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Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town.

This book is about a town near Pittsburgh and a steel mill, the two being inseparable from the start. When the mill went down, the down died with it -- physically and spiritually -- a ghost of it s former self, one of many such communities across small-town America.

The vast Homestead Works was the most famous steel mill in the world, the centerpiece of the iron and steel empire put together by Andrew Carnegie to forge America's industrial revolution. The bloody Homestead strike of 1892 was an epic uprising by workers whose defeat set back trade unionism for two decades and left a lasting imprint on the town.

William Serrin, former labor reporter at The New York Times and now a journalism professor at New York University, uses Homestead as a springboard to describe the rise and decline of the American steel industry's leading producer, the U.S. Steel Corporation, created in 1901 from the building blocks of Carnegie's empire.

He tells how a big industrial union arose in the 1930s from the ashes of the craft union crushed in 1892 and how the deadly embrace of past conflicts gave way to a tender embrace that produced deadening results in the long run. The political intrigue within the corporation and the union is told in rich detail, with national politics as a backdrop.

Serrin spent a lot of time in Homestead as a reporter in the 1980s and then during the years spend researching and writing his book. He got to know its people and seeks to explain events from their bird's-eye, or shop-floor, view.

"Despite the smoke and dirt, the grinding exactions of the mill and the corporation's stronghold, the people of Homestead built a splendid American community, with richness texture and grit," he writes.

The book was published in the centennial year of the Homestead strike. That long-ago confrontation was typical of many strikes and lockouts in recent years in which management makes provocative demands to force a strike and permanently replace union workers with strikebreakers.

"The solidarity and organization achieved by the Homestead workers and townspeople preparing for and then enduring the strike were unsurpassed in American history," Serrin writes. It was indeed extraordinary. Led by a conservative craft union representing the elite skilled workers in the mill, the whole town organized itself like an army to seize the mill and defeat a detachment of Pinkertons.

When the governor dispatched the state militia to Homestead, the workers, "foolishly naive," believed the troops had come as their friends and protectors. The town offered its brass band to play for them. The workers had felt they had done nothing unlawful, but were only protecting the mill, which they believed was as much theirs as Carnegie's.

The union-hating Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie's right-hand man, comes out smelling sweeter than the Scottish philanthropist who claimed to like unions and even dislike strikebreakers, whom he used on several occasions. Carnegie, who put Frick in charge of busting the union at Homestead while he vacationed in Scotland, was called a "moral coward" by the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The paper said Frick, who wrestled a knife-wielding anarchist to the ground after being shot twice, was "brave."

After the workers' defeat, Homestead and other steel towns in the Monongahela Valley became classic company towns. "The company men knew that it was not enough to break the union; the towns themselves had to be broken [by] seizing the institutions of community life -- newspapers, churches, schools, social clubs, police, municipal government."

Thus, in sharp contrast to the 1892 strike, "almost no ministers in Homestead and the other steel towns supported the workers" during the great steel strike of 1919. The only pro-union cleric, a Catholic priest, "was ultimately driven from town." When legendary labor agitator Mother Jones, then 89, came to Homestead to drum up support for the strike, she was pulled from the speaker's platform and locked in the town jail.

FDR's labor secretar, Frances Perkins, fared little better than Mother Jones when she came to Homestead in 1933 to explain the new National Industrial Recovery Act and the collective bargaining rights it included. When authorities denied her permission to speak to a group of workers on town property, she held an impromptu meeting at the post office.

It wasn't until 1936 that a union rally could be organized in Homestead. Unemployment in the Mon Valley had risen to about 50 percent. Automobile and other industrial workers had won union recognition through sit-down strikes. FDR was reelected. In 1937, U.S. Steel signed a contract with the union.

The corporation rested on its laurels in the 1920s, was badly singed by the Great Depression and was rescued from its shortcomings by World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Clinging to business as usual, it maximized short-term profits and neglected investment in new technologies."

By the early 1980s, the corporation that had set production records in the 1950s and 1990s was breaking records in plant shutdown. The world's best-paid industrial workers were being laid off by the tens of thousands. The union, which the company had embraced as a permanent partner in prosperity and which had relegated strikes to the dark past of industrial relations in a 1973 no-strike pact, wasn't even consulted about the shutdowns.

On Homestead's main street, which used to be "like a little Broadway" that never slept, stores were boarded up. A robust community sank into dissolution and despair. People moved away. If they followed the conventional advice, they headed for the Sunbelt as the oil boom was about to go bust.

Serrin's riveting narrative brings to life the colorful cast of characters in Homestead's history: real life Horatio Alger magnates and managers who shaped Homestead into the linchpin of "the greatest industrial conglomerate" in history; steel executives and labor leaders who, sleeping at the switch and drunk with success during the postwar boom, watched that empire crumble like metal in a slowmotion train wreck.

At the end, we see a ragtag band of second-and third-generation "mill hunks," local union dissidents, radicalized clergy and middle-class 1960s activists-turned-proletarians fighting desperate and often foolhardy rearguard skirmishes as they tried to save the mill, the town, a way of life.

But the forces arrayed against the workers and the towns were too immense to be overcome," says Serrin. "The corporation was too powerful. Its fierce antiunionism in earlier days had beaten people down, and in a sense they never recovered. They accepted a union that was undemocratic, that controlled them just as the corporation did and that, in the end, itself fell too much under the corporation's control."

In fact, there was little that the people of Homestead, the Mon Valley or even the union could have done to change the situation by the time the mass shutdowns began. Ronald Reagan was president, the go-go 1980s were in full swing and the worship of the free market rivalted the 1920s. U.S. Steel (since appropriately renamed USX) and its bankers preferred to drill for oil on Wall Street with the $6.4 billion purchase of Marathon Oil rather than invest in new steel technology.

Readers of Homestead may not know that organized labor has absorbed lessons from the battering it got in the 1980s. It has become both more militant and more creative. For example, the Steelworkers union enlisted the support of many other unions and communities around the nation and employed a sophisticated international "corporate campaign" to defeat an attempt by the Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. to bust the union with strikebreakers.

Serrin's book is timely. The so-called free market is no longer a sacred cow. The new administration is heralding broad job-training and education policies to reverse a 20-year decline in real wages due in large part to the loss of millions of well-paid jobs in industry. The concept is to prod business to pursue a high-skill, high-tech and high-wage strategy -- as in Western Europe and Japan -- instead of moving jobs abroad in a perpetual search for the cheapest labor.
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Author:Zon, Calvin G.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 9, 1993
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