The Multinational Monitor



"Its Like An Industrial Holocaust"

An interview with Mike Stout, head grievanceman of a United Steel Workers of America local in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

Mike Stout, of USWA Local 1397, is one of the leaders of the Network to Save the Mon Valley, the labor-clergy coalition that has organized the boycott of Mellon Bank. In his position in the mills, he has seen grievances multiply in the last few years as the industry has stepped up its assault on wages and work rules. His union local has been a center of resistance to the policies of U.S. Steel and a major proponent of change within the USWA.

Stout was interviewed in Homestead for Multinational Monitor by Jim Dougherty and Rick Peduzzi, who work with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Steel Project. Dougherty and Peduzzi are working on a documentary film about the steel industry that will be completed in September.

MONITOR: How would you describe what is going on in the steel industry and in the U.S. economy right now?

Stout: Well, U.S. Steel and Morgan Guaranty Trust Bank, which really controls U.S. Steel, have put the word out that probably somewhere in the vicinity of 25 percent of their steel capacity is going to be cut over the next two or three years. They put the word out that a lot of obsolete plants are going to go. And the ones that don't go are the ones that are going to present the best man-per-ton picture, the best cost production ratio, the ones that cut the most jobs. Those are the ones that will be getting thrown what few bones that are going to be thrown, and the others are going to be wiped out.

What we're seeing is annihilation of half the steel productive capacity and half the work force in this country. And I would say that it is still only the tip of the iceberg. What's going on is part of a surge that is going to pick up steam, and it's going to get bigger and bigger, and it's going to obliterate more industrial workers and more working people in general. It's pitting the industrial work force in opposition to technological advance. I think that anybody that thinks this is going to stop at the steel industry is sorely mistaken.

You know, the robots and the microcomputers and everything that they are producing are made just as much to replace secretaries and clerks as they are to replace steelworkers. I think that anybody who doesn't recognize and doesn't see what is going on is going to be in for a big surprise. I think that it's high time that the American labor movement got off its ass and quit dreaming about the future and started diving in and changing things and stopping this process from happening.

MONITOR: What do you say to people in the industry or the top ranks of your union who say that the steel workers have been living pretty much high on the hog and have gotten ahead of the labor movement, and insist that it's time for steel workers to put wages and benefits on hold so the rest of labor can catch up?

Stout: Well, two things. Number one, when you talk about living high off the hog, they've got a lot of room to talk. Second, between the 1950s and 1977, the companies have obliterated 150,000 steel jobs, and since 1977 another 130,000 jobs have gone down the drain. Now they're predicting that half of the people who are laid off will never get back to work. Those people are having to take minimum wage jobs or being forced on welfare. At most some are finding $5 or $6 an hour jobs. Is that what they mean by adjusting their standard of living?

But let's get down to brass tacks. I was taking home for two weeks $750, give or take a few bucks. You figure that's roughly $325, $335 a week. My mortgage payment is $609 now, and I don't have a very big house, I mean I got a $35,000 two-story brick home for four kids. I got over $200 a month in just gas and electric and phone bills. And that's not even counting food, another hundred dollars. Now with the cuts I'm down to less than $300 a week. Now how the hell am I supposed to pay for that house?

What these people really mean was that for the first time, a section of the working population was able to put their head above water. We were not rich, we weren't well to do, but, you know, we had our head above water. We were not constantly in debt, or in and out of the work force. Now we are back down to where we were before. There's no way that I can continue making what I am making and continue to live in the house that I am living in now. I guess what he means is that I should take my four kids and I should go back to my $150-a-month two room apartment and jam my four kids in one room.

MONITOR: How has this affected your members? How has Local 1397 responded to all the layoffs and everything?

Stout: It's like we're in the middle of a holocaust, an industrial holocaust, and it's in slow motion. It's hard to see it happen to individuals; it's almost like time is slowed down and they are slowly, slowly losing everything. It doesn't happen to you like a volcano or tornado or hurricane or flood, but it happens slowly, gradually, it takes a year, two years. But I maintain that the effect is just as devastating, mentally, morally, physically, every other way.

I think that there needs to be some radical changes to deal with this radical situation. I think it's high time that the working people realize that we need a steel industry. We need this to keep our communities intact, we need these things to survive as a people, as a class of people, as a nation-and we've got to take matters in our own hands.

What we're trying to do in Local 1397 is number one, meet people's needs, and number two, educate them to what the source of our problems are, and number three, act in political, legal, or other ways to basically change the system and the source of the problem.

MONITOR: How do you define the source?

Stout: We feel the source of the problem is the tax, legal, and financial system and structure including the banks, corporations, and finance capital. The people who run those corporate and bank board rooms have basically determined the policy of liquidating whole communities and entire sections of the working class of the industrial northeast, and are attempting to turn this country into a service-oriented economy and basically shift industry to the Third World.

MONITOR: What do you see as the reason for this?

Stout: The reason they are trying to do that is wages are dirt cheap. People work in the Third World under slave wages, where unions are outlawed. They have no OSHA, they have no EPA, they have no unions. They have governments that are financed by U.S. corporations and banks that will shoot you and put you in jail if you talk about unions. In South Korea, for instance, which has the most modern steel complex in the world, the worker there, the top worker there makes $1.40 an hour; but the average workers make around $.40, $.50 an hour. That's why they're shifting production to the Third World.

MONITOR: Could you summarize the legal strategy that's emerged?

Stout: Personally I don't think any legal strategy is going to work. I think the laws are designed to benefit those who govern and basically keep those who are governed underneath, underneath the boot.

But I think there are ways to use the law, and we will attempt to use every legal means possible to exert our rights. Case in point: we feel that if they are going to abandon these communities and facilities, then we should take them over if need be, and run them ourselves. We found a law called the Municipalities Authorities Act, a Pennsylvania state law that was passed in 1945. Under this law, a city, borough, county official or whatever-basically local political officials-can invoke the power of eminent domain, and condemn and seize an industrial facility, pay fair market value for it, kick the previous owners out, and run it for the public good. Well, we are attempting to use that law right now to seize the Mesta plant and take it over. We want to get the funds through the reindustrial county committee to pay the fair market value to the liquidators who are trying to butcher Mesta in this community, and tell them to get the hell out of here and take it over ourselves. Then we will fight for funding from the federal government, the banks, whoever has the money, fight them to get that money to reinvest and modernize that facility so that it can once again make steel mill equipment and modernize these steel mills around here. It's pure and simple as that.

We are using the legal means to show that even when we have the laws to back us up, and even when we have somebody who is willing to finance it, those people are not going to put up with it for a minute. I am convinced myself that these banks will never give us anything that they are not forced to give us. So we are promoting this eminent domain tactic to take the thing over and show people through the course of it who the source of the problem is.

MONITOR: You're also involved in the campaign against Mellon Bank.

Stout: Yes, the other thing we want to do is conduct this bank pledge boycott campaign where we are telling people, "Hey, these banks are taking our money and they are investing it in foreign companies and foreign cheap slave labor to put us out of a job."

MONITOR: You've taken U.S. Steel to court a number of times. Is there any court action that stands out as being significant?

Stout: Well, the one time we took U.S. Steel to court and won, we really lost. We wanted them to open their books to show us that the open hearth was shut down permanently. And so they opened their books and showed that the open hearth was permanently shutting down.

[Labor lawyer] Staughton Lynd presented a beautiful case in Youngstown on behalf of the workers, but the judge said shutting down was the company's right. He says you are morally right, Staughton, you are morally right Youngstown, but it's U.S. Steel's god-given legal right to shut places down and destroy communities and disrupt the lives of thousands of people. I am saying that's what's got to be torn down-their right, financially and legally, to do that.

It's not the free enterprise system that's necessarily under attack. But it's when that comes into contradiction with people's right to survive, people's right to live, people's right to make ends meet, to have a job, to support their families. When the right to be a millionaire and own 17 pairs of shoes and three houses comes into conflict with the rights of thousands of people to survive, then the hell with his right.

I don't think things are going to change until there's an upheaval, until you go and resort to the way we have always changed things, that is, thousands of people getting into the streets and raising so much hell and putting the fire up so high that they can't stand the heat.

MONITOR: Recently you had a meeting here with local USWA [United Steelworkers of America] union presidents concerning the Fairless deal. What was the purpose of that and how effective do you think the meeting was?

Stout: The meeting was called by Ron Weisen, the president of Local 1397. Ninety-five local union presidents from as far away as Colorado and California showed up, which means that the presidents are starting to see through the corporation and what the relationship of President Lloyd McBride is vis-a-vis the corporations. Number two, the purpose was to unite the presidents, as many as possible, and as many steelworkers as possible, to stop what is happening and what is proposed by U.S. Steel at the Fairless works.

Now don't get me wrong, the companies have been importing all along, but there is a particular reason that they are coming out into the open and doing it now. I think their aim is to basically wipe out the hot metal process in steel-making east of the Mississippi River. Outside of the Gary-Chicago area, they're going to wipe out this process and ship the slabs in, some from Europe, some from Canada.

MONITOR: What was proposed at the meeting?

Stout: Earlier, 2,000 Fairless workers voted to allow [Pennsylvania's Democratic Congressman] Peter Kastemeyer 45 days to attempt to stop the deal from going through. But if the steel starts coming here in July, I think we're prepared to go to Trenton, New Jersey and take them on. We're going to push for a major confrontation.

We're going to push for all 35 of these locals plus more to put bus loads of steelworkers on the roads and on the interstate to Trenton and when they go to unload that first railroad car of foreign steel slabs we're going to stop them from doing it even if jail is what it takes, just to up the ante and let them know we're not going to stand for it.

MONITOR: What are the possibilities of a coalition emerging?

Stout: Well, there's a good coalition around the Mesta situation and around the bank campaign. We got 3 or 4 borough councils, 50 to 60 churches, 3 or 4 local unions. We got a whole bunch of forces working around the bank campaign. There's another set of forces working around extending unemployment benefits and getting mortgage relief. We're part of that too.

We need a big movement, and we need to pull everybody together because, God knows, the banks and those corporations and their agents in the government and everywhere, they've got their share. They're in a coalition, and their coalition is against us.

MONITOR: What's the future? What do you see as the future of the Mon Valley and the Steel industry?

Stout: Truthfully, I think that the Mon Valley is going to be reduced to cinder by the industrial holocaust. I think that the rust bowl of the 1980s is going to long live out the dust bowl of the 1930s, and I think that the only thing that we can do is fight like hell against the enemy.

MONITOR: Suppose we had a labor party, and it was able to grab control of the political arena. What kind of policies do you think should be enacted to reindustrialize the steel industry in a human way?

Stout: I think we need laws that protect us, protect our class of people and our rights: our rights to work and earn a decent living for our family and to live and work in dignity. I don't think you have laws that do that right now. I think that to get laws to do that you need a government that represents our interest. I don't think that we have a government that represents our interest or our class of people, the working people, the backbone of this country. 1 think we're going to have to fight to get that government.

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