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Big Morgue (1939)

The Big Morgue

By Harold J. Ruttenberg. An article in Survey Graphic, April, 1939

Editor’s Note: Harold J. Ruttenberg served as the research director for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and the United Steelworkers of America, as a member of the U.S. War Production Board, and later with the Portsmouth Steel Company.

AS WE APPROACHED STEELVILLE FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF the river, we could see the graceful silvery mill stretching more than half a mile behind the town, at the foot of one of the hills that form the rich industrial Ohio River Valley. The late afternoon sun reflecting from the galvanized roof cast an orange light across the milltown houses and the rusty abandoned mill by the river. Entering at the north end of the vast structure, the endless ceiling drew my eyes until I had the feeling of infinity that one gets staring down a railroad track. We emerged two hours later from the southern end fascinated, exhausted, bewildered.

Just before leaving the mill I met Mike Michaels, an officer of the local union, sweeping up paper, bale tie ends, and dust in the shipping room. Mike came to America from Wales in 1904 at the age of fifteen. His father was one of the experienced Welsh hand-mill workers the company imported to run the now abandoned sheet mill when it was first built. Mike had worked there himself for over thirty years until it was closed last year. For twenty years he was a roller, an “aristocrat of labor,” earning $12 to $15 a day. Now he was doing a laborer’s job, at 63 cents an hour. Less than two hundred of the fifteen hundred displaced sheet mill workers in Steelville found jobs in the strip mill. “What do you think of her?” Mike asked.

“It’s impressive,” a friend with me replied, “impressive—all that big automatic machinery running virtually without manpower, like the works of a delicate Swiss watch!”

Mike leaned on his broom and with some bitterness said: “Impressive, huh! I’d call it oppressive, I would. Here I am pushing a broom, where I started over thirty years back. I’m not an old man yet. I’ve not turned fifty. But I’m too old to work on any of that impressive, I call it oppressive, machinery. They got a bunch of button pushers running this mill, young palookas I call them, just kids.”

“He merely meant it is impressive mechanically,” I interrupted.

Mike pointed to the endless ceiling with the massive machinery under it. “Look at her!” he said. “You know what we call her?—’The Big Morgue.’ The few of us old hand-mill men that got something to do here ain’t so bad off as the thirteen hundred or more fellows that are out starving on relief or struggling on WPA. When we meet on the street and get to talking we call this ‘the Big Morgue,’ the place where all our jobs went dead.”

No Place for the Displaced

EIGHTY-FIVE THOUSAND HAND MILL WORKERS ARE LESS fortunate than Mike Michaels. They are permanently displaced and cannot even get a laboring job in the strip mills. Their plight as individuals is tragic. Ralph Urbanic, typical of the many displaced workers I have talked with, was earning $10 a day in the hand-mill at New Castle, Pa., when it was operating. Of German-Slavic descent, hair just turning gray in his mid-forties, Ralph stands six feet tall, a heavy fellow with strained eyes behind thick glasses. His steel mill experience covers his whole life as a worker, he told me:

I’ve worked in this mill for thirty-three years, since I was thirteen years old. Twenty years ago I could have become a welder, but I stuck to the mill ’cause it paid more. They won’t call me to work at the strip mill, I’m too old. Maybe my two boys that worked with me in the mill will be called. They’re both on WPA, one has two kids, and the other just married last year. If they can save enough money, they’ll go into the trucking business. My unemployment compensation ran out last week, and we’ll have to go on relief so I can get on WPA. I can’t get a job at my trade ’cause the strip mills are putting the hand-mills on the bum. The only work I’ve had in a year was a few months at Shenango [the other hand-mill in New Castle which normally employs 2800]. Not more than a couple hundred of the twelve hundred men in our mill got work at Shenango, but they’ve all been let out. Anyway, the Shenango men expect to be through most anytime now. I’ve spent all my life here, I wouldn’t want to leave. Ma and I will have to just get along on lower wages, now that the kids are grown up. My youngest boy and his wife are living with us now. . . . It’s terrible. We’re all looking for the Government to do something. The fellows on WPA are complainin’ that they ain’t making enough to live. Isn’t there something the Government can do to tax those G— d— machines that put so many men out of work? I can mind when a fellow wouldn’t want a nicer town to live in. Twenty-five years ago you would never believe New Castle would come to this….

In New Castle there is still hope, because the idle mill has not been dismantled. Several hand-mill men told me that “there is a rumor in town that the strip mill is a failure, and the company will have to reopen our mill.” I heard from more than a score of hand-mill men in Monessen, Pa., where sixteen hundred were displaced, “The company will have to start our mill again when war begins in Europe.” All such hopes, however, are gone in Clarksburg and Morgantown, W. Va., and Scottdale, Pa. The companies decided to dismantle their hand-mills there, but finding it was cheaper to give them away, the mills were turned over to the Chamber of Commerce or “a group of citizens” to attract new industries, provided, of course, that steel products were not manufactured in them.

The group reactions of the displaced workers, with one exception, have been as varied as they have been futile. When their mill was closed down, the eleven hundred Elwood, Ind., workers offered to work for 20 percent less wages if the company would resume operations. The offer was rejected for several reasons: one being that even if the men worked for nothing, the company’s strip mills could produce a superior product at lower costs. In sharp contrast, the fifteen hundred displaced Portsmouth, Ohio, workers spent their energies in vain trying to promote a company-wide walkout. If their ill-advised efforts had been successful, the only conceivable gain would have been to publicize their tragic plight. The sixteen hundred Monessen workers followed a more logical course. They tried to get the company to employ as many of them as possible in its new Irwin, Pa., strip mill. But the company could not employ more than 20 percent of them.

The twelve hundred New Castle men, however, banded themselves together into a permanent unemployed-WPA workers organization. At first they concentrated on getting their unemployment compensation checks, and then WPA jobs and relief with a minimum of delay. During the primary elections they carried their town and county for the CIO gubernatorial candidate by a wide margin. Since then they have been pushing a local housing program and laying plans to publicize their plight and the plight of their community. They intend to make the nation, especially Congress, aware that New Castle is fast becoming an industrially stranded community, and that it requires special legislative aid.

Private industry having failed to make any provisions for them, the displaced workers look to the government for assistance. Steel workers who have been deprived of their accustomed way of earning their livelihood in more than a score of towns can be found on relief, WPA, or dependent on a son or daughter, many of whom are in CCC camps or employed by the National Youth Administration. A few find their way back into private industry, usually at much lower-paying jobs. But thousands of the strip mill victims can be found desperate on relief or WPA or hopelessly walking the streets. You can see them in Ohio—Cambridge, Yorkville, Portsmouth, Martins Ferry, Youngstown, Canton; or in the Keystone state—New Castle, Aliquippa, McKeesport, Monessen, Scottdale—and in other states where once prosperous industrial milltowns look upon the country’s twenty-seven strip mills as “Grim Reapers.” The older workers are outcasts of private industry, while the younger ones are on industry’s waiting list, drafted into the army of the unemployed.

New Jobs—For Other Men, Elsewhere

STEEL EMPLOYERS HOLD THAT SPECIAL PROVISIONS FOR THE displaced workers are unnecessary because the strip mills will create new jobs elsewhere, according to the classic economic principle that the effect of labor saving devices is to stimulate, rather than cut employment. But this is to take the “long view.” In every labor saving development, there has been a lag between displacement and the creation of new jobs. And while the principle has so far operated to produce the new jobs in the end, they have seldom, if ever, been jobs for the workers thrown on the labor market by the new machinery. Whatever the final employment results of the strip mills—probably the greatest technological advance of the past decade—the present plight of the eighty-five thousand workers displaced or about to be displaced, is tragic. Nor is there any present encouragement in the possibilities of new jobs through the development of new industries utilizing the strip mill output. A major strip mill product is tinplate.

A new use developed for tinplate in recent years has been to pack beer in tin cans. But beer cans, in turn, mean displaced glass workers. Sheet steel is another major strip mill product, and a new outlet is being developed for sheet steel in the plumbing fixture industry. But this inevitably means the displacement of workers now employed in foundries producing cast iron, enameled plumbing fixtures. Another outlet for sheet steel, still in a very early stage, is prefabricated steel housing. It is estimated that a prefabricated steel house can be produced and erected with one fourth of the labor required to build a house by conventional methods. But any such development on a large scale would cost the jobs not only of a great body of building trades workers, but also of brick and clay, lumber, cement, and other workers now employed to produce housing materials.

An executive of a large steel company recently challenged me to prove that eighty-five thousand jobs are being eliminated by the strip mills. After a lengthy and heated conversation he admitted that “at least eighty-five thousand men are through.” “But,” he added, “why raise such a fuss about them? They are not a big factor when you consider them with the several million unemployed. Anyway it’s almost history and nothing can be done for them now.”

“I am raising ‘a fuss’ as you call it,” I replied, “because the numbers of displaced steel workers are being increased by new mechanical advances so fast that special provisions will have to be made for them.”

Most of these labor saving advances have been small mechanical improvements eliminating two men here, a dozen there. In Johnstown, Pa., a handful of “scarfers” replaced several dozen chippers. The scarfers, with their acetylene torches, can burn the bad seams out of billets five times as fast as chippers can cut them out with their air pressure chisels. A steel roll mill recently installed two new small electric furnaces which can be charged automatically in twenty minutes. It took two and one half hours to charge the old furnaces by hand. Four men were eliminated from the furnace crews.

Not long ago I went through the continuous pipe mill in Etna, Pa. A crew of twelve men operate it, producing nine hundred pieces of pipe in eight hours. The mill superintendent told me that twenty-six men on the hand butt-weld pipe mill could produce only eight hundred pieces in the same time, an increase in output per man of 240 percent. Half inch pipe was going through the new continuous pipe mill at the rate of two hundred and eighty feet a minute. In five days that mill, operating with its relatively small force, can produce enough half-inch pipe to reach from Pittsburgh to New York.

The Rush Toward Smaller Payrolls

ALL THIS IS SMALL STUFF WHICH HAS BEEN GOING ON IN the industry for years, though when all these lost jobs are added up the total is startling. But far more ominous, from the standpoint of employment, are pending technological advances in steel manufacturing.

The present method requires eight operations from the open hearth furnace to the rolling mill, and the steel has to be transported four times. When the process of rolling molten steel has been perfected-and enough progress has been made to indicate that the process will be commercially feasible within the next decade—only three operations will be necessary, and the steel need be transported but once. Entire departments, including the soaking pits, blooming mills, chipping yards, and so on, will be abolished or reduced to mere skeletons. Roughly, one out of every six steel workers will be eliminated by the process. Many steel men say steel will never be rolled in molten form, but to most experts the idea seems less fantastic than did the idea of the strip mill twenty years ago.

The head of the steel company that is doing the pioneer work in developing the process of rolling steel in molten form told me:

We have done it; I’ve seen it done. We have rolled strip steel from its molten form in two hundred foot coils, fifteen inches wide. I have had this steel examined in more than a dozen laboratories. It is far superior to our present steel, because it does not have the imperfections caused by “ingotism,” the chilling and reheating of steel. I can’t watch our experimental laboratory roll molten steel for more than a few minutes. It almost makes a fellow go crazy thinking about the millions of dollars worth of equipment it will make obsolete, and the thousands of jobs it will eliminate. It’s terrific.

The president of another firm told me of an experimental process that will prolong the life of steel. By applying a thin coating of nickel, these experiments indicate, steel will be made more corrosion-proof than highly expensive alloy steel, and the active life of certain steel products thus multiplied from one to three times. No accurate estimate can now be made of the effect this more enduring product would have on employment, but certainly the tendency would be to reduce further the inadequate number of weeks of work steel workers now get annually.

Neither the industry nor the Steel Workers Organizing Committee is making a plea for “the good old days”; but neither has a solution at hand for the problem of the displaced workers.

What Can Be Done About It?

THE STRIP MILLS ARE A PRE-UNION DEVELOPMENT, MORE THAN 85 percent of them in operation before the SWOC was established. The steel workers therefore cannot expect to receive benefits from the union for a period when they were unorganized. The men lacked union leadership to control and plan the introduction of the strip mills, and many of them were scarcely aware of the new development. With few exceptions, the strip mills were not built as neighbors of the hand-mills. The Irwin strip mill of U.S. Steel, for example, is on a hill overlooking the Monongahela River. Hand-mill workers ten miles up the Monongahela and sixty miles down the Ohio River were not aware of the significance for them until they saw their mills closed down for good. If management were to install in a mill with one hundred employees a labor saving device that would eliminate eighty-five workers, even leaderless men would instinctively protest and resist.

The SWOC favors technological improvements and carries on a continual program of education among its members as to the futility of opposing progress. But unless provisions are made to care for displaced workers, the speed with which industry is introducing labor saving devices may be checked by the revolt of the men involved. SWOC has proposed a practical plan to govern the introduction of labor saving devices in a pamphlet, Production Problems, which has been widely circulated throughout industry. The program provides for union cooperation with management to “reduce costs, enlarge sales, improve quality,” while management agrees “to share equitably with the union any benefits so obtained.” The program further provides that “nobody” is to lose his job as a result of any improvement that is installed. If ways are discovered to do more work with less labor, they are to be put in gradually . . . in such a way that no discharges are necessary—as for instance at a time when sales and output are increasing.”

But all this is intended to apply mainly to the introduction of new devices that displace small numbers of men. Wholesale displacements by such production improvements as the strip mills or rolling molten steel present a much more difficult problem. The numbers involved are so great that they cannot be absorbed gradually in the normal working force of a single company.

Such developments indicate to the union the inevitability of the thirty-hour week at existing or, more likely, higher wages. Organized labor expects the steel industry to resist the thirty-hour week, as it did the eight-hour day in 1919 and the forty-hour week in 1936. The steel workers urge a thorough-going study of technological change and its effect on employment, as the basis for an adequate program. At its recent convention, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, with which the SWOC is affiliated, unanimously favored:

. . . an immediate and thorough-going survey of technological unemployment and its consequences; a further shortening of the number of hours of work per day and the total number of hours per week, without any decrease in establishing wages under collective bargaining agreements or minimum wage and hour legislation until the goal of a six-hour day and thirty-hour week is reached; and measures which will assure to the workers full employment and just distribution of the benefits of technological improvements.

Such an investigation under impartial public auspices and a plan based on it are long overdue. The survey should include special studies of such stranded communities as New Castle, Pa., in the hope of helping them before they become incurably blighted areas. In October 1938, 20 percent of New Castle’s population was on relief and WPA, 3 percent more than the state average. In addition, 16 percent of the population is directly dependent upon the handmill that will shortly suffer the fate of the abandoned mills. Before long one third or more of New Castle’s wage earners will be on relief or WPA. More than a score of steel towns face an equally dark future, and there is no plan now in process for meeting their need. The swift, steady displacement of workers by machines in the steel industry is no doubt an example—if an extreme one—of what is happening in many areas throughout industry. Here is one of the grave problems of the machine age, one that cannot be solved except through the common effort of industry, labor and government.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Ruttenberg, H. J. (1939, April). The big morgue. Survey Graphic,  28(4), 266. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11224.

Source:  The New Deal Network, (March 21, 2014).

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