Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday

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Photo by Stu Spivak [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Most of the posts I’ve written about Youngstown are about good memories. This one isn’t, but September 19, 2017 marks forty years since Black Monday. Youngstown never has given up, but it never has been the same.

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, no longer locally controlled, issued this statement:

“Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, a subsidiary of Lykes Corporation, announced today that it is implementing steps immediately to concentrate a major portion of its steel production at the Indian Harbor Works near Chicago. . . .The company now employs 22,000 people. The production cut-back at the Campbell Works will require the lay-off or termination of approximately 5,000 employees in the Youngstown workers.” (cited in Robert Bruno, Steelworker Alley, p.9).

Five thousand people and their families faced the lost of a major income source, and work generations had counted on for a career. Between 1979 and 1980, U. S. Steel left Youngstown. By the mid-1980’s Republic Steel declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the big splash of Black Monday rippled throughout the Youngstown economy. It is estimated the area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and 400 satellite businesses.

There were probably multiple causes, including suburban malls and plazas, but McKelvey’s (Higbee’s) closed a couple years later, leaving my father without a job at age 59. Many younger workers left Youngstown to find work in other cities, many moving south and west. Older workers like my dad found whatever they could locally, to get by until retiring, usually at much lower wages. At the time, my wife and I were starting out our lives together and living in Toledo (a city that suffered similar catastrophic losses of automotive manufacturing jobs later on). When we heard the news, we realized that we would not be returning to the same Youngstown that we had grown up in when we visited parents. Gone was the glow of blast furnaces lighting up the valley at night.

I could go over all the history of attempts to re-start the mills, or lure manufacturers to Youngstown, or talk about all the reasons the mills failed. Others have hashed all that out. All I can say is I’ve never had much tolerance for those who blame workers or followers or circumstances for failure, particularly if the ones doing the blaming are management or leadership (I say that as one who has worked in management).

When someone dear to you dies, you grieve and face how life will be different after the loss. I remember the anniversaries of my parent’s deaths. As the years pass, I probably think less of the loss than of what we had. I also realize we can never go back to that life, or bring our parents back.

Perhaps that’s what the fortieth anniversary of Black Monday is like, as well. We grieve what the Valley lost, remember what was good, and maybe learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. We learn not to put all our eggs in one economic basket, and that we no longer can count on a particular type of job always being there for ourselves and our kids. We learn that ultimately the company won’t look out for us, nor can we count on the government to look out for us. And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.

For those who will be in the Youngstown area on September 19, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society is hosting “Remembering Black Monday: 40 Years Later” at the Tyler History Center from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. A panel of historians and community leaders will discuss the impact and legacy event. This is a free event. More information is available at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

19 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday

  1. Thank you for sharing this memory of the upcoming anniversary of “Black Monday” for Youngstown, Bob. I grew up in Struthers, and the youngest of 14 children. My dad worked in the power generating plant “Boiler House #5” when he retired in 1950’s, my oldest brother John W Gura worked, I believe at the Brier Hill location, also had a 1st cousin that was a VP in engineering, Carl Lucas. My dad would walk from northside Struthers to the Campbell Boiler House #5, 4 miles, saving 10 cents, bus fare, That was a very SAD day in Youngstown and surrounding area cities & towns. He worked there since late 1930’s.

      • I work in the Maritime industry and some times loading and unloading iron ore pellets in the Indiana, Harbor area (across from Chicago) to what is now called Arcelimittel, Steel in which is the Indian (India) version of The buy out of US Steel.

  2. A very close family member lost a great good paying job when US Steel closed. Sadly he never found decent work with good wages and benefits. He slowly became very depressed and lived a very morose life.

  3. I agree Bob. Many, many families were impacked. These workers started working at the steel mills right after high school and anticipated the “gold watch” or at least a fine pension. In my opinion, the steel executives abandoned the Mahoning County.
    Just my two cents–thanks for bringing this topic to us.
    Michelle Humans White

  4. Pingback: Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Your Favorites of 2017 | Bob on Books

  5. I am not a native y’towner but moved there in 1974 to work at Youngstown/Mahoming Co Library. Met my husband–now of 40 + years–also not a native but who came to y’town to work at GF in 1972. We bought our first house in fall 1978 in north y’town off 5th Ave. We left in 1982 as GF was closing and moved to Phila to take new jobs. It took us until 1991 to sell the house–for less than we paid in 1978. All a result of Black Monday and its ripple effect thru y’town.

  6. Great Story, thank you for sharing. My Dad was one of those “5,000” men who lost their job on Black Monday, I was a high school sophomore at the time. Thankfully, he was able to “bump” into a spot in the “seamless finishing mill”, in the spring of 1978 after the the process of ‘early retirements’ and final terminations settled down. He was able to “retire” a few years later, only to later lose his supplemental retirement benefits after Lykes had mismanaged the retirement fund. Sadly, many communities across the country have lost solid paying manufacturing jobs which have NOT be replaced. I moved away after college, but the Mahoning Valley will always be “home” in my heart!

    • Sally, thanks for sharing your father’s story. You hear big numbers and sometimes fail to realize each was a person with hopes, dreams, and dignity. There are so many towns across Ohio, and across the country with similar stories.

  7. When I speak which is less often now that I am retired I always say if you get to close to me you can still smell the graphite on me. I tell my audience no matter how far I go I will never leave the steel mills of my hometown. I worked the open hearths at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. My bothers worked at one time or another at the open hearths at US Steel. You are right Bob the glory of Youngstown was always it’s people. Black Monday meant my family would scatter in search of opportunity. We would would get advanced degrees and prosper but we all hold dear in our hearts those steel mills of our youth.

  8. I grew up in YO. My father worked at Republic Steel for 57 years. YES 57 years. He left at age 75 when they shut it down. Youngstown– I still live here in the area — has a lot of really good people with great hearts. I am grateful for your article. I get upset when people only talk about YO as rustbelt or don’t look at all the great things going on here now. Much to be proud of! The city is smaller, yes, but look at YSU, downtown alive and full of good restaurants, the Youngstown Incubator, and companies such as Vallourec, and Turning Technologies. There is life, hope and opportunities for good jobs and quality of life. It is a good place to raise a family and the people in the area are continually working to improve. I work with the Ursuline sisters of Youngstown and their ministries for poor women and children and their compassionate outreach to those left aside are just one example of all the life and goodness here. Thank you!!!

    • Eileen, thank you so much for your comments. You are an illustration of what I wrote: “And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.” And your father must have been amazing!

      • My father was truly amazing. He went to the old “y” College at the YMCA when it started up, then Youngstown College at night school and later was accepted into medical school at. St. Louis Univ. but he stayed at the mill to provide for his mother and later an Aunt. He was brilliant but very committed to taking care of family and put that ahead of himself. He never was bitter or felt sorry for his choices and after marrying at age 43 he was a loving extraordinary father.

  9. Bob,
    Thanks for sharing this great tribute! My family is from Youngstown, for several generations back. Many relatives worked in all the different mills and some stayed in the area. I moved with my family as a kid and returned to Youngstown for high school and college at YSU. I remember the impact of that announcement as a gray shock set in over every person I knew at the time.

    The sad truth is that the decision was coming for more than a decade before it was announced. You are right that there is a lot of blame to go around, and having spent my entire working career in some form of management, I agree that short term gains and a lack of rational thinking most likely led to the demise of the mills.

    At the same time as the demise of the steel industry was taking place, Chrysler was slowly imploding, and Detroit was heading down the same drain. But the difference was leadership that could build bridges between management, labor, customers, government officials, and literally sell the concept that saving the business was in the best interest of “everyone”. If Sheet and Tube / Lykes had a leader like Lee Iacocca maybe things could have been different.

    But in all honesty, those mills needed major investments in the 1960s and just ran themselves into the ground by the time the announcements were made. It’s sad.

    The key is to not repeat it. I hope the employees, local officials, national officials and the public realize how lucky the valley is to have General Motors in Lordstown,, and do the proactive planning to make sure that there is not another disaster for Youngstown. Remember, that complex was built in the 1960s and needs continuous investment to remain relevant. It requires continuing education to keep its’ workers relevant, and needs enthusiasm to make sure the customers keep buying the products.

    I long since moved away, but have kept ties to the city all my life. I hope for the best, and pray that complacency does not destroy what’s left.

    • Michael, thanks for writing. I do hope both Youngstown and the country at large can learn from this history. Sadly, short-term profits seem if anything more important now than even then.

      • That is true, Bob. When Sheet and Tube was run by locally owned management led by James Campbell in the 1930s, they reinvested roughly 10% of all gross profit back into technology, generally keeping up at the time. After his departure, accountants took over and “analyzed the data” and determined that there were better places to get a better return on investment, like ship building, and expansion into ancillary ventures. Over a decade or two, the facilities became so outdated that there was really no place to go but out. Depreciation under GAAP rules were there to encourage a recognition that technology always needs to be updated, because it is always going obsolete. Failing to reinvest at the depreciation rate is a conscious business decision to run the business into failure, then walk away. The sad part, is that the people impacted could not see that t is not just one thing that would create a difference, but a lot of things that have to happen together. I enjoy your posts!

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