The decline and fall of steel

Monday Book Review

January 18, 1993|By Linda Shopes

Because of an editing error, the Jan. 18 review of William Serrin's "Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town" misidentified Mr. Serrin. He is the son of a baker. Other Voices regrets the error.

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HOMESTEAD: THE GLORY AND TRAGEDY OF AN AMERICAN STEEL TOWN. By William Serrin. Times Books/Random House. 452 pages. $25.

What is steel?" John Dos Passos wrote in 1946. "Steel is America!" If that is true, then towns like Homestead, Pa. - and Buffalo, Youngstown, Gary and Sparrows Point - are quintessential American places.

Here men worked mightily under backbreaking conditions to produce the material of American progress. Here they organized powerful labor unions and came to enjoy unprecedented prosperity. Here they and their families developed a secure and meaningful life. And here, too, capitalists reaped enormous profits and then pulled out when their enterprises were no longer competitive in world markets. Among these steel communities, Homestead holds pride of place. The Homestead Works was a central component of the United States Steel Corp., the country's first billion-dollar company when it was founded in 1901. Its decline in the 1970s and '80s and final shutdown in 1986 - throwing thousands out of work, disrupting a whole way of life - are dramatic examples of the nation's industrial collapse. But Homestead's place in America's consciousness rests largely events that took place just over 100 years ago. In the summer of 1892, hundreds of Homestead steel workers struck to secure higher wages and union recognition. On July 6, the strikers along with their supporters in the community - men, women and children - successfully repulsed with guns, sticks, rocks and jeers a phalanx of Pinkerton detectives hired by company chairman Henry Clay Frick to secure the works for strike-breakers.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The Homestead battle remains one of the most dramatic confrontations between labor and capital in United States history, variously understood as a courageous, desperate or threatening move by working people to claim a bigger share of the fruits of their labor.

Labor's victory was short-lived, however. At least 10 died in the confrontation, and Pennsylvania's Gov. Robert E. Pattison quickly sent the militia to Homestead to restore order, effectively breaking the strike. The town was devastated and, some say, the cause of labor set back a generation. A century later, in parts of western Pennsylvania, people spit when Frick's name is uttered. William Serrin's "Homestead" details the history of the works from its founding in the 1880s through its expansion as part of Andrew Carnegie's and then U.S. Steel's vast empire, its glory days during two world wars and the union struggles of the 1930s, to its wrenching demise. At the heart of Mr. Serrin's story are wonderfully detailed accounts of the way a few powerful industrialists and labor leaders - Carnegie, Frick, U.S. Steel chairmen Elbert H. Gary and Benjamin Fairless, United Steelworkers presidents Philip Murray and David McDonald - created and then destroyed the elaborate structures of power that shaped the world of steel production.

These men - hard working, shrewd, calculating, but also increasingly arrogant, unimaginative and out of touch with their business and their constituents - deserved each other. It is to them that Mr. Serrin attributes the fate of steel. He writes:

"Of what I learned in Homestead, nothing was more important than that by and large, it was not macroeconomics - that is, imports, trade policy, changing markets and the like - that brought the steel industry down. It was, indeed, the small stuff . . . that was going on in the plants, in the corporation, in the union. I suspect - I know - that these things are the basis not only for the upheaval in the steel industry but . . . but for the upheaval in most of our troubled industries and in the other troubled institutions of American life."

If there are heroes in Mr. Serrin's story, they are the people of Homestead, who worked in the mills year in and year out, kept families together, sustained a community of churches, stores and bars, of union solidarity, political wrangling civic celebrations.

A labor journalist and son of a doctor who quit his job for the New York Times to spend five years, much of it in Homestead, writing this book, Mr. Serrin understands the tenor of working-class life - its decency, its hard-edged vibrancy, its insularity. He understands also how working-class people strain to achieve a measure of security and respectability and how fragile these efforts are. The book's final chapters poignantly describe the way Homestead residents and a diverse band of their supporters struggled to keep the works, and the community, going.

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