Insight into Sweat: Boom and Bust in the Rust Belt

By Simon Hodgson

"Rosie the Riveter" working on an A-31 dive bomber, Tennessee, 1943. Photo by US Office of War Information photographer Alfred T. Palmer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Geology was destiny for 19th-century Pennsylvania. In the 1860s, when the process of making steel out of iron ore, coal, and limestone was refined, the state had all of the raw materials necessary for the production of steel at scale. Combining minerals, river transport links, manufacturing experience, and access to Pittsburgh investment, Pennsylvania was poised to create the metal of the future.

As the United States rebuilt infrastructure shattered by the Civil War, steel companies across Pennsylvania grew into major national corporations. The greatest, U.S. Steel, was formed in 1901 by a merger between three companies. Aided by favorable government oversight in the 1920s and fueled by military contracts during World Wars I and II, it became a virtual monopoly. By 1946, America was manufacturing more than half of the world’s steel.

All around the Great Lakes, cities were prospering thanks to the steel industry. The labor was physically demanding and dangerous, but for thousands of working-class Americans, including people of color and immigrants from Eastern Europe, the well-paid union jobs at the mill represented higher standards of living.

Joining the union was a sign of security for many: it represented health benefits, unemployment pay, and someone to protect steelworkers’ interests. Unions, however, did not favor everyone. The structures and inner workings of unions often kept workers of color in the worst paid and most dangerous jobs.

Despite some inequity within unions, America’s steel industry was so successful in the first half of the 20th century that, to many of its employees and executives, its dominance seemed inevitable. But the foundations of America’s steel industry were rotten. Whereas early steel magnates had invested in new technology that increased competitiveness, by the 1950s, America’s steel executives were more interested in keeping profits high.

This lack of innovation opened the door to international competitors. Postwar steel companies in Germany, Austria, and Japan—desperate to rebuild their countries’ devastated economies—refined the basic oxygen furnace (BOF) process: a technique that resulted in fewer impurities, faster production, and reduced labor costs. By 1980, Japan controlled 16 percent of world steel output; the US share had dropped to 14 percent.

While American steel manufacturers were being overtaken internationally, the hardworking Great Lakes cities also confronted major technological shifts, as steel was replaced by ceramics, plastics, and aluminum. Lower demand for steel meant reduced prices for mills and fewer jobs for US steelworkers. As US mills’ competitiveness dwindled, they laid off workers and closed plants. The result was a downturn in manufacturing hubs around the Great Lakes that continues to affect not only steelworkers, but also thousands of auxiliary and steel-related businesses.

While the return of the major manufacturing plants to America’s Rust Belt is uncertain, many communities are rebuilding. There are newer “mini-mills”—smaller companies that produce steel by using electricity to superheat scrap metal. An influx of new people—in many instances immigrants from Central and South America—has revitalized communities, bringing the energy of start-ups as well as the tax dollars needed to fund local schools. As the silent mills slowly rust, these former company towns are discovering a new rhythm of life.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Sweat—running through October 21 at The Geary—humanizes this issue, depicting friends and family affected by the steel industry’s collapse. Get your tickets today! And look for the extended article in Words on Plays, available for purchase at the box office, in the Geary lobby, and online.

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