On Disposability and Rebellion: Insights From a Rank-and-File Insurgency

Image Source: Cover of the book Homstead Steel Mill – The Final Ten Years by Mike Stout

Unfolding in the pages of Mike Stout’s new political memoir, Homestead Steel Mill: The Final Ten Years, is the radical history of a people too commonly believed to have none. It is a history largely absent from popular records of the political tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, though its energy, militance and imagination grew out of that era and extended, like so many fierce but near-forgotten political projects, into the 1980s. It is a story of class struggle in a society whose official scribes are mostly stupid about class when they aren’t willfully deceptive. It is a story of the built world – of some of the men and women who made it, and who, in one extraordinary moment in time, strove not just to halt their own unmaking but to dream something different and beautiful.

The title reveals this to be a tale of defeat. There would hardly be a history of workers under capitalism without that; violence, it must be remembered, is the nature of the beast. ‘Homestead’ – like ‘Haymarket’ and ‘Ludlow’ and countless other signifiers of workers’ challenge to the power of money over their bodies and their minds – was shorthand for bloody murder a century before Stout appeared on the scene. The last years of the steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, involved murder of another sort, more lethal than gunfire because it happened slowly, by memoranda from company suites, by lying language and the subterfuges of finance. When it was over, the bodies weren’t lying around to count. Homestead wasn’t alone in the raking. Where US Steel had employed 30,000 workers in seven mills in the Monongahela Valley in 1977, only 3,000 remained ten years later. By a standard calculus, each lost industrial job sunk five support jobs with it. Multiply that many times over, beyond the Mon Valley and the steel sector, beyond the 1980s, which set the pattern for mass layoffs and taught the country to live with insecurity, homelessness and household debt. What was left of the land, the communities, was euphemized as the Rust Belt, as if everything that had transpired there, the rise and decline of an industrial economy and every decision taken, had been a process of nature. The euphemism erases the workers’ defeat, which means it also erases their victories, their craft, the product of their hours and their sweat; in a sense, their life. It signals to children that their parents and grandparents had no power in the world, no art, no pluck, and that there are no alternatives.

Mike Stout recovers complex experience here, and reminds a new generation (and some of the old) that providing alternatives is the art of politics, that people provided some at Homestead and absorbed some lessons for the future. It is necessary to recognize the violence of the context, violence that was physical, psychological, economic; but what Stout lived and what he tells is not a sob story, nor is it romantic. The workers’ effort to control their own union, to make democracy real in Steel Workers Local 1397, to practice solidarity before and after the boom came down, to advocate for eminent domain and collective ownership in a Steel Valley Authority, is a study in human creativity, by turns thrilling and messy. It is an epic of political courage, and weakness, humor, intelligence, sometimes guile; of flawed and brilliant people acting together, thinking together, making mistakes, discovering skills they didn’t know they had, leaning on their strengths, paying for their blind spots, changing their circumstances. The book is, first, their record.

Back in the 1970s Studs Terkel’s magnificent oral history Working revealed the quality of time on the job and the inner life of workers. Mike LeFevre, a steel worker, probably from Chicago, where Studs lived and worked, told him then:

Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building – these things don’t just happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the names of every bricklayer, the names of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” … Everybody should have something to point to.

Homestead workers made beams for the Empire State Building. Their collective hand is embedded in the structures that millions encounter, unthinking, every day. Cross the Verrazano Narrows or the Golden Gate, that hand is there. Pose for a photograph at Rockefeller Center or the St. Louis Arch, it is there. Enter the United Nations building, curse the traffic on the Oakland Bay Bridge, depend on the Hoover Dam, it is there. Visit Carnegie Hall or the Frick Museum in New York, and the amassed wealth they represent is the surplus labor of Homestead workers, whose union Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, decided to break by armed force in 1892, aided by the state. Of the Homestead works themselves, which had sprawled for four miles, almost nothing remains. A few brick smoke stacks tower above a grassy slope near a shopping center and parking lots.

When Stout hired in as a utility crane operator in 1977, none of the mill’s 7,000 workers would have fathomed that within a few years they’d have nothing to point to. People were hired as lifers. The book brims with their names. Jimmy Cook, Ed Salaj, Bobby Pratt, Harry Brennan, Michele McMills, Ron Weisen, John Ingersoll, John Balint, Brian “Red” Durkin, Joe Stanton, Ed “King” Hamlin, George Tallon, Elmer Shaffo, Al Paisley, Rick Kornish, Norm Ostoff, Elmer Delledonne, “Twiggy,” John O’Toole, Tom Jugan, Ron Funk, Paul Glunt, Dave Horgan, Ron Mamula, Pat Halbeib, Tommy Allen, Jim Ridley, Gary Kasper, Jim Kooser, Frank Domagala, Nat King, John Pressley, Joe Nestico, Ronnie Pristas, John Deffenbaugh, Jack Blair, Joe Parkinson, Terry Bernh, “Indian” Joe Diaz… and that’s only to page 40. Many more follow, and more are unnamed. Crane operators and welders, riggers and hookers, boilermakers, motor inspectors and other maintenance workers, people from Open Hearth and the Forge Division, from the plate and slab mills, the machine shop and so on.

Some appear only briefly, deftly executing operations that would seem impossible with good machinery, let alone with the faulty equipment with which workers had to improvise. There is invention here, and cooperation – often required by the work itself, or necessitated by corporate negligence, or generated by the workers’ own creative will. Pride mingles with anger over the conditions of work; mixes with bluster, with alcohol and pot, with attention. There is danger here. Men suffer or thrive, sometimes both. And there is the terrible beauty of the forge:

When we rolled pipe, the pipe steel let off this red dust that hung in the air. It was mystical, wild, especially during daylight, when the dust was going up and the sunlight was coming through the cracks in the roof. It was like you were in a theater watching a play, and the play was industrial production.

The setting was the thing. This play had been running for a hundred years. Mike Stout first glimpsed it toward the end of a volatile period in national and world history, and that made the difference. They called him “Kentucky” in the plant, for his family roots and accent, but, like so many young people then, he had traveled what seemed lifetimes from the hidebound assumptions of his youth. He had got a social and political education as a hopeful troubadour in Greenwich Village, an antiwar activist, a yippie witness to the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, a denizen of San Francisco, a fundraiser for jailed Black Panthers, a worker in a hot shop at the Grand Central Station Post Office in New York, a participant in an SDS offshoot with a brief, sour acquaintance to left sectarian politics. Those experiences changed him, forced him to confront his prejudices and wowed him with the adventure of really seeing other people and living by his own lights. He did not go to Homestead to “organize the workers,” as some leftists were doing around the country. The mill was hiring, and the pay was good. Upon discovering the place was “a hotbed of union militants,” he writes, “I thought I hit the double jackpot lottery.” His book is thus, also, a contribution to the record of a time.

By the late 1960s, Vietnam veterans distrustful of authority began hiring into the plant. In 1974, black Homestead workers joined Alabama steel workers in suing US Steel for discrimination, the result being a federal Consent Decree that would bring more blacks, women and latinx into steel making, with equal hiring and promotional rights, at least on paper. Not all women entering factories at this time were liberationists – just as not all veterans, minorities or counterculture youth, also among the thousand-plus new hires at Homestead beginning in the mid-1970s, were political radicals. Their entry into the ranks, though, embodied a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time that had diffuse effects throughout society. Everyone had breathed what was blowing in the wind since the 1960s, and if it turned some people off it also made a critical mass less inclined to shut up because union bosses told them to, or to answer, “How high?” when a company foreman said, “Jump.”

The Homestead democracy movement ought to be seen within this era of rebellion.

Internationally, the workers revolt is famously pegged to Paris, May 1968; in the US, it is infamously connected to Memphis, though the sanitation strike recedes as backdrop to the assassination of Dr. King. For the corporate class, the rank-and-file revolt struck most acutely in Detroit, when, also in May ’68, 4,000 autoworkers walked off the job at Dodge Main, stopping the basic assembly plant for Chrysler operations nationwide. A protest as much against an insular, co-opted United Auto Workers leadership as against brutal factory conditions, the wildcat was led by a disciplined group of black workers who had been organizing since the 1967 Detroit riots. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers would challenge company-union collusion on the shop floor, contest in union elections, use walkouts, the courts, local politics and culture in an ambitious project until it fractured in 1972.

In 1965, the United Farm Workers entered the national consciousness with the grape strike and boycott, but its real exercise of worker power came in 1970/71, when California lettuce and vegetable workers executed and won the largest agricultural strike in US history. Their power grew, and in 1978/79, over the objection of Cesar Chavez, they orchestrated another sweeping strike victory. Chavez then purged the leaders from the union and blacklisted them with the growers.

Throughout the 1960s, miners in Appalachia had been wildcatting over safety, black lung disease and a corrupt United Mine Workers leadership. As explosions at ROTC centers, military labs and draft offices elsewhere in the country got the headlines, hillbilly saboteurs used the same tactic against exploitation and what miners called “environmental mayhem” by big coal and its political pawns. The summer of ’68 four men broke into the office of a strip-mining operation in Middleboro, Kentucky, hustled away the night watchman and destroyed a million dollars’ worth of equipment with the company’s own dynamite. “Appalachian guerrillas” (to their detractors, but actually union men, townspeople, small farmers and rural folk driven off their land by the devastation of strip mining) roamed the region the rest of that summer blowing up mining equipment wherever they could. In 1969, more than one-third of all miners in coal country participated in wildcats. Insurgent leader Jock Yablonski spoke of the union’s duty to secure the future, meaning a livelihood as well as the health of their communities and environment. As the year closed, 20,000 in West Virginia walked off the job following the assassination of Yablonski, his wife and daughter. Union president Tony Boyle was convicted of murder and conspiracy in 1974, by which point Miners for Democracy had overtaken the union. In steel, Ed Sadlowski challenged the United Steel Workers’ president for leadership in 1976, riding the wave of rank-and-file insurgency; he lost the election, but reformers who’d backed him, including those at Homestead, carried the democracy movement forward.

Underground newspapers, small magazines, mimeographed pamphlets – traditional media of rebellion, which proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s – had their equivalent in the publications of these workers’ movements. In Detroit, the League had Inner City Voice and the South End. California farm workers had El Malcriado until it became the voice box of Chavez alone. The coal fields had Miners Voice. Homestead had 1397 Rank and File, which “with a mill nearly four miles long and having four major entrances (including Carrie Furnace across the river in Rankin), … would serve to both inform and unite workers, who otherwise would never see or know each other. It was democracy in action.”

Through the paper, those same welders and maintenance workers etc. found themselves to be researchers, reporters, editors and paste-up artists; they had a new “something to point to” as editorialists, cartoonists, poets, songwriters. Workers wrote letters, debated issues and embarrassed foremen and superintendents in a feature called “Plant Plague,” exposing harassment or mismanagement. The invention and cooperation they exercised in the mill now had an additional use: expressing their own ideas, charting a course for their own organization, taking responsibility for a collective destiny. Stout had prior experience producing antiwar flyers and newsletters, and also put his love for songwriting to the service of the movement (his text is punctuated by lyrics). After the reformers won control of the local and he became an elected grievanceman, he surprised himself with his skill as an investigator, evidence gatherer and de facto lawyer. At arbitration hearings before a judge, company lawyers regularly underestimated the guy in the sleeveless shirt, jeans and rocker boots, and almost always paid for it.

‘Democracy,’ thus, meant more than being able to vote on your union contract and have accountable leadership, vital as those were. It meant creating the conditions in which people might be their full selves. It meant betting on the class. It signified the aspiration for a social movement: as the reform effort became an occasion for enjoyment as well as organizing; as the campaign to save Homestead adopted a regional cooperative vision; as the question of jobs interlaced with the question of the environment; as workers began to connect government indifference toward unraveling US communities with its simultaneous dismemberment of Central America; as the fight against plant shutdowns implied a larger political fight in the 1980s, represented by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, against the privatized, financialized, militarized values of Reaganism, which were fast becoming bipartisan. (The upper photo on the book’s cover depicts a 1983 protest against President Reagan in Pittsburgh by 4,000 angry Mon Valley workers and unemployed.)

An obvious question at this point is What happened? The book is, finally, not just an account, but an accounting. Stout conveys the euphoria of militancy, when time seemed to compress and so much flourished so quickly that anything felt possible. He is astute, throughout, to pitfalls as well. The short answer to what happened is that capital went on strike, with the full support of the state, minus a conscious politician here or there. (In fact, before capital struck it went on a decades-long slowdown in the form of disinvestment and disinnovation.) But Stout has written this book for today’s activists as well as for those who lived this history, so the union militants’ failings matter as much as their hopes and successes. They may not have won their fight even in the best of circumstances, but it matters that they were susceptible to division, that Red-baiting still had kick, that racism and sexism persisted under the scrim of camaraderie, that leadership neglected what should have been obvious priorities (aggressively enforcing the Consent Decree and fighting continuing discrimination against union members) and later stuck with a community alliance despite its ruinous tactics. It matters that flattery had force, that rumor could become a weapon. Solidarity, like democracy, is a practice. The members of 1397, flush with their swift victory over the union old guard, did not have enough practice time before crisis hit. But Stout’s eye is on the principle; he doesn’t let anyone, including himself, off the hook.

There is a contemporary import to the question What happened? It is writ large in current media and politics, and it affects us all. We have been living, since the late 1970s, in an extended period of backlash. The ’60s dreams of peace, love and freedom, themselves dramatic expressions of yearnings that have carried through history, have been absorbed by capitalism and sold back to us in the form of T-shirts, nostalgia and televised anniversary specials. That is the soft attack. The hard attack came on many fronts in different guises: assassination and COINTELPRO against the black freedom movement; formation of the Christian right and demonizing of the Equal Rights Amendment against the women’s movement; police repression and discriminatory legislation campaigns against the gay movement; organized hysteria over sex education and corrupting commodification against the sexual freedom movement; proxy wars and the New Cold War against the peace movement. To those should be added the regime of mass layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, antilabor policy, deindustrialization, community disinvestment (until areas laid waste became attractive for gentrification, corporate welfare or both) and kneecapping of the working class.

That last front of the backlash touched people in every other movement, and generations unborn. It is typically not included in rundowns of the anti-’60s backlash, in the same way that worker revolts are generally subtracted from the story of the movements for people’s power and authentic life. This is partly because the New Left of the 1960s distinguished itself from the Old Left of the 1930s in identifying the battlefield for change as primarily cultural, not industrial. It is partly because union radicals mostly didn’t win; because institutional labor saw itself as a partner with business, was committed to war production and held to the prejudices and parochialism that unions are paying for to this day.

But there are reasons that are harder to summarize so succinctly. In the corporate media’s compartmentalization of the era of upheaval, the working class was washed white, male, straight, old, conservative. White workers attracted rapt attention from reporters when they supported George Wallace in 1968, not so much when they were wildcatting in the hills and hollows of Appalachia the same year. Black radicals got headlines when they donned berets and posed with guns, not so much when, like General Baker of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, they expounded on in-plant organizing, or, like the Combahee River Collective, they conceptualized identity politics as both an anti-capitalist struggle and a struggle for emancipation from sexism, racism and homophobia – or, like the Black Panthers in Chicago in the late ’60s/early ’70s, they allied with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the hillbilly Young Patriots in the first Rainbow Coalition, which one member of the group called “a code word for class struggle.” Vietnam veterans were caricatured as victims of the counterculture, erasing their central role in the antiwar movement and their leadership in labor fights as late as the 1994-95 Staley lockout in Decatur, Illinois. Women were welded to abortion and other discretely gendered issues. Environmentalists were characterized in irreconcilable battle with workers. Homosexuals were imagined to inhabit some alternate universe that was either frightening or fabulous.

Much of this has to do with the biases of who was telling the story, but it reflects as well the success of the project of the New Right, which also emerged in the early 1970s (and is the source of the political stream that would eventually carry Donald Trump to the White House). Its goal was the same as the Old Right: to shovel as much wealth as possible to the ruling class, to crush or at least confuse opposition, and to exert US economic and military power unhindered anywhere in the world. Its exponents and political candidates could hardly say they wanted to destroy communities and redistribute people’s money upward to their real constituency; instead, they said, The libbers will destroy your family, the queers will recruit your children, the blacks will steal your money, the greens will steal your job. Whether Ronald Reagan believed any of that is secondary to the fear-based organizing strategy of the grassroots movement that helped bring him to power by 1980.

When, in August of 1981, he fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers, signaling to business that it should feel free to replace strikers permanently for discipline and profit, he revealed the primary agenda shrouded by the Culture War campaign. The result was, precisely, weakened families, hungry children, ill health, vanished jobs, embattled minority populations, giddy wealth at the top. Succeeding Democratic administrations played around the edges of compartmentalized identity, wielding sticks or carrots to various constituencies for political advantage, but sacrificing the common welfare to the goals of finance capital. The “Disposable American,” as Louis Uchitelle argued in his compelling book on mass layoffs, would become, like the Rust Belt, an accepted, seemingly unalterable feature of the landscape.

In a full accounting, there would be responsibility enough to spread around. That real conflicts and divisions existed, and still do, is unarguable. What the political and economic trajectory of this country shows, however, is that there is one fight, with many fronts. What the Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s strove to demonstrate is the tactical, not simply moral or sentimental, significance of “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Mike Stout does the same here. His history makes a political necessity of remembering. The cost of forgetting is too high.

With minor changes, this is the introduction to Homestead Steel Mill: The Final Ten Years.

And to PM’s, https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1082


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.