The human costs of steel are revealed in history of a town and an industry

January 03, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz




William Serrin.

Times Books.

413 pages. $25. Homestead. The name itself evokes visions of Americana, of settlers staking a claim and taming the land. But it has been a long time since Homestead, Pa., has been a bucolic place.

Rather, it served for more than 100 years as a symbol of a different America, one of fire and sweat and industrial might sufficient to dominate the world. With the closing of the Homestead steel works in 1986 and the decline of the town, Homestead remains a symbol still, this time of our uncertain future as we stumble upon a post-industrial age.

Unlike most chroniclers of industrial downsizings and plant closings, William Serrin, a former labor reporter for the New York Times, stuck around Homestead after the massive steel works owned by USX (formerly United States Steel) were closed. He wanted to know what happened to those whose livelihoods were dependent on the mill and whose very lives were tied up with it.

The picture is not a pretty one -- it's of foreshortened and frustrated lives, of people unable to find full-time employment, of a town that can't pay its bills, of young people despairing of their future.

Taken as a representative of dozens, if not hundreds, of other towns across America that have been shattered by the loss of relatively high-paying unionized industrial jobs, Homestead asks some thorny questions. A generation or two ago, large numbers of Americans (mostly white men) graduated from high

school and knew if they were diligent and ready to take on difficult, physically demanding jobs in steel mills or auto plants, that in exchange they and their families would be granted entry ** into the middle class world of home ownership, college tuitions, health insurance and regular vacations. That exchange is now rarely being made.

"A strange way to run a country, I thought," Mr. Serrin writes in his introduction. "Use things up, people and places, and throw them away. But that is the way America is." One question is how long America can operate like this in a time when the frontier is long gone and natural resources are far from endless.

This book is much more than social commentary on the human costs of industrial policy. It is a well-researched, ably written history of a town, its worker/citizens, a company and an entire industry. It parades before us captains of American industry and finance -- Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, J. P. Morgan. Perhaps the most vividly told historical segment involves the Homestead Strike of 1892, when not only the steelworkers but the town itself took to bloody battle in a failed attempt to have their union recognized and to obtain some control of their fate.

Mr. Serrin relates that Gen. George Snowden, head of the Pennsylvania militia, sent to occupy and restore order to Homestead during the strike, wrote in his official report: "Philadelphians can hardly appreciate the actual communism of these people. They believe the works are theirs quite as much as Carnegie's." But the forces of Frick, Carnegie and the government were too much for the workers. Homestead's steelworkers didn't become part of an effective union until 1937.

The large scope of the book is also its biggest problem. It sags under the weight of excessively detailed histories of many of the leaders of United States Steel and of the United Steelworkers of America. As the story moves away from Homestead and the other mills of the Monongahela Valley, their particular history and current-day woes, it loses some focus and much of its emotional impact. While some history of the larger influences that shaped Homestead is necessary to provide proper context, the author allows his own narrative to fall out of proportion.

Who's to blame for the massive problems of the steel industry? Who's to blame for the shuttering of the Homestead works and the decimation of that industrial area along the Monongahela River, which was known as Victory Valley for its massive contribution of steel to the victorious efforts in two world wars?

At United States Steel, it's decades of management. "Management was inbred, centralized, uncreative and autocratic," Mr. Serrin writes. "The corporation had maximized short-term profits and for decades, despite its grand pronouncements, had neglected investment in new technologies. It had never taken research seriously. . . . But the corporation always said that its problems were caused by imports, government meddling in pricing, environmental regulations, and high labor costs."

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