Life slows down in New York steel town
Lackawanna, N.Y. — A few weeks back Bill Daley, an unemployed steelworker from this Buffalo fringe town, took a small-plane trip around the area. It was supposed to be a joy ride, a fun experience, for the job-seeking Mr. Daley -- but it brought him to the verge of tears. What saddened him was the aerial view of Bethlehem Steel's mammoth Lackawanna plant, which at its height was the third-largest producer of steel and steel products in the world. It lay absolutely still and silent in the Saturday morning sun.
``Nothing moved,'' Mr. Daley recalls, ``not a single man walking, no sign of a moving truck. Nothing! Why, it used to be a beehive down there. You couldn't walk two yards without bumping into someone.''
Time was when that plant employed 22,000 and just about the only day in 365 that it wasn't humming was Dec. 25. Its production went to manufacturers around the world, and in turn their products took Lackawanna steel to even more-remote corners of the globe. Even at the height of America's confrontation with Cuba's Fidel Castro, Lackawanna steel in the form of British-built buses rolled on the streets of Havana.
All this activity occurred to the great benefit of Buffalo in general and little Lackawanna in particular. But now all that is over. The mammoth plant shut down all but a few of its departments in the summer of '83. It no longer makes steel. ``None at all,'' says John Fouts, a local union leader. ``Not one single pound,'' he adds for emphasis.
The coke plant remains open with a fraction of its former work force, producing coke to power furnaces in other parts of the country. Some bar (flat steel) is also rolled, using ingots brought in from elsewhere, and the galvanizing plant operates with a third of the manpower it had as recently as two years ago. All told, fewer than 1,200 workers are now employed at the plant -- almost 21,000 fewer jobs than during the peak employment years ranging from the end of World War II into the early 1960s.
The impact has been devastating on the individual families involved and only a little less so on the region as a whole.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 turned Buffalo from a tiny village into a booming metropolis in not much more than 25 years. The fact that freight could be shipped to Albany by barge at $6 a ton -- compared with $100 by horse-drawn carts -- and then to the major markets of New York and overseas helped the city become a leading milling and manufacturing center, using grain and timber shipped in from distant points along the Great Lakes. The arts blossomed with the economic success and soon the city
was known as ``the Queen of the Lakes.''
Around the turn of the century steel came to the region, bringing still more wealth and luster to Buffalo while turning its Lackawanna suburb into a ``gold town,'' to quote nostalgic residents.
But then the sawmill interests moved elsewhere and milling declined when the St. Lawrence Seaway bypassed Buffalo in opening up a shortcut to the sea for freighters from the hinterland. Finally steel collapsed. Now the former ``monarch'' is one of the more economically depressed cities in the United States and the glitter has gone from Lackawanna's streets.
It's not like it used to be. ``A lot of folks dined out regularly during the week and everybody dined out on a Friday,'' Mr. Daley recalls. ``When you walked down the streets it seemed everyone was laughing.'' But not anymore.
In the local union hall in Lackawanna the posters proclaim: ``Steel imports steal American jobs.'' But Mr. Fouts puts it in perspective: ``Imports are only a small part of the story. A lot of things contributed to the collapse.'' He ticks them off on his fingers:
Overly high taxes. The town of Lackawanna ``lived off'' the plant, he says.
A militant union. At one time, the Lackawanna steelworkers were among the best-paid blue-collar workers in the world, says Mr. Fouts.
Poor management. Executives who fell afoul of top management elsewhere in the company, says Mr. Fouts, ``were sent here to do penance.''
New York State's environmental laws, which are ``the most stringent'' in the nation.
The number of ``electric shops'' (small plants with electric furnaces smelting down scrap metal using nonunion labor).
Cheap imports of what Mr. Fouts believes is subsidized steel.
For Bill Daley and other unemployed steelworkers, who or what is to blame is unimportant now. What counts is the job shortage (Lackawanna's unemployment is at 20 percent) and its cost in discouragement, family tensions, and broken homes.
Back in the '30s Mr. Daley's family moved up from Pennsylvania ``to get out of coal'' and forge a better life for themselves in steel. ``I used to thank them,'' Mr. Daley says. ``I never fancied being a coal miner.'' But he admits coal looks a whole lot better proposition these days than steel.
In many respects he is the prototype steelworker. He didn't finish high school. ``I quit the day I turned 18 and landed a job at the plant. You didn't need an education to get into steel, and the money was good right from the start. I couldn't wait.'' Then he asks the obvious rhetorical question: ``What kind of a job can you land without a high school diploma these days?'' On the other hand Mr. Daley's use of the English language is sound, better, in fact, than many a student who left school with diplom a in hand.
He was a switchman on the internal railroad system, directing hot metal from one part of the plant to the other. ``I'd just begun to earn good money. Things were looking real good just when the layoffs came.'' Then everything came crashing down. He recalls vividly the day the plant shut down. ``The distress sign went up [the US flag flown upside down] and someone painted a large Japanese flag on the side of a building. We had visions of starving to death,'' he says.
Steelworkers were used to layoffs, but never anything of this magnitude. Even so, the rumor most workers wanted to believe began circulating: This was just an attempt to bust the union. The plant would open again and they'd get their old jobs back. ``I even used my Visa card, expecting to be called back,'' Mr. Daley says. But after six months doubts began to creep in. After a year the message had sunk home completely. There would never be a recall. Now he says his Visa card ``is collecting dust. I
daren't take it out. I might use it!''
The self-discipline that keeps him from using his credit card is indicative of a rather special quality about steelworkers that has surfaced since the layoffs. Dr. Michael P. Farrell, a professor in the sociology department at New York State University, Buffalo, is one of several people looking into the social consequences of such massive layoffs. The results of investigations here and at Youngstown, Ohio, where other major layoffs occurred, are not in yet, but preliminary findings indicate a remarkable
resilience on the part of these men and their families.
Police reports show that crime statistics do not go up in these areas. ``Steelmen don't say, `Society has cheated me so I'll steal from society,' '' says Dr. Farrell. But, he adds, family court cases do go up -- divorce, wife abuse, child abuse.
John Fouts explains the family problems this way: ``With incentive bonuses [he often pulled in an extra $100 a week because of the incentives], we were the highest-paid blue-collar workers in the world. We spoiled our wives and kids. If they complained about anything, we bought them off. We said, `Here, take the money and go buy something.'
``We sent our kids to London and Paris for the vacation. We could afford to do it in those days. We had maybe three vehicles in the driveway, and many of us had in-ground pools in the backyard.''
Because of all this the newly arrived poverty is particularly hard to take, Mr. Fouts points out. A wife complains about the hardship and eventually a frustrated husband lashes out. ``That's where the family abuse comes in,'' he says. His recently married daughter grew up ``getting everything she wanted. Now she's married and her husband is laid off. She's complaining because she's not used to going without. I tell her I'm ashamed of her and that she's just got to get used to going without.'' At the sam e time, Mr. Fouts can sympathize. ``It's tough, real tough,'' he says.
One of the fortunate few who still have jobs with Bethlehem Steel, he cites his brother as a typical casualty of the layoff. He was earning $28,000 a year, plus incentives on top of that. Now he gets $12,000 a year, with no incentives, working for the Erie County Health Department. Out of that he has to pay $2,400 property taxes to the town of Lackawanna. ``That doesn't leave him much to live on,'' Mr. Fouts says. Most property taxes doubled when Lackawanna found much of its tax base had disap peared almost overnight.
Despite the obvious impact of such massive layoffs on the community, it isn't readily visible to a first-time visitor to the town. It is largely a community of small, single-family homes, a few in need of paint, but all neat and tidy. Gardens are colorful, and there is a remarkable absence of litter. It is ``Union-and-proud-of-it'' country, with strong ``buy-American-first'' attitudes.
That much is most obvious on the streets. Toyotas and Datsuns are a rarity. For the most part there is a lot of power under the hoods of the cars the people of Lackawanna drive. A majority are a good number of years old, dating back to the period when steel was still something in this town and most things that were beautiful in America were also big.
Meanwhile Mr. Daley is looking for a job locally. Like many in similar positions, he doesn't want to leave.
``I love this town,'' he says. ``I like the people here.'' Back in the '30s, one street would be a Polish street, another would be all Irish, a third Scots, another Italian. ``Now we have a lot of Arabs here,'' he says. ``It all makes the place so interesting.''
In his youth, he recalls, ``there wasn't much social mixing. Now everyone gets along just fine together.'' The changes began after World War II, when ethnically mixed marriages started showing up.
``I'm a harp [Irishman],'' says Mr. Daley, ``but I married a Pole.'' Unfortunately, his marriage has now broken up, a casualty, he feels, of the strains imposed by unemployment.