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Steel Jobs and Fracking

By Martin Zehr - Industrial Worker, July-August 2014

The issue of steel jobs in the Monongahela Valley has been an issue for decades. For the last 3-4 decades workers have seen mills shut down and threats of other closings held over the heads of those still working. Workers have seen the mill close in Homestead; USS mills in Duquesne and Clairton closed in 1984. In an eight-year span, from 1979 to 1987, the Pittsburgh region lost 133,000 manufacturing jobs. Today, there is new cry from the steel bosses--XL pipeline and fracking is a “USS right”. “Save Our Steel” jobs. Workers in orange flame resistant suits stand out at the rally in Munhall on May 19, where steel bosses, USW reps and local politicians share the stage and the message.

Some where in the crowd is the IWW. A worker passes by on the way to the rally says: “Good to see the Wobblies here.” Not much time for discussion. But workers remember Homestead 1397 Rank-and-File. They still know the name of 1397’s President Ron Wiesen, who fought the steel bosses and the closing of the Homestead mill. Even the speakers at the rally point to the site where steel workers fought the company’s Pinkerton’s for union recognition in 1892. No promises from the bosses back then, just the exercise of b rutal force.

Everything is packaged today: the bottled water brought to the rally, the bags of chips handed out to rally participants, the speeches from local politicians telling us all how hard they are working to save steel jobs and the promises from USW reps and the AFL-CIO of better days ahead. Speeches speak of US Steel as the source for dynamism in the years ahead. Make US Steel tubes for Keystone XL. Use US Steel in fracking neighboring communities. USW sings the praises of USS with the all too familiar guarantee that “...we’ve had our differences[with USS] in the past” but we’re all in this together. And the question becomes who is “we”? Do they mean our neighbors, friends and co-workers throughout Allegheny, Beaver and Butler Counties whose spring waters are being turned to black? Do they mean the people that our kids have gone to school with and their parents who are getting sick? Always with the USW it’s “Better them than us”, and the them grows, while the US decreases. They keep us in line for USS and they serve no free lunch.

Today, 35,000 full time and part-time jobs in primary metals manufacturing remain in the state of Pennsylvania, down from75,000 in 1990 according to the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Primary metal employment is down 29% in Southwestern Pennsylvania since 1990, and down from 28,000 in 1969 to 17,000 in 2006 according to Pittsburgh REMI model. So it can be said, the deal cut between USW leaders and USS has not worked to the advantage of saving steel jobs up to this point. In 1954 the USWA had 1,000,000 members. As of 1996, USW had only 150,000 members employed in the American steel industry But what about the new words, the new promises being made at Munhall? Can we predict a new realization of peace and prosperity for steel workers in the decades ahead? Are the future generations economically secure with the promises of fracking and an XL pipeline? While the state AFL-CIO officials and the USW local reassure workers at the rally that such is the case, even national AFL-CIO, USW and UMWA safety and health officials warn of the danger of fracking in May 2012 in a jointly signed letter to OSHA, NIOSH and MSHA. “In addition to health threats, there are serious safety hazards in the oil and gas extraction industries that put workers at risk.”

Perhaps we should give US Steel the benefit of the doubt after being cited by the EPA for dumping at Fairless Works, and in Ohio and Indiana for dumping pollutants into our waters. The unbottled waters that we drink from the springs, streams and rivers and use every day, as do our rural neighbors and friends in Allegheny, Butler and Beaver Counties are being put at risk. That’s the same water that you drink and use fellow workers, US Steel isn’t about to make guarantees about that. Maybe US Steel’s improved rank from #2 air polluter to number 8 in 2010 is a real sign of a good dog, USS. And maybe those lawsuits by the cities of River Rouge and Granite City, Illinois were all smoke with no fire. Maybe we should ask the 300,000 folks in West Virginia what they think about reassurances of safe drinking water from state officials and corporations. Or we can take the word of a corporation that is a leading supplier to the Marcellus Shale at face value and trust it. Didn’t they give people their word that Donora’s smog air inversion had nothing to do with them?

Does USS really care about what happens in our communities when they promote schemes like fracking and the XL pipeline? Not when they get contracts for 50 miles of tubes to be run in Pennsylvania by Texas frackers. USS doesn’t have to live with the consequences of fracking and the pipeline where they live. They are here today and gone tomorrow. No worry about the water table or subsidence. No worry about aquifer depletions or fault lines. USS won’t get sick from the crap pulled up from the shale beds. They are not around to even deal with a clean-up if a waste disposal truck tips over into a stream.

IWW is back, the giant has awakened. Not to echo the speakers, but to say the forbidden word: “Strike”. “Strike fellow workers for your jobs.” We are Industrial Workers of the World and steel is the ground from which our union grew. From the Western Federation of Miners to the workers of the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rock, the IWW was in the frontlines. Maybe we should stand side-by-side with our neighbors and not fall for yet another con job that promises to give us more jobs and cleaner water, while giving us neither. Maybe we should recognize that we have more in common with our neighbors and co-workers than we ever did with the employer class. That’s what the IWW believes. That’s why we organize, not just for more bread-and–butter, but for bread and roses. Roses from our gardens can grow with good clean spring water that is Western Pennsylvania. For a better life for working men and women that is not at the expense of others


“In January 1983, the regional economy officially--that is, numerically--bottomed out. Unemployment in Allegheny County hit 13.9 percent, a rosy figure compared to the rest of the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, where the adjusted unemployment rate hit an astonishing 17.1 percent (unadjusted, the number was actually higher, 18.2 percent).”1 Read more:

PITTSBURGH ECONOMIC QUARTERLY, University of Pittsburgh, University Center for Social and Urban Research, June 2009

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