Black Monday, Little Steel Strike Are Remembered
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Thirty-five years ago today, Bill Sferra, then the president of Local 1418 of United Steelworkers of America, was called to the industrial relations office of The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. in Struthers for what he was told would be an "important meeting."
He and two other presidents of Steelworker locals, Russ Baxter of 2163, and Ed Mann of 1462, arrived around 9:30 a.m. and were greeted with a spread of coffee and doughnuts.
"They'd never done that for us before," Sferra remembers.
About a half hour later, the head of the industrial relations department informed the trio that by the end of the week, the strip mill at Sheet & Tube's Campbell Works would be shut down to be followed by a phased-in, complete closing of the plant.
"It was devastating," Sferra said as he recalled the events that would be come to be called the Mahoning Valley's Black Monday. Within a month of the announcement, 2,500 were out of work and another 2,500 lost their jobs over the next year as the gradual shutdown began.
This week, the Youngstown Historical Center of Labor and Industry is hosting a new exhibit and labor symposium framed by Black Monday and the 75th anniversary of the Little Steel Strike, also a seismic event in local labor history.
And today, Sferra, former steelworkers and local officials will commemorate Black Monday at Campbell City Hall.
After the Campbell Works announcement in 1977, more bad news followed. By 1979, Sheet & Tube had announced the closings of its Brier Hill and Struthers operations, affecting nearly more 5,000 workers here. U.S. Steel Corp. followed suit three years later when it closed its giant Ohio Works on the west side and McDonald Works, affecting thousands more.
"We were just the tip of the iceberg," said Donna DeBlasio, professor of history and director of the center for applied history at Youngstown State University. "What happened here was repeated in many other industrial communities. The ramifications are national and international."
The Historical Center for Labor and Industry, commonly referred to as the "Steel Museum," will introduce a new exhibit, "Labor and New Deal Art," at 5 p.m. Thursday. Historian, activist and attorney Staughton Lynd will deliver the keynote lecture, "The Little Steel Strike and the Steel Mill Shutdowns," at 6 p.m.
A symposium, "Crucibles of Change: New Perspectives on Labor During the Great Depression and World War II," will be held at 9 a.m. Friday. Among the speakers is Brigid O'Farrell, author of She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. Henry Adams, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, will deliver the luncheon address.
DeBlasio said that the event touches upon a broader discussion of labor issues by using the Little Steel Strike and Black Monday as appropriate markers. "We had talked about doing something" to commemorate both the 35th anniversary of Black Monday and the 75th anniversary of the Little Steel Strike.
Along with Black Monday, the Little Steel Strike is regarded as a watershed event in local labor history.
On May 26, 1937, workers at Republic Steel, Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube voted to strike after company owners refused to recognize the rights of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, or SWOC, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, to bargain collectively. By then, larger steel corporations -- U.S. Steel, for example -- had recognized the union, but the "Little Steel" companies such as Sheet & Tube had not.
The impasse led to thousands picketing outside Sheet & Tube and Republic plants in the Mahoning Valley. Meanwhile, plant managers and other employees were trapped in the mills and charged with keeping them running. Provisions had to be airlifted to supply these employees.
On June 19, 1937, violence erupted outside of Republic Steel's Stop 5 gate on Poland Avenue as strikers battled police in a confrontation that left two dead and more than a dozen injured. Gov. Martin Davey then ordered the National Guard in to quell the strike. When the strike ended July 25, workers returned to the plants without union representation. It wasn't until 1942 that the Little Steel companies recognized the United Steelworkers of America.
The strike is depicted through an exhibit created by YSU students, "Forged in Battle: Remembering the 1937 Little Steel Strike."
DeBlasio, who has conducted hours of interviews with former steelworkers, noted that the impact of both the Little Steel Strike and Black Monday was profound on the character and economic history of the Mahoning Valley.
The steel shutdowns, DeBlasio added, devastated entire families and communities. One former worker she interviewed lamented that it was impossible to support a wife and children on minimum wage while at the same time relating how proud he was to work in the industry.
Most of all, DeBlasio said, her subject said that he "missed the guys," and the camaraderie that accompanied work. "To me, that kind of summed up the feelings of a lot of these people," she said.
These latest exhibits and lectures are part of an overall plan to re-energize a museum that four years ago was on the verge of closing.
The history department at YSU assumed management of the Steel Museum two years ago and has since attracted traveling exhibits and lecture series. Foot traffic inside the museum, as well as interest among students, has also increased substantially, she reported.
"I think we've brought a new energy to it," DeBlasio said. The Steel Museum is not only a repository for artifacts and documents, it also serves as a working laboratory for the department's applied history program, which affords hands-on experience to students interested in pursuing a career in museum studies.
"It's also triggered new donations for the museum," DeBlasio said. "Just this week, because of our new exhibits, I've already gotten three phone calls for donations."
Copyright 2012 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
Copyright 2013 Youngstown Publishing Co. DBA The Business Journal
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