A mural decorates the side of a law office in Granite City, Ill. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

GRANITE CITY, ILL. — The leather suitcase was filled with tiny booklets of different colors. Orange. Red. Brown. The collection of steelworker union contracts stretched back decades. Phil Chism kept them around for moments like this. He dug through the pile until he found a yellow one. The 1977 labor contract. That was the one he and Dan Simmons were hired under 36 years ago at the massive steel mill that still hums at the center of this Mississippi River town.

“These are very good-paying jobs,” said Chism, who, along with Simmons, is a top local union official. “We’ve made gains over the years.”

Chism intended to see for himself. He fingered through the yellow booklet. He read aloud the starting base pay when their careers began: “$6.31 an hour.”

Today, it is $19.95 an hour. The wage gains are apparent, in absolute terms. But taking into account inflation, a steelworker hired today actually earns $2.99 less an hour.

“Can you believe that? Phil, did you hear that?” said Simmons, pushing back in his chair in his union president’s office. “What was it again?”

A pay cut of 13 percent.

“Something is wrong with that,” Simmons said.

Granite City is the largest city in Madison County, which is among the seven percent of U.S. counties where median household income peaked in 1969. In Madison County, inflation-adjusted income fell 4.5 percent.

The county sits just outside St. Louis and hugs the river line, which once was crowded with businesses making things and shipping them away on barges. It is also home to the quaint college town of Edwardsville, where 14,000 students attend Southern Illinois University and, it is hoped, seeds are being planted for jobs in the often-discussed knowledge economy.

“Education is key in order to attract any kind of knowledge-based company,” said Ayse Evrensel, the university’s economics and finance chairwoman. But “the story of the Midwest is that the switch [from industrial to knowledge economies] was made later. Now, we have to wait.”

For now, manufacturing is still the engine driving places like Granite City, which was established in the 1890s as a company town for a factory making granite-ware kitchen supplies. Today, with a new mission, the U.S. Steel Granite City Works runs a full three shifts a day, 24 hours a day, all year long — making high-end steel for buildings and pipelines. “Rocks to the docks,” as Simmons says, referring to the iron pellets that are transformed into steel, which then heads out on the river.

These steelworker jobs are still coveted. A senior worker can easily earn $58,000 a year and reach $100,000 with overtime. When jobs open up, usually in batches of 20 to 40, the plant might get 500 applicants. Snagging one, “it’s almost like winning a lottery,” Simmons said.

“These are jobs worth fighting for,” said Chism. He and other Local 1899 members recently did just that, marching through town to protest against what they said was price-dumping by South Korean competitors.

Dan Simmons is president of United Steel Workers Local 1899  in Granite City, Ill. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

But there are simply fewer jobs at the mill, which today employs about 2,000 union workers and another 400 non-union. When Simmons, the local president, was starting out decades ago, the mill was home to at least 4,500 union workers.

The job has also changed. And so has the mill. In the 1990s, the mill got advanced machines capable of continuously casting hot steel, simplifying the production process. Hundreds of jobs were eliminated. The union once had 32 job classifications, limiting the type of work each person could perform. Now, there are five broad categories.

“These are no longer ‘push the button’ jobs,” Chism said. “What we’re being called upon today to do is very different.”

But nothing has quite replaced the jobs lost at the steel mill — or the other manufacturers that closed down or modernized.

“This place was a labor town,” Chism recalled.

“You could get fired off one job, tell the boss to get (lost), and get hired at another place the next day,” Simmons said.

These two union officials both look like they were cast to be steelworkers. They have thick chests and Popeye-like arms. They move with deliberation, like they’re always about to handle something hot or heavy. Steelworking is a job passed down through families here. Simmons’s dad worked at the mill. Chism’s grandpa did. Today, Simmons’s twin brother is a steelworker, along with two brothers-in-law. Chism’s two adult sons work at the mill.

But Chism also has two younger sons, whose careers are years in the distance. He suspects they will need to find a different path. “If my two boys, who are 10 and 12, if they don’t educate themselves to the extreme,” he said,  “what are they going to do?”

He didn’t have an answer. But he suspected it wasn’t going to be found in one of those colorful booklets in his briefcase.