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And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry.

And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry

For many years, John Hoerr has followed steel labor relations; his book reflects the wealth of information he has accumulated as a journalist, as a keen observer, and as a person with deep roots in the industry. This book provides real value to people who need to know or are truly interested in understanding the steel industry and its labor relations. Nowhere else is so much information available and no one else has ever dealt in such depth with the inner workings of a labor relations system, especially one as fascinating and complex as steel.

For this reader, however, what stands out is the unfair treatment of the pre-1980 era of steel labor relations. Far from being the archaic and unimaginative scenario depicted in the book, those were years when steel labor relations were notably sophisticated and innovative. The book mentions but makes short shrift of accomplishments such as the 1937 U.S. Steel voluntary recognition of the United Steelworkers; the monumental joint achievement of classifying every job in the entire industry, the elimination of regional and especially Southern wage differentials, pioneering pension and health insurance programs, expansion and some rationalization of incentive pay systems; the 13-week extended vacation plan to cushion the job shrinkage trends; the initiation of the highly significant expedited arbitration system; the first-ever joint human relations program; the unprecedented Experimental Negotiating Agreement no-strike arrangements; and the first comprehensive income security program for victims of shutdowns and prolonged layoffs.

Add to this the remarkable civil rights program of the 1970's, superior to any other in the Nation, and we get a picture far different from destructive and adversarial relations.

These and related factors become so important precisely because Hoerr tends to blame employment shrinkage in steel on management mischief or bad labor relations, a popular but far from accurate or balanced view; in truth, the real villain has been the relentless restructuring caused by profound economic forces largely beyond anyone's control. Some would suggest that faulty or inadequate public policies bear some of the blame.

A careful reading of Hoerr's chronicle of facts, rather than his interpretations, reveals something about the pre-1980 environment. The post-World War II economy was booming; living standards were rising rapidly, and labor relations was ploughing new and exciting ground, taking advantage of the prevailing opportunities.

True, as Hoerr repeatedly emphasizes, if we look back it is evident that the policies pursued in the pre-1980 era did not turn out to be appropriate for the 1980's. But rarely do people somehow sacrifice the opportunities of the present in order to serve an as yet undefined future. The more progressive collaborative techniques now in vogue were by no means the fashion in the 1960's and even the 1970's.

While Hoerr does well in alluding to the missed opportunities to improve productivity and greater labor participation at job levels, he fails to attribute this to how well people were doing at the time without these present-day labor relations initiatives. The relatively constrained competitive environment of the time made such relaxed attitudes affordable.

Hoerr properly credits United Steelworkers President Lynn Williams and several current key steel company leaders with present-day valiant efforts to turn things around so as to meet the new set of economic realities. His account might cause us to ask why the parties have had only limited success in substantially improving performance. Is it because the parties for too long failed to tackle the tough areas of manning and employee performance as too hot to handle?

Interestingly, the one intensely hostile experience that did take place in the industry, the 116-day strike in 1959, can be traced to the effort by U.S. Steel's R. Conrad Cooper to do something bold about substantially improving employee performance; consistent with the times, the union's militant resistance was successful.

The elaborate tracing of recent events by Hoerr reveals how the parties now attempt to tackle the competitive problems, but still they fall short of achieving the kind of manpower reorganizations that would pay off much better than any concession packages.

On balance, the Hoerr book is a must for people interested in steel, in labor relations, or in public policy aspects of economic restructuring. I question whether the wolf did come and swallow the industry; the firms are regrouping, making good profits, and producing steel in quantities which exceed the levels of the early 1960's. But the wolves have surely become fat as a result of their consumption of hundreds of thousands of steel jobs. The people have suffered; the union has been under siege.

The fact that the economy and the labor markets will adjust to the new economic environment does not make the invasion of many steel communities by a pack of wolves less traumatic. Hopefully, the American people will concede that the wolves were invited by irrepressible economic forces, and were not the guests of either mean conspirators intent on plotting against steelworkers or hapless union management bunglers.
COPYRIGHT 1989 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Author:Fischer, Ben
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1989
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