Travels with Ghosts, by Bill Yund

by Jul 13, 2017History, Latest Postings, Stories by BHF members - Our Blog

You may have seen artwork here, in our emails, on the note cards and bookmarks we sell, and certainly on the banners at the Pump House. All are original creations of BHF member Bill Yund. And Bill writes too ~ here’s his story:

Travels with Ghosts

“…People do not see the forest for the trees.”
It seemed to me that this applied to some of the steelworkers I encountered while working as an industrial insulator in mills along the rivers during the 70s and 80s while the once powerful industry rapidly declined.
I had advantages, perspective-wise. I didn’t have the generational background in steel that so many steelworkers had. My brother was in the mill as a master carpenter for a while, but disliked the schedules and call-outs and left. If one’s father, uncles, grandfather, brothers and cousins had all worked in the mills over decades it was easy to believe that the industry was simply in one of it’s periodic slumps. No big deal. “The mill always comes back,” I was told more than once.

Working in one mill made it easy to believe needed maintenance was just being postponed until circumstances improved as they always had over the years. But a mindful construction worker hitting jobs in numerous mills, factories, chemical and other manufactories might notice a pattern. Some industries were looking to the future and some didn’t seem to give a damn.

The first mill I worked in (1969 or 70) was the Homestead Works. It was for only a few weeks. We packed a cold box with vermiculite and I worked on pipe risers from a bosun’s chair for the first but not last time. Some years later I spent a few weeks a upriver at the Edgar Thompson Works. Those were my only jobs in those historic mills.

I can’t recall exact chronology or even all the names but there were many other steel mills. USS, J&L, LTV, Wheeling-Pittsburgh (later Wheeling-Nisshin) Weirton Steel, B&W, Midland, Colt, Crucible, Shenango, as well as ancillary and related industries; molybdenum plants, foundries, fabricators and more. Most were USW, one was an independent union, one was UAW, some were non-union. Most are gone now. In between were power house jobs, chemical plants, hospitals, schools, universities, churches, commercial buildings, malls, and others, which makes it hard to remember all the specifics.

But here’s a few.

For me, the first hint of steel decline came at Aliquippa J&L/LTV in the early 70s. They were putting in an environmental system and that seemed a promise to the future. But as I looked down on the piping I saw something I’d never seen before. It was imported! Made in Italy. I was told there was at least a small piping plant right there in the mill, and across the river a seamless pipe plant either existed or was soon to be built. There were others around. How could it be less costly to ship heavy steel all the way from Europe? Suddenly cheap foreign labor was in our own back yard, and there was more, and worse, to come…

I worked at the Clairton Coke Works around 1974-75.
Once, working on a tower, my partner and I both slumped. We didn’t pass out but strength suddenly left us. We never saw or smelled any cause and the weird sensation lasted only a short time, but we both felt it. Something in the air…

On another day I cut a finger on the sharp metal we used to cover the pipe insulation. I tried to tape it up myself but it kept bleeding. I told the foreman I had to go to the local E.R. for stitches. He said if I brassed out he’d have to dock me but if I wanted to try the infirmary in the plant he could keep me on the clock. I did that. It was interesting.
I saw a guy by the entrance in a wheelchair, just sitting there reading the paper. There were a few other guys sitting around. I heard they were there to avoid putting them on the “Time Lost to Injury” list. They weren’t, or couldn’t be, working, but on the books they were “at work”.
When the doc got to me, he didn’t look like someone who had been at the top of his class…or if he’d even been to a class. He looked like he’d had a damned rough night. The cut was deep but clean. He doused it with disinfectant and got his needle and thread.
“Don’t I get a shot of novacaine?” I asked.
“One needle is like another.” He said.
Maybe he was right but it hurt like all hell. Three stitches. There’s a lot of nerves in fingertips. Clear message: Don’t expect TLC at the mill infirmary. But I guess he did OK. It healed.
I took the stitches out myself.

I did a small project on top of the coke battery. It burned a hole through my work boot.
A few women were being hired. There was a USW laborer working in our area, pushing a wheel barrow. A young black woman followed him around. He was older, white. He bitched about her. He said he should have been given a young guy to do the heavy work, but now he was stuck with her and had to do it all himself. But the fact was that he wasn’t letting her touch anything. So she just walked silently behind him.

Worked at another coke plant, Shenango. There was a pipeline running over the quencher portal. We worked off planks above it, following the pipeline. Every time we heard the quencher car coming, we hustled to the side to avoid the billowing steam.

At a later job at Aliquippa there was reason to suspect that management might instigate “fake news”. About 8:30 we heard sirens. We were working high enough to see far down the plant (it stretched miles along the Ohio River) and could see the flashing lights of police and emergency vehicles.
It was really cold, sometimes well below zero in the mornings. There wasn’t much heat in the job trailer so we took coffee break in the canteen. Usually the same steelworkers were there on their own break, but that morning an unfamiliar guy was loudly talking about how a steelworker had fallen and died because he came in drunk.
I asked one of the steelworkers, “Who’s that and why is he telling everyone that the dead guy was drunk?”
“I don’t know,” muttered the steelworker. “…never seen that guy before.”

I worked one last time at Aliquippa. I think it was in the late 80s or maybe early 90s. The huge, enormous mill and nearly all the steelworkers were gone, and the little town of West Aliquippa sat on the empty flats like a sad flower pot on a huge empty table. Inexplicably to me, they were putting in a walking beam furnace on one of the few buildings on the vast site. I don’t know if it’s still there today. Maybe, but most things aren’t.

Weirton Steel isn’t there anymore.
It was immense, and employed thousands of local people. I worked there twice, maybe three times if I count a connected grease facility when they were trying to clean up the place after it became an ESOP. It stank because the company had neglected it.
But in 1980, I worked on Browns Island, part of Weirton Steel. In 1972, seven insulators had died there in a gas explosion in a new coke battery that killed twenty-one people and trembled the town.
We weren’t near that particular spot in 80, we were in the coal field flats. It was a hot summer and hotter here because acres of ground surface were black with coal dust.
We were allowed to use an empty union meeting room to clean up and eat. It was blissfully air-conditioned. That ended when one of our guys got stupid and left the rest room a mess when he washed off the coal dust all over him. Dumb ass.
The union there was an independent company-cosy union, not AFL-CIO. They weren’t always fond of outside building trades coming into “their” mill. We found a copy of their proposed demands for negotiations and it wanted the Trades banned (even before our dumb-ass messed up their rest room). They called us “super-suckers”. Not sure why.

But that wasn’t uncommon in the mills and plants where workers felt that any and all work done in “their” plant belonged to them, especially when their jobs were threatened. The Building Trade’s position was that we didn’t want to make steel or any other product. We just built buildings and systems. We built them more cost-efficiently and our wages didn’t undercut anyone.
When National Steel Corp. decided to shut or sell Weirton Steel, the independent union suddenly became solicitous of other unions. They needed help and wanted support. I made cash donations three times: at our union meeting, on the job, and at a support event in downtown Pittsburgh. Later, when they became employee-owned, they decided to keep us out whenever they could.
Regardless, they’re gone now.

Not far away from Weirton is Follansbee WV. I worked there at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and later at what became Wheeling-Nisshin Steel. Wheeling-Nisshin was a revelation. I’d never seen a steel mill so damn clean and automated. They were setting up, rebuilding and re-organizing (non-union). Japanese personnel were there to get the place on it’s feet and train some of the former steelworkers who had been re-hired. Other American workers reportedly were even sent to Japan, sometimes with families included, to be trained. As far as I know Wheeling-Nisshin is still running, now entirely owned by Nisshin. They make light gauge coated steel.

The last mill I worked in was Hazelwood coke works. I went there for a short weekend job but stayed for seven months. No Wheeling-Nisshin sparkle here, the place was filthy. The decline of steel was a dismal fact by then, but they were holding on. There was a lot of gray hair under the hardhats. I told one of the steelworkers that the place looked like an old folk’s home. He said many of them had been transferred there from closed mills elsewhere. They had seniority and were just trying to make pension. He said he was retraining in computers but it was a weak lifeline. He doubted he’d get a job at his age, and if he did it wouldn’t pay well.
While I was there, they put out a call for new hires. They wanted a handful of maintenance people. Busloads of applicants showed up. It was sad. A few years later, Hazelwood went down. I guess Clairton and small specialty steelmakers are all that’s left now. You could see the decline.

Increasingly in the mills I worked in, jobs were smaller. Needed maintenance was left undone. Operations were phasing out. Workers with 20 years were being let go. Still, many refused to believe it was over.
A neighbor of friends had only two years in the mill when he got his final check. He used it to buy a big above-ground pool.
“It’ll give me something to do until we get called back,” he said. I told him that I knew of guys with twenty or more years who had been canned and saw little hope of returning. I asked why he thought he would.
“My whole family has worked in the mill. We always get called back.”
The guy had a college degree. Like others, his family had supported him in school, hoping he’d avoid the mill. He never even tried. He eagerly went into the mill as soon as he graduated.
Two years after that pay-off check, his pool was scummed over. No money to clean or refill it. No job. The marriage was in trouble, his kid was in therapy. His wife was trying to sell plastic kitchenware to make ends meet but many of her friends had little money to spare.

He wasn’t alone of course. Tens of thousands lost jobs in steel and supporting industries. There was a tsunami of heartbreak. Families broke up, alcoholism increased; there were suicides and deaths. Crime increased and municipalities struggled to support police as tax revenues fell. In the then-rural area where we live, spotlights on otherwise darkened pick-ups searched for deer, and shots were heard. Crudely butchered carcasses left beside roads testified to poaching.

At a medical facility, a nurse told me with firm assurance that the decline of steel was all due to the “greedy union steelworkers”. She’d never been in a mill herself, but she was sure of this. She didn’t know squat.
John Hoerr wrote in “And the Wolf Finally Came” that almost everyone —especially management who should have known better— had milked the industry as progress elsewhere left them behind (see: Wheeling-Nisshin). Or maybe upper management just didn’t care. Middle managers suffered alongside labor.

Many in the Building Trades suffered as well. There was little new work coming and a lot of maintenance work was gone. My trade, the Insulators (formerly called Asbestos Workers), were lucky in two ways. Asbestos abatement was a growing factor and there was tons of the stuff mandated to be removed in an industrial region. The Trade itself was another factor. On the down end, it was dirty, toxic, and sometimes deadly. Maintenance crews in the plants and mills were seldom eager to do insulation work. Wherever a crew of insulators were working, others avoided the area. At the high end, the skills were fairly sophisticated and not done well by untrained hands.

There was worker grief elsewhere.
Reagan had busted the Air Traffic Controllers and opened the sewer of “Worker Replacements”, once called scabs.
“Off-shoring”, led by the likes of Nike and Walmart were chasing the cheapest foreign labor and knock-offs they could find on foreign shores, thus strangling traditional home brands, industries and domestic jobs.

Two childhood friends of mine were touched in different but related ways.
One had grown up to be an Economics professor, a business consultant, and a labor mediator for a big chemical plant with a dark history. He was very fair-minded, and either side (union or company) could call him in and they’d abide by his counsel. When the corporation’s continued squeezing of the union with the usual threats unless wages and benefits were reduced, the workers took a last stand. If the plant closed, so be it. They’d been lied to enough and would take no more cuts.
He said he’d advised them to take the cuts. They had no power in this, and at least it would give them time to prepare and look elsewhere for work. But this time pride and distrust ruled.

Another friend was a union steward and millwright in a meat products plant. The plant was closing, but would be re-opened non-union under a new name. No union reps or officials need re-apply for work (shades of Henry Frick).
“Don’t know what I’ll do,” he said. “I’m a millwright but I only know their equipment.”
Then he added that he’d always wanted to own a bar and restaurant. He risked it all, hocked everything they had and bought a neighborhood bar on a busy street. He and his wife and sons busted ass to make the place a success and it thrived. Before he was done, he owned three places, and lived better than ever before.
He said he ran into former co-workers sometimes. None had done very well. He told them they were welcome at his place anytime, food and drink on him and he’d help them if he could. None came.

Pride can be the biggest hurt…but sometimes it’s all there is.


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