Now defunct steel industry and Pittburgh recognized black history

Discussion in 'Honoring Black Ancestors' started by dustyelbow, Feb 20, 2006.

  1. dustyelbow

    dustyelbow Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 25, 2005
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    Its always easier to talk about things when you profitable operations are completely gone and probably not coming back again.

    It's kind of ironic how much resistance our people faced in this city and industry to see it toss aside politically and economically to never be of any great importance there again. They met their end and no glory to boast of today except black contributions. Mmmm

    Blacks help drive steel revolution in Pittsburgh
    Senior Staff Writer
    February 17, 2006

    Histories rich with joy and sadness

    SEE ALSO: Hill District residents remember the way that things used to be

    Pittsburgh’s location and flourishing coal deposits helped give the city an industry and its nickname — the Steel City — in the early 19th century.

    As steel mills slowly took over the city and its surrounding areas, the jobs they created became major places of employment.

    Though long hours and harsh conditions were dealt to all, blacks were faced with an especially steep climb, as they made their way through the steel industry.

    “Before unionization around the 1930s, during the earliest period, African-Americans were excluded for the most part from the industry,” said Joe Trotter, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

    Because steel mills were dominated by white labor, strike breaking became one of the only avenues for blacks to enter the industry. From the days of the Civil War, many blacks — who would often come north from Southern mills — were hired to take the place of white strikers. But often, black workers were only used until the whites came back to work and the strike was settled.

    “Striking white workers would be resentful toward anybody breaking the strike, but if you can demonize them because they were a different race, it made it more intense,” said Robert Ruck, a history professor at Pitt.

    During the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, the lack of unions made conditions in steel mills hard for all workers. Jobs were dangerous, hours were long and pay was low.

    “But blacks were pretty much at the bottom of the heap,” Ruck said. “They’re the last to get hired and the first to get let go.”

    The major problem for blacks became the way in which they were hired. There was a system of seniority that placed workers into certain jobs — often based on race — and from there, men were able to be promoted only within that area.

    Whites were placed in the sects that promised the most mobility, Ruck said.

    “If you get stuck in a particular line of progression, that’s your job ladder,” he said. “And you climb that job ladder and if it doesn’t go very high, you don’t go far.”

    The issue didn’t disappear with the emergence of unions, but black steelworkers were slowly making their way into the industry.

    In 1936, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was formed from its parent union, the Congress of Industrial Organization. The SWOC eventually became the United Steel Workers in 1942.

    “With unionization comes a degree of self-respect for workers,” Ruck said. “It gives them the power to bargain collectively.”

    And with the overcoming of divisions, taking on the management became more feasible.

    But at the outset, blacks weren’t necessarily admitted to the unions, Trotter said. And if they were, segregation was not uncommon. But by the time of the establishment of the USW, blacks were slowly becoming integrated.

    “I think this was a watershed in the experience of the blacks in the steel industries,” he said.

    Though the system of seniority still didn’t function equally between blacks and whites, blacks were now less likely to lose their jobs based solely on race. Membership in a union provided an increasing sense of stability, though it was never guaranteed.

    As the steel industry picked up during World War I, more workers were needed because supplying Europe with ammunition and supplies was based in the production of steel, and many white workers joined the military, Trotter said.

    According to John Hinshaw, associate professor of history at Lebanon Valley College, though blacks were a minority both in the industry and unions, their gains were enormous considering the time.

    “This is a time when it was legal to exclude Jews and blacks from places like country clubs and even neighborhoods,” he said. “The steel workers were without a doubt one of the most integrated and progressive institutions.”

    After World War II, as integration continued, blacks still faced grievances that had been an issue all along — their were paid less, their jobs were less desirable and “consequently they lived in worse neighborhoods and had more occupational health problems,” Hinshaw said.

    Cancer became a problem because of the exposure to certain gasses that became prevalent in jobs assigned to blacks.

    With the ’60s and ’70s came two events — the Civil Rights Movement and the eventual decline of the steel industry. In 1974, the Consent Decree was designed to put a stop to racial discrimination and establish a standard policy for seniority, Hinshaw said.

    “This changed the balance of power and it got easier for blacks to shift into better jobs,” he said.

    It became more difficult for mill supervisors to hire based on race.

    But even by the disintegration of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in the ’70s and ’80s, blacks never gained full equality, Hinshaw said.

    “It’s worth remembering that when [the SWOC] is founded in 1936, it’s pretty amazing that blacks and whites were voting in the same organization and both votes were counted. That’s 30 years before the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “But blacks were always the minority and their position was almost always worse than whites.”
  2. dustyelbow

    dustyelbow Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 25, 2005
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    Retired Sparrows Point steelworkers Lee Douglas Jr. (left) and Eddie Bartee Jr. spoke at CCBC Dundalk last Thursday in honor of Black History Month photo by Joseph M. Giordano

    Before important rulings, unequal treatment routine

    by Joseph M. Giordano

    It was hard, I'll tell you that.”

    That was Eddie Bartee Sr., a former Sparrows Point resident and retired steelworker, talking about being black and working at Bethlehem Steel during the American civil rights movement.

    And it was the understatement of the evening.

    In honor of Black History Month, Community College of Baltimore County labor studies professor Bill Barry hosted his annual talk with retired black steelworkers last Thursday night at the Dundalk Campus's student lounge.

    Bartee, the first black president of the former United Steelworkers of America Local 2610 on Dundalk Avenue, was joined by fellow retiree and steelworker civil rights activist Lee Douglas Jr., in speaking before the 45-minute film Struggles in Steel, about the black American experience in the industry.

    Douglas preferred to speak more about his time in the U.S. Marines than in the mill, but Bartee talked at length about his Sparrows Point experience.

    “I started working at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant in 1955,” Bartee told a crowd of 30 labor studies students. “The black workers had it rough. We would train the white workers and they would get the promotions and such.”

    Bartee described circumstances that were common in mid-century America.

    “Yes, the mill was segregated,” Bartee said. “They expected us to know our place, so to speak. There was no violence at the mill [between black and white workers], but the conditions were tough.”

    Black workers were always denied the higher positions, according to Bartee, and were further humiliated by being made to take tests.

    “I had a high school diploma,” Bartee said during his talk. “But when I wanted a higher job in the tin mill, the foreman said I would have to take this test.”

    After studying for several days and night, Bartee was finally given the test, which consisted of basic math problems like fractions and division.

    “It was easy,” Bartee said. “I could do those in my head.”

    Eventually Bartee got the position, but who did he replace?

    “A man who could not read a newspaper,” Bartee said. “And I had to take a math test. That's just the way things were.”

    The steel mills were ordered to integrate in 1962, according to the film, because the federal government would no longer honor contracts from mills that segregated workers.

    “It was difficult at first for everyone,” Bartee said to the students. “There are people you just don't like, and they were all made to do everything together. I knew guys that would go home to shower instead of sharing a shower with a black steelworker.”

    In 1970 Bartee was elected as the first black president of Local 2609.

    “When we first went to the unions for help, there was none,” he said. “But that eventually changed for the better. They began to help us out and became our ally.”

    The second shock wave to hit the American steel mills was a 1974 Congressional consent decree that forced mills to pay African-American workers for years of discrimination.

    “Ha,” Bartee said. “We called it ‘black money' instead of back money, like they called it.”

    Though the decree opened many doors to opportunity for black steelworkers, what they received as compensation was not quite what the roughly 10,000 black workers at Sparrows Point were expecting.

    Bartee and steelworkers in the film discussed how much black workers were paid and how they reacted when they got their checks.

    “Most of my friends sent it back,” Bartee said. “They got checks for $300. Three hundred dollars for years and years of discrimination. We didn't want it.”

    The documentary was made in 1998 by Pittsburgh filmmaker Tony Buba and has been showing at CCBC for each of the past seven years, according to Barry.

    “It's an important film,” Barry said Friday. “Not only as a history lesson but as a lesson to everyone who grew up around here.”

    During Black History Month, Barry, who has been teaching labor studies at the college since 1998, tries to focus his students' attention on not-so-famous African Americans.

    “I like to tell the students growing up here that you have working-class heroes right here,” Barry said. “They don't have to be rich or famous to be role models. They can be people like Eddie Bartee and Lee Douglas.”

    A few of Barry's students were awed by the film and agreed with their teacher about the importance of watching it.

    “It was extremely interesting,” said former GM worker and Inverness resident Tom Hackett, who is white. “I never experienced that type of racism in [New Jersey], where I'm originally from. But to see what those men and women went through was tough.”

    Hackett saw parallels between what the mills went through and the current state of the auto industry.

    “The other shoe is about to fall,” Hackett said. “All those jobs will be lost all over again.”

    Bartee echoed Hackett's concern with a double sadness.

    “It's a shame to see all that we fought for our children not mean a thing if all the jobs are gone,” Bartee said. “This generation will never know what we did for them and their future as workers.”
  3. info-moetry

    info-moetry STAFF STAFF

    United States
    Dec 20, 2004
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    A+ technician
    The rotten Apple