for my examination of David Roderick, chairman of the board of directors of U.S. Steel, I asked him why the company had not adopted and implemented the Kirwan plan. He answered, “I never heard of it.”
11. Was eminent domain a possibility?
Not long before we gave up our efforts in Youngstown, a city planner came to town and suggested that if eminent domain could be used to replace slum housing, why could it not be used to make possible public acquisition of run-down steel mills?
We checked it out. There are two elements that must justify a proposed eminent domain “taking.” The first is that the proposed acquisition must be in the public interest. This was no problem. The second and more formidable was that we were prepared to offer the present owner of the property whatever its “fair market value” might be. We saw no way to do this.
12. In a final Hail Mary attempt to resume steelmaking at the Homestead Works, Edgar Thomson, and other steelmaking facilities in the Mon Valley south of Pittsburgh, a plan was introduced to have the municipalities constitute themselves a “Steel Valley Authority” like the Tennessee Valley Authority, with power to acquire by eminent domain steelmaking properties abandoned by the private, profit-making economy.
We did not call this “socialism.” We said, if U.S. Steel and other privately-owned steel companies no longer wished to make steel in these facilities, we did. But the banks and big corporations of Pittsburgh bad-mouthed the proposal and we made the mistake of letting the United Steelworkers of America national union pick who would do the dispositive feasibility study. They picked Lazard Freres, a New York investment house. Lazard Freres said our proposal wasn’t possible, and that was that. Other feasibility studies had concluded the reverse, even naming the major customers. And so, despite the fact that close to a dozen municipalities including the City of Pittsburgh voted to be part of the SVA, we had to give up. Nothing could move forward without the capital to make it happen.
After a closing:
13. If there appears to be no hope for resuming production of products previously made at a facility, the community should be encouraged to imagine other uses for this space.
For example, when in Fall 2018 the owners of Northside Hospital in Youngstown announced closure of the hospital at the end of September, there was public discussion of the possibility that the space could be re-fitted for veterans, both to accommodate the need for prolonged rehabilitation and to provide sound housing for men and women unable to purchase appropriate shelter in the market.
14. If feasible, set up a picket line and invite people from the community to join you.
Members of the community have more expansive First Amendment rights to picket on public sidewalks and hold meetings in public parks than do workers at an enterprise threatened with closure. Imagine a business that demanded a free hand to combine jobs, or to impose 12-hour shifts without paying overtime, in order to stay open. If workers and supportive community groups set up a picket line, and began to communicate the message that the changes demanded were excessive and would affect the quality of the product, this action might well be more effective than filing a grievance or a National Labor Relations Board charge.
In Youngstown the movement for re-opening the mills went further, urging sympathetic individuals and organizations to set up separate “Save Our Valley” checking accounts. Of course we were unable to raise more than a token amount. What the effort showed was that workers and other residents were doing all that they could.
15. If you lack capital, start small.
In steel, for example, we in Youngstown should not have envisioned processing iron ore into molten steel at the beginning of the production process and rolling coils of finished steel at the other end when a mill first re-opened. We should have begun with a single stage in the chain of production like making and selling semi-finished steel slabs.
16. Never agree to a collective bargaining agreement that requires you to give up the right to strike or take other kinds of direct action.
It might seem odd to consider striking in response to a shutdown announcement. Just remember, your ability physically to stop the employer by direct action from carrying out its unilateral plans may be the most effective course of action open to you and your fellow workers. Section 7 of the Labor Management Relations Act gives workers the legal right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. This is the language that offers you some protection when you wish to strike or slow down. Use it.
17. If you are working at a place where a union is recognized, the collective bargaining agreement is likely to contain a so-called “management prerogatives” clause as well as a no-strike clause. Do what you can to get rid of it.
The “management prerogatives” clause appeared in major CIO contracts from the very beginning. The underlying concept is that workers should concern themselves with improving their wages and benefits, but leave running the plant to the boss. A decision to close a manufacturing facility is a leading example of the kind of decision protected by this clause. If you have a standard AFL-CIO contract, the “prerogative” to keep the place running or to let it close -- that is, the right to say yea or no about major investment decisions -- belongs exclusively to the employer.
Management has learned to use its prerogative in a way that encounters the least employee resistance. In Youngstown, steel mills were closed by one big decision affecting all aspects of production. That procedure ensured simultaneous protest from all departments and subsidiary facilities. Learning from shutting down Youngstown, U.S. Steel closed its famous Homestead Works one department at a time. Protest was minimal.
18. Re-opening a plant that never had a union, or is owned by a company that professes inability to finance all that the old union provided, may require you to experiment with new practices and ideas.
Standard labor practice is for workers who want to have a union to ask an existing union to conduct a campaign for union recognition, that is, to bring about agreement by the employer to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. The union in charge of the campaign will distribute forms supporting recognition and, when such forms have been signed by well over half of the individual workers who make up the appropriate bargaining unit, the National Labor Relations Board will hold a secret ballot election. If a majority of those voting favor union recognition, the law requires the employer to recognize the favored union and negotiate a contract with it.
One very important additional possibility is for a group of workers who number less than a majority to bargain with the employer and to win rights for those particular workers that can be extended over time to additional workers by struggle and negotiation. What the initial group has won is not kept to themselves as a form of privilege, but constitutes a beachhead for what can eventually be obtained for everyone. Those engaged in creating such “minority unionism” are protected by Section 7 of the Act, which protects from retaliation not only those who are already union members but anyone engaged in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.
The best example known to me was related by John Sargent, the first president of the CIO local union at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana. Local 1010 was one of several Little Steel unions that struck for recognition in Spring 1937. This was the strike that included the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in which steelworkers were shot in the back as they tried to retreat from menacing policemen.
Most labor historians consider the Little Steel strike to have been a catastrophic defeat for labor. This is because the strike failed to achieve the standard objective of union organizing campaigns, namely, agreement by the employer to recognize the union coordinating the strike as the exclusive bargaining representative on behalf of its members. But as John told the story it was a “victory of great proportions.” This was because the workers did not give up the right to strike and, if the company was intransigent on an issue, the workers were free to respond by direct action, for example slowing down the making of steel in the open hearths of a steel mill.
19. Do not forget retirees.
Most labor unions do not enroll retirees as individual union members. This leaves retirees free to act without the restrictions imposed by a contract requiring surrender of the right to strike during the life of the contract.
When LTV Steel declared bankruptcy in 1987, retirees formed their own organization which they named “Solidarity USA” in imitation of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
In spite of their advanced age, these folks were tough. Let’s imagine that ordinarily retirees could contact the company about their benefits only by waiting for hours on the telephone. Solidarity USA improvised a way around this frustrating obstacle. Instead of asking for an appointment they would tell the company that they would be arriving on a certain day at a certain time. At the designated date and time, chartered buses would roll in from western Pennsylvania, Youngstown and Canton. The company would politely invite our lawyer, Alice Lynd, into the building to talk with them. She would politely decline unless she could bring with her retirees able to describe the different kinds of problems they were encountering. The rest of us would stay outside and picket.
Approached in this manner, the organizations with which we sought to meet never refused us access. And when the company emerged from bankruptcy, LTV retiree benefits were basically restored.
20. Tax abatements are a powerful tool.
These days, when manufacturing is deserting one community after another, local and state governments may be tempted to offer a reduced tax rate to a company that commits to locate or stay in the community. Obviously, if the use of abatements becomes a general practice, a so-called race to the bottom is inevitable, eroding the tax base needed to support public schools and other public services.
Workers and their communities should demand to see any and all existing and proposed tax abatements for a company doing, or thinking about doing, business in the community. Such public records should be available to any citizen desiring to see them. Companies receiving abatements should provide good pay and working conditions, public officials should carefully consider whether abatements are necessary, and the amounts of the abatements should be in line with the economic benefits.
21. If there is a local union at the workplace where shutdown is threatened, it should undertake responsibility for the welfare of its laid-off members, to the extent possible.
Local 1397 at the Homestead Works developed an elaborate food bank for members not on the job, and raised money for it by a series of musical events in Pittsburgh featuring nationally-known performers.
Local 1397 also worked closely with a committee that offered assistance to laid-off workers in obtaining unemployment compensation.
22. What kind of community are we?
Ultimately, confronting a business that wants to leave town is a matter of self-respect. The Lynds have lived in these parts only 43 years. We know, but not as deeply or intimately as many other local families, what it means if children can no longer find work in town, if it becomes impossible for the extended family to gather at the dinner table two or three times a week, if more graduating seniors at the local university plan to leave town than to stay.
When companies can uproot themselves and leave behind a mass of rubble instead of a factory people thought would always be there, something goes out of the heart and soul of a place.