The End of an Era


The
blast furnaces loiter on the horizon in this grim steel town of
East Chicago, Indiana. They are broken down, inert masses. They
are hollow tributes to the bygone days when the American steel industry
was strong and vigorous. 

One
more mill fell silent. The mill predates 1920. It housed operations
for several steel companies over the years until LTV Steel entered
in the 1980s. Last December, LTV Steel filed for bankruptcy. More
than 2,500 employees, hourly workers, and managers will lose their
jobs. The dislocation is attributable in part to imported steel,
which has driven prices down. 

Dave
Raybuck worked as an iron worker at LTV Steel’s Indiana Harbor
Works mill. His responsibilities included structural repair, burning,
welding, and field installation. Raybuck, who has three children
and seven grandchildren, is just one the casualties of the layoffs.
He grew up in Pounxatamy, Pennsylvania. His father worked in the
mills in Donora, Pennsylvania, until the blast furnace shut down
in the early 1950s. Raybuck’s grandfather worked in the mines
of North Central Pennsylvania, where he got his son a job in the
mines. The family legacy continued when Dave Raybuck began serving
as a welding instructor in the Army. 

“I
got out of the Army and got a job driving a truck,” Raybuck
said. “Youngstown Sheet & Tube was looking for journeymen
welders.” 

Raybuck
did not come up through an apprenticeship. Rather, he came in off
the street as a welder. At the time of the layoffs, Raybuck had
worked in the industry almost 27 years. He started with Youngstown
Sheet & Tube. Shortly thereafter, the company became Youngstown
Steel, which merged with J & L Steel. The company later merged
with Republic to become LTV steel. Raybuck stayed with the company
through its evolution. 

“I
worked for five different companies in 27 years,” explained
Raybuck. “I was a welder up until 1983 or 1984. Then, they
combined us into iron workers.” 

Mariana
Flores, likewise, has steel in his bones. He grew up in the shadows
of the union hall in East Chicago, where his father worked for the
power combustion department in the service end of the mill. 

“My
father tried to talk me out of it [going to work for LTV],”
Flores said, adding with a chuckle that his father worked for Inland
Steel. “LTV was the little kid on the block. Inland was the
big dog.” 

Flores,
who has a wife and three kids, worked as a machinist for LTV. His
responsibilities included making parts for different departments
in the mill. Flores also served as a union representative. At the
time of his layoff, Flores had worked for LTV for 27 and one half
years. 

Like
Raybuck, Mike Street worked as an iron worker for LTV. He differs,
however, in that his father was a pressman with the Chicago Tribune.
His grandfather also had ink in his blood. He worked as a pressman
with the Sun-Times. Street was born in Chicago. Then, his
parents moved to Hammond. Street started in the steel industry at
19 years old. He had put in applications with Bethlehem Steel and
Inland Steel. 

Eventually,
Youngstown Sheet & Tube hired Street.“Everyone was hired
back then,” Street said. “It was the Vietnam War.”
The prospects excited the young Street. He went to work at a rate
of $2.98 per hour, which was big money then. 

Hard
Times 

LTV’s
bankruptcy and the subsequent layoffs have created a pervasive uncertainty
about health insurance, pensions, and other benefits. 

The
uncertainty is complicated by the grim reality that some of the
workers who lost their jobs have worked very little outside of the
steel industry. Many former LTV employees remain optimistic. They
cling to the hope that another steel company will come and rehire
many of LTV’s former employees. 

“Right
now, I am going to wait and see if they hire anyone back,”
said Street. “I am going to look into being a boilermaker.” 

Former
employees such as Street with 30 or more years experience may enjoy
more security, since they are eligible for pensions. Others like
Raybuck are more likely to feel the squeeze financially. 

“Most
guys who have got 30 years won’t have to scramble financially,”
said Raybuck. “Guys like me with 27 years will have to scramble.
I will have to work at something until I’m 62” 

Flores,
who studied manufacturing and engineering technology at Purdue-Calumet,
already found success in making the transition. He has experience
as an instructor. He also had a management position at one time.
He parlayed the experience into a job as a substitute teacher. 

“I
know I will survive,” Flores said. “I know my family will
survive.” Flores is concerned about his friends because many
are unprepared for their current predicament. Former LTV employees
will be forced to take pay cuts when they go elsewhere to seek jobs.
Whereas an employee at LTV Steel might have earned $21 per hour
plus good benefits, the same person may fetch $10 per hour at another
job. 

Mike
Street shares many of the same concerns. He considers himself and
his family among the fortunate, in that his house and vehicles are
paid for. Now, he sets his sight on July of this summer, when his
daughter will get married. Street knows his savings will evaporate
with the expenses incurred for the wedding. 

The
hard times in East Chicago go back to the days when Youngstown and
Pittsburgh encountered hardship in the face of steel industry troubles. 

“It
[the lay offs] will be devastating,” Raybuck said. “I
went through this down in Youngstown. It took five years for Youngstown
to come back.” 

The
results of the massive layoffs will be manifold. The real estate
market will suffer, as many people leave the area. The value of
property will decline. Businesses will go by the wayside. And, as
the tax base shrinks, school districts will be impacted. 

“Obviously,
the employees will be hit hard by the layoffs,” said Joe Kosina,
president of the Lake Shore Chamber of Commerce. “But it will
have a spiraling effect throughout the community.” 

East
Chicago, Indiana is like many other cities in the rust belt. It
must cope with a non-diverse job base. Now, all the indications
of desperation blemish the landscape. Casinos and other outlets
for gambling can be found throughout the communities of East Chicago,
Gary, and Hammond. Many families will pick up the stakes and move
elsewhere. 

“This
area has been dying for a long time,” explained Mariano Flores.
“And I think it just died a little more.” 

Vanishing
Americana 

The
manufacturing base in the U.S. continues to weaken, giving rise
to questions about the makeup of the American economy in the future.
It would seem that as the economy becomes more service based, the
gap between the rich and poor will widen. The LTV closure, likewise,
points to the end of a way of life. 

“I
will miss the camaraderie of the guys I worked with. We spent more
time in the mills than with our families,” said Raybuck. “It
is like a big family. Many of us have been together for 27 years.” 

The
layoffs are indicative of the larger problems that the American
steel industry continues to face on the global landscape. Nearly
30,000 jobs disappeared in the past 16 months. Since late 1997,
the number of domestic steel companies entering bankruptcy has exceeded
20. The decline is attributable to low-cost steel from the international
market and, over the past year, to the recession. Furthermore, American
steel companies are paying the health care costs of retirees. 

Five
of the nation’s biggest steel companies are considering a merger
into a single corporation. U.S. Steel is outlining the developing
U.S. merger plan. It would require the implementation of President
Bush’s three-part program, announced to manage the excessive
imports of steel that have given rise to the depression of the U.S.
steel market.          Z 


Joseph
Hoff is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He has contributed
to the
Indian Star, Sailing World, and American
Artist Watercolor
magazine.