It was just before 7 a.m., and the fog that had settled over the river was beginning to lift. As the sun began to streak through the mist, the men made their way into the labyrinth of buildings where they worked.It would be scant consolation to these men that the closures of steel mills all up and down the Mahoning and Monongahela valleys was creative destruction at work, a shakeout of suboptimally small plants at less advantageous locations.
In the next hour, their lives would change forever.
From then on, this date in 1977 would be known as Black Monday in the Steel Valley, which stretches from Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio eastward toward Pittsburgh. It is the date when Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly furloughed 5,000 workers in one day.
Campbell Works plant gate with open-hearth shop behind.
The younger people of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan might have seen the closings and thought about seeking their fortunes elsewhere. The people who had made their life plans with the expectation that the mills would always be there, not so much, and at first, policy makers weren't too worried.
News reports from the days and weeks following Black Monday showed that the White House, larger business community and economic experts were detached from the potency of what was happening here. They thought the overall economic impact was exaggerated, that it would not be the calamity [H. K. Porter rolling mill hand Gary] Steinbeck and everyone else in Youngstown knew it would be.The troubles of 1977 might have been foreseen as long ago as the end of the war, and yet when they hit, they hit hard.
“No one never calculated the cultural tragedy as part of the equation either,” Steinbeck said. “They didn’t just dismantle the old mills, they dismantled the societal fabric of what made Youngstown Youngstown.”
The events of Black Monday forever changed not only the Steel Valley, but her people and eventually American culture and politics. Just last year the reverberations were felt in the presidential election when many hard-core Democrats from this area broke from their party to vote for Donald Trump, a Republican who promised to bring jobs back to the Heartland.It wasn't just Donald Trump: the Reagan administration did a few things to protect domestic steel producers (and domestic steel consumers, particularly the legacy automobile companies.) But Japanese cars and Korean, later Chinese, steel, wasn't the main threat to the legacy steel companies.
Even today, after the election, the Washington establishment still hasn’t processed or properly dissected its effects. Economic experts predicted that the service industry would be the employment of the future. Steelworkers were retrained to fill jobs in that sector, which was expected to sustain the middle class in the same way that manufacturing did.
It did not. According to a study done by the Midwest Center for Research, the average salary of a steelworker in the late 1970s was $24,772.80. Today, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the median household income in the Mahoning Valley is $24,133.
There was also a push for Americans to be more mobile. Lose your job in Youngstown? Fine, move to Raleigh or Texas. No one calculated that the tight-knit people of Youngstown didn’t want to leave their town.
There are still good jobs in steel, but the minimills are located closer to markets: to the extent that the minimills are producing long products, they're more likely to be along navigable rivers (thus look to Arkansas and Louisiana for your H-sections.) The legacy steel companies failed to take the challenge from the minimills seriously. As I noted a year ago, "steel consumers gained, but some communities and many steel workers, lost."