By Peter H. Milliken
Forty years ago today, on Black Monday, workers at Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s Campbell Works were wondering how they were going to take care of their families without the steel mill income that had provided for them and their families, many for decades.
Shock and near-disbelief were the reactions of Bert R. Cene when he arrived at his steel mill job Sept. 19, 1977, and heard the news that signaled the demise of a steelmaking way of life that had defined and sustained the Mahoning Valley for many generations.
“It was almost unbelievable,” Cene said of learning 40 years ago that the Campbell Works would close, idling some 5,000 workers, including himself.
“The mills had been there for 100 years,” Cene observed.
On that fateful day, Cene heard the terrible news on his car radio as he arrived for his 3-11 p.m. shift as an apprentice electrician in the blast furnace at that mill.
Cene, who is now director of the Workforce Development Board of Mahoning and Columbiana Counties, said his reaction was “total shock that you could even think about shutting down something that big.”
When rumors surfaced before Black Monday of a possible mill shutdown, Cene recalled telling his co-workers he believed the mill could not close because the steel it produced was essential for national defense.
“It was shock, but it didn’t hit home because, at that time, the mills were so expansive,” observed Robert E. Bush Jr., who had been a laborer in the seamless finishing mill at the Campbell Works from 1970 to 1973 after returning from his Marine Corps service in Vietnam.
To him, the closing announcement didn’t seem “as catastrophic as it ended up being,” said Bush, who was a Youngstown police officer when he heard the news on Black Monday.
Bush is now director of the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services.
Failed to modernize
Before Sept. 19, 1977, Cene and Bush said they had noticed the lack of investment and failure to modernize the mill.
“There were a lot of parts they weren’t ordering. We were using older parts. They weren’t putting a lot of money into the plant. They were kind of patching it, rather than fixing it the way it should have been,” Cene said of mill management.
Cene cited three reasons for the mill shutdown: the lack of a navigable waterway to serve the mill; the high cost of compliance with then-new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations; and labor-management disputes over wages and concessions.
Initially, it appeared displaced workers could simply work in another steel mill, but it later turned out Black Monday would be “the beginning of the end” of the large Mahoning Valley steel mills, Bush said.
“Everybody I graduated with was still in the mill,” Bush said of his peers in the Campbell Memorial High School Class of 1965.
Campbell was “a company town,” where Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. had built housing for its workers and where mill workers and members of their families could be treated at the company hospital, he recalled.
Getting a financially rewarding job in the mill was easy, Bush and Cene said.
Shortly after returning from the military, Bush and his buddies were going on a fishing trip to the company’s Coalburg Lake recreation area in Hubbard, when he decided to stop at the Campbell Works employment office and apply for a job while wearing shorts.
“I ran in and filled out an app. It was a Thursday. The guy said, ‘OK. Come back Monday,’ and he said, ‘Hey, wear long pants,’ and I had a job,” Bush recalled.
Cene recalled going to the same employment office in 1974, completing and submitting an application and taking a simple test on a Thursday and being told to start work the following Monday as a blast-furnace laborer.
Obstacles to the re-employment of laid-off steelworkers after the major Mahoning Valley mill closings of the late 1970s and early 1980s included the unrealistic expectation the mills would reopen and a reluctance to work elsewhere for lower wages, Bush said.
“A lot of the guys didn’t want to go back to school” to train for another career, Cene said.
Cene recalled seeing emotionally devastated, laid-off steelworkers parking their cars near the idle mills and staring at them in the years between their closing and their demolition.
The Steelworkers’ Re-Employment Challenge was a state-funded, statewide program of the United Steelworkers Union and the AFL-CIO, which worked with “well over 1,000” displaced steelworkers, Cene recalled.
It focused on peer support for displaced steelworkers, helping them obtain new employment in various fields based on their “transferable skills” and, if necessary, enrolling them in retraining programs.
For example, Cene said, former steel mill electricians and crane operators might have found employment in the construction industry.
“Trying to replace some of those [steel mill] wages was very difficult,” Cene said of the Steelworkers’ Re-Employment Challenge during the 1980s.
Today, however, as soon as mass layoffs are announced, the re-adjustment and retraining process begins immediately, Bush said.
“I don’t think it’s as much of a challenge as it used to be because that whole retraining and displaced-worker process is part of the layoff process now,” Bush added.