Long before Black Monday, a reality steel workers dealt with were periodic layoffs. During economic slowdowns, demand for steel dropped. Sometimes, in preparations for strikes, companies would build stockpiles. Layoffs could follow.
That’s what happened in the summer of 1971. The companies and unions averted a strike. Six days after the new contract had been approved, layoffs occurred all over the country. In Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, 47,000 workers were laid off. In Gary, Indiana, 34,000 workers were idled. And in Youngstown, 2,700 workers at U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works were laid off on July 17.
One big difference between strikes and layoffs is that the latter were eligible for unemployment benefits. In 1971, the average hourly wage was $4.57 an hour (the contract increased that by about $1 an hour) or about $183 for a 40 hour week. Unemployment benefits came to an average of $110 a week plus supplemental benefits. Many workers, at least at the beginning, thought of this as an extended vacation. It was a good time to take on remodeling projects–at least as long as the unemployment benefits lasted.
It was 50 years ago on February 4, 1972 that the announcement was made that workers were being called back to the Ohio Works. It was a good thing. Their unemployment benefits, set to expire in January, were extended by thirteen weeks. Five open hearths were being readied, with production to begin by February 14. One blast furnace would be started up on February 18 and rolling mills would begin on February 16.
The one hitch was that not all 2700 would be called back at once and the article in the Youngstown Vindicator does not indicate the initial number being recalled nor whether all eventually would be. That was the uncertainty that the fathers of many of my friends lived with, as they wondered if they would be back to work before unemployment ran out. What began as a vacation and a chance to work on home projects became a time of belt-tightening, of looking for side jobs, and checking in with the union local (in this case, local 1330) about any news about their jobs.
Working in the mills was hard and dangerous work. But the wages allowed the children of immigrants to own homes and begin to climb the economic ladder. But it was precarious in many ways besides working conditions, in this case a nearly seven month layoff. There really wasn’t anything you or the unions could do. Perhaps, though, it was a warning of what would come later in the decade of the 1970’s.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!