The Fight to Save the Steel Mills

For some years I have been practicing law in Youngstown, Ohio, a town of about 150,000 people on the Pennsylvania border that has been one of the major steel-making centers in America since the turn of the century. Thousands of families here depend on the steel mills for their living. Now the mills are in trouble. Some are closing down. In response—quite unexpectedly—the steelworkers have been demanding a say in the decisions to close down the plants, even the chance to take part in controlling them. How are they going about this and do they have any chance to succeed? The answers may have serious effects on the way industrial decisions are made, at a time when other large American companies want to cut back production or move their factories.

In September 1977, the Lykes Corporation, a conglomerate based in New Orleans, announced the permanent layoff of about 5,000 employees at the Campbell Works in Youngstown. These works are run by one of our town’s oldest mills, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, but since 1969 the company had been no more than a subsidiary of Lykes.

In November 1977, the Lykes and Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) corporations announced an intention to merge, and by June 1978, this was approved by Attorney General Griffin Bell, who overruled the recommendation of his Anti-trust Division. The merger took place in December.

As a result, the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company is being absorbed by the Jones & Laughlin Corporation, an LTV subsidiary. Jones & Laughlin has announced that by the end of 1979 it will shut down a second Youngstown steel mill, the Brier Hill Works, putting another 1,200 steelworkers out of work.

Brownfield and Greenfield

The first response of many steelworkers and others in Youngstown to the layoff of 5,000 workers at the Campbell Works was to blame the Japanese and the federal government. The Japanese were said to be at fault for having allegedly “dumped” steel below its cost of production in the American market; the federal government, for having permitted the dumping, because it opposed needed increases in the price of steel and, above all, because it insisted on costly environmental regulations.

The night of the day the layoffs were announced (known as “Black Monday” until black residents protested) the Central Labor Union, in an emergency meeting, endorsed a campaign to send petitions to Washington asking President Carter to stop steel imports, permit steel prices to be raised, and ease off on rules protecting the environment. More than 100,000 signatures were collected in four days, and on Friday of the same week, chartered buses went to Washington. It was a frustrating day. The president did not bother to send an aide to receive the petitions. The protesters met with the president of the national steelworkers’ union, Lloyd McBride, who told them that when a business goes bankrupt there is nothing to be done about it.

On reflection, some of the laid-off workers realized that in their panic they had endorsed the…

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