Thursday, February 19, 2015

Postindustrial America: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel

"Help my union? For 25 years we've been dyin' slow down there. Dry dock's rustin', piers standin' empty. My friends and their kids like we got the cancer. No life-line got thrown all that time, nothin' from nobody, and now you wanna help us? Help me?" 
--Frank Sobotka, The Wire (Season 2)

For my English 101 classes at Cal State Fullerton, I have created a curriculum centered around the television program The Wire called “The Wire and the American City.”  Each season of the show focuses on a different problem facing the modern American city.  The show’s setting of Baltimore is a microcosm of larger social, political, and economic problems facing 21st century America.  The first season explores the failed “War on Drugs.”  The second season, which we are currently watching and discussing, focuses on the decline of the “blue collar” union workforce.  

The season centers around a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores, the guys who load and unload cargo at the port of Baltimore.  Due to globalization, political corruption, and the decline of American manufacturing, this union is losing its power, and it’s pretty clear that the younger generation will have to find different jobs.

To put the drama of this local situation into a larger national context, we watched a PBS film about the rise and fall of one of the largest manufacturers in American history—Bethlehem Steel.  The decline of this company is often cited as a classic case of the decline of American manufacturing in general.  It’s a sad, but instructive story.

Bethlehem Steel was created by Charles Schwab in 1901, when he took over an iron company that had existed since the 1860s.  Schwab’s main innovation was the “wide flange beam,” which was used to build skyscrapers and bridges across America, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rockefeller Center, and the U.S. Supreme Court building.  About 80 percent of New York’s skyline was made with Bethlehem Steel.

During the first World War, Bethlehem Steel acquired large military contracts, making ship, airplane, and weapons parts.  This allowed the company to expand greatly, and build more mills.  The promise of jobs in Bethlehem Steel brought immigrants to this country, who set down roots and formed the foundation of a blue collar working class.

Prior to the 1940s, conditions in the mills were dangerous, and workers had few rights, protections, or benefits.  In 1941, the workers went on strike, demanding a union to secure their rights and better working conditions. The United Steelworkers of America was formed, and workers enjoyed such benefits as a ten-minute lunch break and employee showers.

Then the U.S. entered the second World War, and again the company secured lucrative military contracts which again allowed it to expand.  War was good for business.  Also, at this time, women entered the Bethlehem workforce, as many men were drafted to fight overseas.

After the war, the future seemed bright for Bethlehem Steel and its unionized workforce.  But this dream was not to last.  In 1959, there was a nationwide steelworkers strike that lasted 117 days, and was ultimately settled by then vice president Richard Nixon.  The new contract gave employees further benefits and pensions.  These benefits, however, prompted Bethlehem Steel to raise its prices, which led to increasing competition from foreign steel manufacturers.

Throughout the 1960s, the price of American steel continued to rise, and foreign steel was simply cheaper.   Also, there was a huge gap between management and the workforce.  Executives arrogantly believed that their company would last forever, and refused to invest in long-term changes or innovation, preferring short-term profits for their shareholders.  Eventually, due to numerous factors including union benefits, short-sighted management, a globalized economy, and foreign competition, Bethlehem Steel found itself near bankruptcy by the 1970s.  The company began to lay off workers, and never really recovered.  The 1970s signaled the decline of this once great and powerful business.  The company died a slow death.  By the 2001, Bethlehem steel was no more.

Now factories lie vacant, and many workers are denied the pension benefits they were promised.  the unionized blue collar working class is shrinking as America faces an increasingly globalized economy, as factories and jobs are outsourced.  After all, it’s cheaper to have a factory in Indonesia or Mexico than it is to have one in the United States, with all those expensive labor laws, and employee benefits.

Season 2 of The Wire depicts this steady decline in American manufacturing, blue collar workers, and unions.  What will the future hold for the International Brotherhood of Stevedores?  It doesn’t look too promising.  One need only look at the dilapidated factories of Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, or any number of American cities to see that we are now living in a postindustrial America.  The economic consequences of this are being felt by many American families today.

You can watch the PBS documentary "Bethlehem Steel: the People Who Built America" here:

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