Manufacturing communities more and more are losing a grip on the very thing that has held them up for almost a century. Deindustrialization has taken a hard toll on most small communities across America. "The system that seemed so capable of providing a steadily growing standard of living during the 1960s had become totally incapable of providing people with a simple home mortgage, a stable job, or a secure pension." (Bluestone and Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America)
"It was an old game, what was being done in Homestead-use things up, people and places, then discard them. Tobacco and cotton planters used the land in the South, then moved on when the soil was exhausted. Mining companies took the gold and silver from the West, then closed down the towns they had built. Textile companies built mills in New England to use cheap labor, then moved to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, then to the South, then abroad. Now abandonment has come to America's steel towns." Serrin William, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town (NY: Vintage, 1993), p 411.
As a result of the limited market for steel rail and the effects of foreign competition, the Steelton plant has gradually been downsized since the 1980s. Steelworkers witnessed the elimination of major departments, such as the Bar Mill (1986) and the Frog and Switch Factory (1992). In the words of Ike Gittlen, Local 1688 President, the mill became "a rusting hulk of its former glory...so close to a shutdown...that only the Gods of Steel could tell you what kept it from joining the millions of tons of American Steelmaking capacity that were scrapped..." ("Detours and Delusions")
Many of those still employed have lost both their faith in the steel industry and their confidence in the union's ability to protect them from layoff. Another local union official explains:
"Our plant has been losing money since 1982, so we always got a hammer over our head that...'if you don't do a certain thing, we're going to shut you down'...everybody's working under a fear that the place ain't gonna be here...we got this new steel-making furnace and all this equipment and they still aren't getting the tonnage out that they projected...it's been a year and a half since that's been on line. People are really startin' to get scared...their jobs are in jeapardy...this is after thirteen years of being under the gun...So there's a lot of pressure...on the guys...and on us to try...to maintain the morale." Union Interview
The continuous flow of worker layoffs resulted in a decline in population in Steelton and mass layoffs forced workers into early retirement or simply unemployment.
"People are really startin' to get scared. You know, their jobs are in jeopardy, and this is after 13 years of being under the gun. I mean, [they say] 'if you do a certain thing, we're going to shut you down, we're going to shut this division down.' And that's come true in a number of situations...And uh, everyone working under a fear that the place ain't gonna be here." Greg Bowers, local Steelworker
"I had five years left and I had to go...Oh, I retired, but I didn't want to go. I was in good health. I was a foreman of my department, I didn't want to go...I was 55 years of age, I was in good health." Joe Inbrognio retired steelworker
There have been a number of initiatives to reverse this industrial decline in Steelton, and although the community has been hard hit, many are optimistic.
Among a number of policy choices available to restore 'corporate responsibility' and real employment security for American workers, the reconstruction of the American labor movement ought to be a priority. Not the same labor movement of the post-war era, but a new one tuned to today's environment. Ike Gittlen, President Local 1688, Steelton