A number of sociologists apparently considered steelworkers part of the “middle class” because they had achieved middle class earning levels. Robert Bruno, in his study of steelworkers in Youngstown, suggests that the workers themselves identified as being part of a “working class” that was distinguished not only in their work context but in their community life and class values. I grew up in Youngstown, with many neighbors who worked in the mills, so I had a personal interest in this account.
Bruno’s book begins on a personal note, as he learns his father, a retired steelworker living in Struthers, Ohio, just downriver from Youngstown, may have lung cancer (it turns out he did not). This led to a series of conversations with his father that turned into research consisting of interviews with a number of retired steelworkers throughout the area who worked in the mills from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, as well as historical research studying steelmaking in the Mahoning Valley and the labor union movement among these steelworkers.
Bruno begins by exploring the housing and community patterns that developed around the steel mills, showing how workers (as opposed to management or people in other professions) tended to concentrate in specific housing areas that grew up around the mills and that class identity shaped the life of neighborhoods as well as on the shop floor. He then identified three forms of social interaction that reinforced this identity: informal relations and visiting among neighbors, churches and recreational organizations such as bowling leagues, and unions. He movingly speaks of how the unions were Santa Claus to the kids of workers during hard times and how they provided gifts when parents couldn’t afford them (my wife, who grew up in a union home in Youngstown tells similar stories of her childhood).
The chapter titled “Fried Onions and Steel” explored life on the shop floor and the efforts workers made to turn dangerous work and a demeaning atmosphere into a place with a little humaneness. At the same time he explores the conflicts that arose between class solidarity and racism–whites and blacks developed a sense of teamwork, yet blacks were redlined out of worker communities and were limited to the lower pay grades of work until the advent of the Civil Rights movement.
He explores the economic aspects of workers lives. This chapter reminded me of all the times I’d heard of layoffs, walkouts, and strikes and how precarious earnings were for steelworkers. Good when the economy was going well but pretty chancy at other times. I remember many workers had second jobs as handy men, painters, electricians, bricklayers and other kinds of work. Bruno talks about this and how it was a necessity if steelworkers were to keep pace with the economic growth of the country.
Part of the element of working class identity was the adversarial relationship that often existed with management which extended from the foremen up through top leadership in the companies. Bruno notes that contrary to Marxist theory, the workers didn’t want to nationalize the mills and overturn the hierarchy. They simply wanted safety, a reasonable share of the earnings reflecting their hard work, and to be treated with respect. When management didn’t respond, workers turned to alternative tactics to subvert the process and told stories including the “wheelbarrow story” (one we had heard growing up!) to celebrate worker prowess at robbing the company blind.
Bruno concludes with recounting the closures of the big three steelmakers in Youngstown, first Youngstown Sheet and Tube, then U.S. Steel, and finally Republic Steel. But he also finishes with a summary of the values of working class that I thought rang true to both my own experience and blog interactions from my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts. He writes:
In Youngstown, the working class at their best moments practiced a form of human interaction conducive to building a more equitable and just society. They valued cooperation, mutual aid, collective work, common needs, personal dignity, and equality of condition. Neighbors were expected to be cognizant of each other and provide mutual support, usually without being asked.(p. 162)
This book is not only a rich source of material that gave language to the identity and values of the people around which I grew up but also for the personal narrative of the author and his relationship with his father, and the friends of his father who made steel in Youngstown.