East Chicago, Ind. — The blue-collar voices of northwest Indiana are barely heard anymore. To the east, the once-sputtering auto industry hums along in the rest of the state and in Michigan. To the west, Chicago's service industries roar.
But this Saturday, when five steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America hold ``Save American Industry and Jobs Day'' in rallies across the country, they'll be talking about pockets of depression, such as this one here.
``We're very much a devastated area,'' says Tom DuBois, a laid-off steelworker and researcher for the Calumet Project for Industrial Jobs here. ``Manufacturing has been hit the hardest.'' A few weeks ago, three more manufacturers in the area announced closings.
``The city is deteriorating,'' agrees Jim Marrero, laid off from Inland Steel in November 1984. ``If you're unemployed, you don't have a chance.''
While much of the country prospers, unemployment remains stubbornly high here in Lake County, Ind. It stood at 11 percent in April, the latest figures available. The rate statewide was only 6.7 percent. Nor is Lake County alone. The nation's industrial belt is dotted with pockets of depression -- areas hard hit by the erosion of jobs in basic industries from timber to textiles.
The problem in northwest Indiana is steel. While the nation has lost just under half its steel jobs since 1981, this area, the largest steel-producing region in the United States, has lost more. United Steelworkers Local 1014 in Gary, for example, has lost three-quarters of its jobs since 1981. And there is little hope that the slide is over.
``It keeps going down, down, down,'' says Local 1014 member Paul Hashiguchi, who was laid off June 1.
Reasons abound for the job declines in steel and other basic industries. Increased imports have played a major role. One aim of this weekend's ``Save American Industry and Jobs Day'' is to pressure Washington to stiffen its actions against foreign steel. The two-hour teleconference will link 53 rally sites around the country. Technology also has played a role as companies rush to modernize their plants.
Ironically, manufacturing as a share of the nation's total output has remained remarkably stable for decades, says Doug Cliggott, an economist with the Conference Board. ``What is getting a lot of attention is the no-growth or actual contractive phenomenon in employment.'' While the US has created a net 11.1 million new jobs since 1978, the manufacturing sector actually lost more than 1.3 million. Future prospects for manufacturing job growth look bleak. That leaves many unemployed in northwest Indiana with little hope of getting well-paying jobs back.
Though he's been unemployed for two years, Don Dowdy of Local 1014 considers himself lucky. ``I got a pension coming,'' he says.
Larry Warman, another unemployed member of Local 1014, may not be so fortunate. Laid off five weeks ago, Mr. Warman hopes to get back to work in the fall. If not, ``I'll look for a job that will probably pay $8,000 to $10,000 less a year,'' says the steelworker, who used to make $30,000 a year.
The solution, according to many unemployed steelworkers, is stronger action by the federal government against imports, more cooperation from steel companies, and a stronger stand by their union, which is negotiating national contracts with several US steelmakers. Their reactions are mixed to save-the-jobs rallies such as the one this Saturday. Some members call it a waste of time; others see it as a way to get national attention.