Along the Mahoning River, running through the heart of the city, stand remnants of a great empire. Not so long ago they were symbols of American industrial might. Now, sitting gray and ghostlike, silent and deserted on this overcast October morning, they represent a dream that has died.
"I remember when the steel mills caused so much soot in this valley and the Mahoning River never froze over," Bill Jones recalls, "and my father used to say to me, 'See that silt on the windowsill? That was a sign of prosperity. Now we have the clearest valley around. Remember the story, 'How Green Was My Valley'? Well, our valley is now green and you're going to have wheat fields down along the banks of the Mahoning River. Maybe we'll become an agricultural community, recycling industrial prosperity back to an agrarian society."
He doesn't really believe that, for he maintains confidence in the future. But to someone like Jones, whose family played a vital part in shaping this area -- his great-great-grandfather took over leadership in the founding of Youngstown from James Young, the original purchaser of the settlement; his great-grandfather opened the goods of interior Ohio to Eastern markets by helping create the Ohio Canal system; his grandfather brought merchandise to immigrant workers in the burgeoning steel mills along the river; his father was a developer of the sand and gravel industry used for steel furnaces -- the plight of Youngstown today strikes deep emotion. "I couldn't ride through there," he says of the largest mill to close. "It would bring tears to my eyes. I would cry."
In those sentiments Bill Jones, 64, who has a bookstore in neighboring Warren and last year published a history of Ohio, is no different from anyone you meet here. Whether worker, employed or not, businessman, prospering or struggling, they have the strongest feelings about the economic devastation that has struck this area and affected all their lives.
The story of Youngstown is much more than another familiar chronicle of American industrial dislocation, the inevitable heartbreak that occurs when the mills close and a way of life taken for granted by everyone, labor and capital, ends. Of all the places visited during this presidential campaign, Youngstown throws the sharpest light on the outcome of the election little more than a week away. And it provides hard examples affecting many major questions facing the United States in the 1980s -- the competitive situation of the United States in the world, the role of labor, management and government, the disparities between various regions of the country.
The Mahoning Valley is the heart of the Democratic Northern industrial vote. For generations these blue-collar workers toiling in the mills have helped elect Democratic president after Democratic president. As a priest observes, "It's almost a mortal sin for them to pull that Republican lever." Four years ago the big Democratic labor vote here gave Jimmy Carter the valley by a large margin of some 47,000 votes over Gerald Ford. Since Carter carried Ohio by only 11,116 votes and could not have become president without the state's crucial 25 electoral votes, people in the valley rightly say they put him in the White House.
Now the political currents have changed dramatically. Nowhere else in the country do you encounter such strong emotions: Here bitterness against Jimmy Carter is profound. The evidence -- and it is overwhelming -- points to a change of voting patterns of historic implications. It appears the Mahoning Valley is going for Ronald Reagan. The Umemployed Worker
On Monday, Sept. 19, three years ago, Len Balluck was on the golf course with friends on his day off. They played 18 holes and sat around talking over coffee before heading home. It was midafternoon. "We were sitting pretty," Balluck says, in a voice that sounds strikingly like the slow drawn-out nasal tones of George McGovern. "Myself, I was 48 years old. I had two teen-age kids, I had a good job, and I was making halfway decent money. I had security. Coming back home in the car I heard something on the radio, the 3 o'clock news. It said they were shutting down the Campbell Works and 5,000 jobs were going to be eliminated. I didn't believe it.
"When I got home I just sat there thinking and all of a sudden the newspaper came and I saw the headlines. I felt a complete state of shock. When my wife came home, she said, 'Did you hear?' and I said, 'Yeah,' I tried to pass it off. After that they started talking about relocating, and I didn't know if I was eligible for a pension or not -- but you know, when you're 48 years old it isn't easy to get a job. I know it isn't easy to get a job now. I don't have one. I tried to get a job under CETA, which is a federal program but because I got my pension I was not allowed to get a job even at $4 an hour. I was fortunate because a year after the shutdown my wife, who had been a schoolteacher and had an application in for a job, got a contract. This year she's teaching. It helps quite a lot. But it still doesn't give me anything to do as far as work goes. And every time I see this it makes me sad because of what used to be here."
Balluck was standing at the front gate of the shuttered Campbell Works, formerly the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., which was acquired by a succession of owners and finally came to rest in the hands of a conglomerate (The Lykes Corp., which in turn later merged with LTV).
"We call it the graveyard," he was saying. "I worked here for 23 years. This used to be our parking lot. It was always packed. You can see the grass growing in it now. Right in front of us is the main entrance. You can see how it's locked, and the rats are taking over -- literally. There used to be a patrolman there from the company. They'd check your pass when you go in. On election day for the union, why you'd have a big crowd here campaigning.You can see what you've got now.
"That huge structure that is rusting is a precipitator, part of the EPA rules that cleared the air. The Environmental Protection Agency said years ago they would clean up the Mahoning River. They wanted this river clean enough so that fish would swim in it. Well, I think they're getting what they wanted. They used to have bellowing clouds of rust-colored smoke before the precipitators was put in here. Now you see nothing. Our union local had about 2,900 men. Right now it's 600, with about 300 or 400 working over there in that coke mill. That's all that's left. All I want to try to say is you're looking at a graveyard here. Your water is clearer than what it was before. I don't say this was the main cause of it; I say it was part of it. They can say that they want to, but the government restrictions on the steel industry and the EPA with some of their ridiculous rules, don't look too good to somebody that doesn't have a job."
Balluck was speaking solemnly and slowly while a chill wind blew across the river. Like so many in the valley, he grew up in the steel industry, part of a procession of fathers and sons who walked across the bridge to the mill together over the generations. And like the great majority of them, he is a Democrat, and he voted Democratic for 30 years. Last time Jimmy Carter made several campaign appearances here. Len Balluck liked what he saw and heard.
"I voted for Jimmy Carter four years ago," he said. "His campaign promises, the way he came across, the way he seemed interested in the common person, how he wanted to do good in regard to cutting government and doing something about the rate of inflation -- and that's a joke -- but Jimmy Carter I thought was the man that would make a good president. Here in the Mahoning Valley we feel we put Carter in the White House because without the Mahoning Valley he never would have carried Ohio. But I will vote against Jimmy Carter this time. I believe the person who said ABC -- Anybody But Carter -- sums up the feelings.
"When this valley needed help, we didn't get it from Washington. When you look at the whole picture, it's not just the steel industry. Take a look at all the investment that went in there, and then they talk about the Japanese steel industry. What gripes me is that I read in the paper not too long ago where if you produce a car that costs $5,000 in the United States, it's sold over in Japan for $10,000 by the time they add on all their taxes. I don't like this at all. I understand our automobile workers are in trouble like our steel industry and everything else. Damn it, I think it's time the government started taking care of its own here. Every time I go past this graveyard it makes me mad that we can turn around and spend millions and millions of dollars -- billions! -- to help people overseas that spit on us yet we can't seem to help people here that need it the most.
"Like the people you're working with. All of a sudden they don't have it. They say relocate. How can I do that when my roots are here all my life? So all of a sudden you pick up and go to Houston and you can get a job for $5 an hour. But yet the cost of living there is greater and in selling your home here you're going to take a big loss because there's no demand here. It's real bad.
"Now the unions are coming out for Jimmy Carter because he's a Democrat. Ted Kennedy just left this area. But we don't listen to the head of our union anymore in regard to politics and everything else. We're going to make up our own minds. I will vote for Ronald Reagan. You see Jimmy Carter's coming in here Monday, driving in. Personally, if I knew which way he was coming, I'd like to get a big sign there when he comes off the turnpike saying 'JIMMY, IT'S TOO LATE.'" The Failure
Black Monday, as people now call it, when Sheet & Tube shut down, had a ripple effect that is still painfully evident in Youngstown. In succession other mills closed, laying off 1,500 in one, 3,500 in another, 1,700 in the last to go out of business. Additional thousands are out of work at an automobile assembly plant in the area, and unemployment here stands at about 14 percent of the work force.
Drive into the city now and you have a sense of deterioration -- some of the bridges have been closed because cement has cracked and fallen from them, strikers are seen standing outside other plant gates or gathered around small fires in steel drums, schools in neighboring communities have been shut for weeks this fall when teachers went on strike. A classic snowballing of economic problems: Jobless workers put a drain on the local economy, reduce the tax rolls, force cuts in local services, and all of it comes at a time when inflation pushes the cost of living even higher and makes the struggle for the towns to survive all the greater. Local TV stations broadcast "job updates" throughout the day, public affairs advertising spots tell of job counseling programs. "In this area it's been total devastation," says Gus Dolychronis, a local union president. "It's just like an earthquake. When an earthquake hits, you can't believe it. You just can't believe the distruction that takes place."
These are only the surface signs of deeper trouble. The lessons, if they can be determined, extend far beyond Youngstown and this steel valley.
In the immediate aftermath of the closings, there were natural recriminations -- the unions and companies blame each other, and both blame the government. Now what you hear is a more tempered assessment, with acknowledgement of faults enough to go around for all. What emerges is a portrait of political, industrial and union leadership failures and a combination of events that stemmed from outside forces, nationally and internationally. But, it also seems clear, part of the failure lay in the attitudes of the people who had prospered so long in this valley.
"I think we declined because we weren't hungry anymore," says William Sullivan, a lawyer who now works as a consultant to Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. with responsibility for redeveloping plans for the closed mills. "The industrialists got too fat and sassy and spent too much time at the country club instead of scratching and the employes too much time striking because they could afford to do it. God knows, we had enough strikes in the '50s."
A veteran union member, who typically grew up here and followed his family into the mills, expresses something of the same. "It's something everyone took for granted," says Arlette Gatewood, who after 32 years in the mills recently became a staff contracts negotiator for the international union. "If you came out of high school and had no other ambitions or didn't have the money to be professional -- doctor or lawyer or what have you -- you knew the mill was there. You had a livelihood. People built their lives around it. In this area there was always good employment. We had three major steel companies -- Republic, United States Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube -- all within five or six miles of each other. You grew up thinking there was nothing to worry about. There'd always be good work here.If you raised a family and your children chose not to go to college, they could always work in the mills. We depended on steel for so long, and we thought steel was all there was. Then along came plastics and aluminum to supplant steel in many areas, and I guess we found steel wasn't as important to the country as it used to be especially in a peacetime economy.
"As far as the union goes, we were dealing with a very profitable economy. If they were making more, we wanted our share of it. It was a sign of our times and we kept up with it. But we know now we can't negotiate contracts like we did 10 or 15 years agobecause of the economic conditions. Some of the workers still want that big package, but we recognize the companies can't pay it. Consequently, we have had to scale down a lot of contracts."
What comes through many conversations here is another strain. Despite all the woes and the flashes of bitterness directed within the community, this valley retains a strong sense of pride in itself, in its local workers and its managers. Now you find a recognition that changes must occur different relationships between all sides in this tangled equation must be fashioned, if the Mahoning Valley is to survive.
"The valley lost its innocence," says Bill Sullivan. "This valley always thought Sheet & Tube would take care of us, and if they didn't, the government would. Don't worry, they can never close the steel mills, their investment is too large. We heard that how many times. The week before the closing the local paper ran an article saying what a great year it was going to be for the steel companies."
What's happening now appears to be change so fast as to be bewildering. As another resident says, "All our institutions -- the economic, the social, the political -- seem to be changing and all at a very compressed period of time. I don't know that anybody knows how to read it. There was always a formula in the Mahoning Valley based on steel -- the politics are always Democratic, the social fabric was built around high school football and Wednesday night union meetings. And all of that seems to be gone."
In many respects, the story of Youngstown's efforts to change and rebuild is more significant, for the area and the country, than the reasons for its fall. The Priest
An old saying, of dubious origin but common, nonetheless, says that a steelworker has three primary interests, his job, his bar and his church. When the mills closed here it was the church, instead of the politicians, that moved quickly to try and redeem the situation. In a short time an ecumenical coalition of the major faiths was working to reopen Sheet & Tube. One of the leading workers in that effort was Father Ed Stanton, a Catholic who comes out of a long line of priests active in securing social justice in the labor movement.
"Basically," he says over drinks in a living room Saturday night, "there was a moral issue that came from the fact that 5,000 men and women, by whatever factor you want to use to multiply that, were getting hurt. Something, or someone, was hurting them. The government, the institutions, the social system, the individuals or corporate management, take your choice -- but somebody's done somebody wrong. At that time there also arose the ethical question of the way it was being done. If there are three parties when an industry locates in a town, we feel there is a tripartate contract between the workers, the industry and the community. For one part to unilaterally break that raised some real questions about the system that allows that to happen. Not pointing a lot of fingers to a lot of bad guys, but in this instance there were corporate people, or a board, whatever you want to call it -- and a board's made up of individuals -- that did a job on Youngstown Sheet & Tube and there were 5,000 casualties. We tried to be a moving force in reopening the mills."
For a complex of reasons -- local criticism that the move smacked of socialism, failure of the government to help refinance the opening with a final no in March last year among them -- the effort failed. But it had demonstrated something else: In a very short period, a group going out of normal local channels had become a political force in itself and spurred others to new action. "In the first round the clergy was speaking out and the men were saying amen," says Father Stanton. "Now the men themselves are taking the leadership role and the clergy is saying amen."
That is not, of course, to suggest that an assured happy ending approaches or that other kinds of problems have not arisen. The Clinic
When the blow fell three years ago, the state of Ohio provided money to help soften it. A mental health center was established near what Len Balluck calls "the graveyard," and a serious young man was appointed to direct it.
"At first nothing happened," says Bob Vansickle. "There was no mass hysteria, no people jumping out the third floors of their apartments or whatever. Where the problems began to develop were 2 1/2 years later. You see it manifested in child abuse. You see it manifested in alcohol and drug abuse. These people have nothing to do here. Let's say they're 35 or 38 years old, they've already 13 years paid on their mortgages, and got three kids in Wilson High School. There's no place for them to go. It's not that easy to pick up and leave.
"They're hanging around bars telling each other war stories, and when they get enough juice in them, to use the vernacular, they come home and beat up on the wife and the kids or find some other mechanisms to avoid their responsibilities. This year, this fall, is going to be the first big decrease in the benefits they've been receiving. If you want to know what the impacts are of something that happened three years ago, you'll find out in the next six months to a year." The Election
Every problem, personal and professional, bears directly on the political outcome on Nov. 4. The unemployed workers are angry, and they are going to vent their rage in the normal way -- at the person in charge. Carter has lost them. A local union president here, who has been a strong Democrat and is supposed to be working to get out the Carter vote, says privately that the president's support has been cut in half this time. Younger workers probably will stay in the Democratic column, and other labor leaders talk about "neutralizing" Reagan's margin of victory in the valley. "I'll tell you what you can watch when the votes come in that Tuesday night," says Tommy Thomas of the international, a bluff, blunt-speaking man who looks like Karl Malden in some labor strife film. "If there's not a great difference between Carter and Reagan in the Mahoning Valley, then Reagan's in trouble in the country. Because if he can't do it in this valley with such big unemployment -- and the unemployment here's like nowhere else -- then he's in big trouble."
That may be a case of whistling in the wind, and it begs a larger question: whether what is taking place here signals a greater political shift. Some think this area offers a case study in how a classically Democratic section is moving out of its past traditions. There's no doubt about the present anger. People will tell you, in lunchrooms and at dinner, that Carter lied to them; he didn't keep his promises. But that doesn't necessarily mean Bill Sullivan's observation is correct about the political future. "I think what's taking place here goes a lot deeper than Carter," he says. "A lot of old-line labor Democrats are asking whether all this liberal crap they've heard for 40 years really works."
But there's no question the political emotions boiling over spell trouble for Carter, the Democrats and the way Washington has been working. Arlette Gatewood again:
"I think the reason this community is so bitter is because we think the government hasn't done enough to keep industry competitive with Japanese and European industry. If we could create a Marshall Plan to revitalize Europe and Japan after they were devastated by war, and if we can rebuild them to the point where they can make the steel twice as cheap as we can make it, ship it over here, and sell it for half the price, there's something terribly wrong about our priorities here."
Gatewood is one of many who express the belief that America is at a critical juncture, with this election foreshadowing the direction the nation may take in this decade.
Even those who will vote for Carter couch their support in qualified terms. "Carter's made some mistakes," says Gus Dolychronis, "but the guy hasn't stopped trying even down to the end. Now I feel he's got very little cooperation with both houses of Congress in Washington. Maybe there's an internal problem about who the hell's boss there. But he has not had the cooperation and I think he deserves another term. Another thing, people are critical about his foreign policy, but you got to figure this: With the little help that he's had, he hasn't done bad. We're in trouble all over the world and we can't blame Carter for that."
No Democrat who has watched his party exercise influence over the nation's destiny for almost half a century could take comfort in those words. For it is the Democratic Congress that this Democratic union member is criticizing so strongly.
Of political change there is no doubt, but to what remains the question. Perhaps Father Stanton posed it best:
"A lot of things are changing around here, but I'm not too sure we're changing with any direction. I think it's almost change for the sake of change. The old political system didn't hack it, so two years ago we elected a Republican Congressman for the first time in memory. Carter paid absolutely no attention to the valley. The sense of the valley now is that he's not going to carry it this time, not only not carry it, but lose by a considerable margin. But what bothers me is I don't know what we're changing to." The Future
To a traveler just arrived from California, fresh with memories of the easy life and stunning success stories, Youngstown comes as a jolting reminder of another America.It is almost like tearing a veil between time periods, between the America that was and is, between the hard realities that afflict many parts of the country, sowing doubts if not despair, about the future and the new prosperity that lures eager young talents to the society of the future being shaped in the West.
In the short term, the presidential currents running in Youngstown are most arresting. More important, though, is what Youngstown says to the country in the long term. Steel was more than a way of life in Youngstown, spawning great personal fortunes for the capitalists and security for the workers. It was the heart of industrial America, the most basic of our basic industries. In the present climate of failures it is all too easy to blame outside forces for what happened in the steel valleys of America -- to say it was Washington that was at fault, or the conglomerates, although both certainly played a part. But in fact the steel industry was in trouble long before there was any such animal as an Environmental Protection Agency.
Talk with David Tod, for instance. His family and steel were synonymous in the Mahoning Valley for generations: a great-grandfather, who became a governor of Ohio during the Civil War, purchased land from the Connecticut Western Reserve here. It turned out to possess a lot of coal. Out of that came the Brier Hill Iron & Steel Co., which in turn merged with Youngstown Sheet & Tube. Tod himself, as had most of the family, grew up in steel management. But in the early '50s he sold out his interests and moved into other -- more profitable -- businesses. "I could more or less see the handwriting on the wall," he says. "There wasn't that much of a future in the valley the way we were going. It had become apparent that the mills here were becoming obsolete. There were more efficient rolling mills, computer controlled and what have you . . ." Instead of modernizing and reinvesting sufficiently, Youngstown Sheet & Tube sat on its cash -- and then, as so many people here on both labor and management sides now say, got raided when it fell into the hands of the conglomerates.
The key now is what happens in this decade.
A consensus seems to be that the days of big steel in the valley are over. That doesn't mean steel is past. "I have every reason to believe there's going to be a worldwide steel shortage," says Bill Sullivan. "My guess is that after 1985 we're going to be facing a substantial steel shortage worldwide. Right now we're the only major industrial nation in the world that cannot meet its own steel requirements. We do not have the capacity today to make all the steel in 1981 that the United States will use in 1981. I believe the steel industry is still so basic it's going to be a growth industry in the last 20 years of this century."
Sullivan, Tod and others see the present as an opportunity for new industries, for diversification, for new working relationships between labor and management. "You can look at the closed mills and say what a godawful problem. How soon can I get out of this valley," Sullivan says. "Or you can go to the same mills and say what a marvelous opportunity. Here's a chance to get into the capital-intensive business with such a low entry fee that it'll never happen again. There's going to be a lot of new fortunes made in this valley, in new business and in steel."
And, as Bill Jones says, the nucleus of a highly skilled work force still remains in the valley of their ancestors. "I don't see why we can't find solutions," he remarks. "I think we have skilled workers and people devoted to dignity, who can do a job and perform well. They're still the best workers in the world."
That prospect of future success remains, of course, a hope instead of a certain reality. Youngstown has been hurt grievously. Its old assurances, its assumptions about the future, have been shaken. In that, it is not unlike much of old industrial America groping its way into a new period.
"Nothing brings people closer together than going through hardships," says Gus Dolychronis of the steelworkers' union. "That's what we're experiencing, labor and management together."