Appalachian Institute Profile: Steel & Iron

In the 18th century settlers moved down the Great Valley to the headwaters of the Tennessee and along Forbes Road to the headwaters of the Ohio, bringing with them the techniques of the thriving iron-making furnaces of the coastal areas. In the Allegheny Mountains and Plateau, the newcomers found good grade iron ore, limestone suitable for the "flux" which removed impurities from melted iron, and the hardwood trees needed to make the charcoal to fuel iron furnaces. As the 19th century began, the woods of Appalachia housed many charcoal pits and "iron plantations," industrial settlements grouped around an iron furnace. Indeed, iron production near Harper's Ferry helped prompt President Washington to place one of the new nation's two military armories there in 1796. 

By the middle of the 19th century, coal, in the form of coke, largely replaced charcoal in the production of iron. Iron making began to concentrate in localities close to varied means of transportation to assemble the raw materials needed for iron making, including the huge iron deposits in Minnesota's Mesabi Range. As railroads brought the products of new, urban iron centers into the mountains, the iron plantations in the woods began to close. In Appalachia, the iron industry of the Upper Ohio Valley proved a uniquely situated to take advantage of proximity to coal sources and of transportation from the Great Lakes. Soon Pittsburgh had earned the title "Iron City" and Wheeling "Nail City."

By the time of the Civil War, steel-production was beginning to catch up with that of cast or wrought iron. The installation of Bessemer converters in Ohio Valley iron mills after 1870 marked a shift of identity for the region from one of iron to one of steel. To work in the steel mills was to engage in a hard, dangerous, dirty occupation but the ironworkers had pride in their expertise and banded together in strong unions. Toward the end of the century, Andrew Carnegie and his allies pushed a policy of making workers mere adjuncts to increasingly more complex machines arranged in integrated plants taking ore and processing it into finished slabs and rolls. Carnegie and his allies decided that in order to make best use of the new technologies, the corporations would have to break the power of the unions. The bloody strike of 1892 at Homestead, Pa., gained national attention for the brave struggle of the workers on behalf of their dignity, but in the end the mill owners won.

Efforts to resurrect the steel workers' unions continued, but came in naught in the face of the concentrated economic power of such huge corporations as U.S. Steel and the ability to replace striking workers with new arrivals in the steel regions such as the Upper Ohio Valley - a number of groups of Slavs, Mexicans, African-Americans first entered the mills as replacement workers. However they entered the mills, in a generation the new arrivals would join in agitating for better conditions, to be replaced in their turn by new groups. During an ultimately unsuccessful drive to unionize steelworkers just after World War One, Mother Jones declared

"For the last four weeks I have been with the steel workers. If you want to see brutal autocracy, come with me to the steel centers and I will show it to you. The world does not dream of the conditions that exist there." (The Speeches and Writings of MOTHER JONES, P.202)

Grim as working conditions could be in the steel industry, the industry itself became emblematic of America's industrial power - tall smokestacks against the horizon, the night sky lit up by blasts from the converters, rivers of molten metal pouring from the casters. By the 1920's the Upper Ohio Valley produced more than a third of the national output of finished and rolled steel. When picture magazines wanted a exemplar of the Noble American Worker, they didn't show someone on an assembly line tightening bolts, they showed a steelworkers, muscles bulging, looking at a pour of steel.

The workers created a series of communities around the mills, with social halls, beautiful churches as large as cathedrals, and strong sports teams. Anna Egan Smucker's children's book No Star Nights captures the spirit of community life in steel towns along the Ohio, while the book's wonderful illustrations (Steve Johnson) capture the unique orange cast of the air of neighborhoods near the mills.

With the coming of the Great Depression, the air of steel towns became less orange as production slowed. Tens of thousands of steelworkers saw their jobs disappear or their working weeks shortened. By the middle of the 1930s, tens of thousands of steelworkers began signing up with the Steelworker's Organizing Committee (SWOC), an effort initiated by the United Mine Workers union. A great deal of labor strife in the Upper Ohio Valley was avoided when, to the astonishment of many, the United States Steel Corporation agreed in the March of 1937 to recognize SWOC without a strike. Philip Murray, head of SWOC and soon head of the United Steelworkers Union of America (USWA), fortified by decades of experience with the United Mineworkers and by a deep devotion to Catholic labor justice principles, navigated the USWA through dangerous confrontations with "Little Steel," corporations outside U.S. Steel.

He also led the Steel Workers in negotiations with an American government concerned about expanding military production in light of the war in Europe and Japanese expansionism in Asia. The USWA emerged from World War Two a powerful voice in American labor relations. Including the Independent Steelworkers Union (ISU) at Weirton Steel, the workers in the steel mills of the Upper Ohio Valley began the 1950s with unity across ethnic lines, with an ability to truly negotiate with corporate management, and with more attention than ever before being paid to health and safety issues in the workplace.

During the 1950s, both the steel corporations, in effect an oligopoly and after 1956 bargaining with labor as a solid unit, and the United Steelworkers of America (and the Weirton ISU) benefited from America's expanding economy. Steel prices, and steel wages went up and up. The Eisenhower administration, its attention focused on combating the 1950s inflation, prevented any rationalization of steel production through mergers. Impressed with the power of the steel industry, neither management, nor labor, nor the government took great notice of the fact that overseas steel mills were taking advantage of brand new technologies and that after 1959, imports of steel into the U.S. constantly rose above exports overseas of American steel. For a variety of reasons, among them high wages, complacent management, and subsidized overseas production, during the 1960s it became evident that foreign competition was a major danger to the American steel industry.

By 1982, the effects of this competition were clearly to be seen along the Monogahela Valley near Pittsburgh. That year journalist John Hoerr observed "an immense tragedy unfolding in the 'Mon Valley'." In And the Wolf Finally Came, the Decline of the American Steel Industry (Pittsburgh, 1988), he wrote that in the beginning of the 1980s, the steel industry is now operating at only slightly more than 30 percent of capacity, close to the record low of the Depression. Some twenty thousand steelworkers, or about two-thirds of the work force in the Mon Valley, are laid off. Most will never work again in a steel plant. The almost legendary mill towns in the valley - Homestead, Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton, Monessen - are being drained of their life's blood. (pp. 3-4)

The Steel Valley was fast becoming part of the Rust Belt. As the 1980s came to a close, most steelworks along the Mon and the Ohio were not just closed, they were being sold as scrap. Mill towns went into depression, young folk moved out, middle-aged workers took employment in low-wage service jobs. The titles "Iron City" and "Nail City" now only applied to brands of beer.

The steel producers which continued to exist went through massive reorganization - Weirton Steelwas saved by purchase by its employees in a massive ESOP in 1983. Workers in the river valleys took wage reductions, new facilities were built, and attempts were made at less adversarial labor relations. However, one need only look at the current newspapers to see that the travails of steel in Appalachia have scarcely ended. (See accompanying "Profile" of Tom Johnson and the mp3 link to Tom's "Ballad of American Steel".)

Imports still threaten steel along the valleys, firms struggle under the burden of the "legacy costs" of paying pensions to tens of thousands of retired workers, and now the rise of non-unionized minimills in the American West and the Sunbelt has eaten into the older plant's share of the national market. Not only that, but the minimills have no interest in the continued existence of the traditional industry on the Upper Ohio, witness the Oct. 25, 2002, letter from the minimills' Steel Manufacturers Association to the Emergency Steel Guarantee Board urging the board to deny a $250 million loan guarantee to Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

The implosion of the unionized integrated process steel industry during the last three decades and the initiation of cleaning technologies in steel plants have resulted in the polluted skies along the Ohio and Monongahela clearing. Anna Egan Smucker's No Star Nights ends with the admission that nowadays in the region's nighttime skies the stars shine bright. God-willing, during the 21st century they will still shine upon a steel industry in Appalachia.