Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mill Layoffs

Ohio Works Reunion video with footage of U. S. Steel Ohio Works

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!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Ohio Works of U.S. Steel

Ohio Steel Works and furnaces, view of west side, 1905” (Cropped) R. W. Johnston Studios. Public Domain

Today it is only remembered by Ohio Works Drive and the home of a few industrial companies. At one time, it was the glow in the night skies that we saw from the West Side of Youngstown and the place where the dads of many of my friends work. After the West River Crossing freeway was built you could look out your window in your car to see the mills stretching to the northwest.

At one time, the Ohio Works consisted of two Bessemer converters and fifteen blast furnaces built between 1893 and the turn of the century. Originally part of the National Steel Company, it was part of a series mergers with Carnegie Steel which later became U.S. Steel Corporation. When U.S. Steel took over it increased the Ohio Works output by 50,000 tons and modernized the Union Mills part of the operation.

Ironically, U.S. Steel was anti-union. Eventually one of the strongest steel worker unions, Local 1330 organized at the Ohio Works. According to Sherry Lee Linkton and John Russo, in Steeltown U.S.A., the organizing efforts went more smoothly at the Ohio and McDonald Works than at Republic and Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s plants, which were involved in the “Little Steel” strike of 1937.

World War 2 was a time of full production and some upgrades were made to the mills during the 1940’s and 1950’s, but little after that time. Warning signals came in the 1970’s with the rise of foreign competition. The Ohio Works was idled for a period in 1971 and the relighting of the furnaces was a big deal in 1972. At that time roughly 2800 went back to work. Then came Black Monday on September 19, 1977. The closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s operations was a warning sign. In January of 1978, word came of plans to close the Ohio Works and McDonald Works.

This was felt to be a betrayal of the efforts of local workers, who despite the lack of upgrades, met production goals and made contract concessions. Then an effort was mounted led by attorney Staughton Lynd and a coalition of community leaders, clergy and workers to buy the mills from U.S. Steel. U.S. Steel refused to sell, and the mills were idled in 1979.

Hope remained while the facilities stood. That ended on April 28, 1982, when dynamite charges were detonated under the four remaining blast furnaces, and they came tumbling down. Steel executives had special seating and a concession area. Workers had to stand behind a wall. It was the last time they did a public demolition. Paul Grilli describes his memories as a three year-old in 1978:

Back to April 28th, 1982. My mom brought me to our picture window, and opened the front door so we could hear the explosion. I remember looking over the roof of the Sebena’s and watching “the smokestacks” as I called them start to lean. You felt the house shake, and then you heard the explosion. It blew my young mind that the sound came later. I didn’t know much about physics at just shy of 3 years old.

Between the Ohio Works and McDonald, 5,000 workers were out of work. Today McDonald Steel Corporation utilizes part of the McDonald site. In 1982 entrepreneur David Houck was able to launch a specialty steel company with investments from 23 investors. One of the most significant shareholders was David Tod, descendent of the Tod family that played a critical role in the early coal, iron, and steel industry in Youngstown. The most recent figures I could find indicated 105 people work for the company in a lean, highly modernized operation. That’s a fraction of the 2200 who once worked on the site.

The Ohio Works were once one of the workshops of America, providing the materials that built our country for nearly a century. Those mills, and the Brier Hill Works across the river were one of the reasons we feared nuclear attacks. Many thought they were a target. I lived little more than a mile away on the lower West Side. Had the worst happened, we would have been wiped out. Little did we dream at the time of the devastation that U.S. Steel and the other corporations would bring to the Valley less than twenty years later. Now what we have are the stories of pride of those who worked there. If that was you or someone you know, I hope you will add to this brief history those personal histories which should be remembered. It should always be remembered that it was people that made our area the Steel Valley.