BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The so-called Monongahela miracle that build a health care economy in the ruins of big steel was built on the backs of the vulnerable.
GABRIEL WINANT I mean, the absolute first thing you have to say is it was hot
STEELWORKER 1 One of the guys came up and took his goggles off, and the skin came off with it because it was so hot.
NEWS REPORT The men and women in these industries built the most powerful union of all time. [END CLIP].
STEELWORKER 2 Come to go to jobs, he would be separated. Whites wanted good jobs. Blacks to the lowest wage job. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT People were collectively essential and individually disposable.
RONALD REAGAN They just call it the free market, and it's what gives our children and their children an economic future. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Whether they were nurses or kitchen employees, these hospital workers used to be encouraged to think of themselves as dedicated angels of mercy – and angels. Don't worry about money.
BOB GARFIELD How Pittsburgh reveals the broken promises that drive our economy. Coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. You can't not start with the tallest building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the old headquarters for United States Steel. It's a black monolith, symbol and fortress of industrial power soaring in the now pristine Pittsburgh sky above the confluence of three mighty rivers. But it's vista has changed. Gone is the golden sulfurous haze. Gone or the belching smoke stacks, blazing furnaces and slag lined river valleys snaking along the Appalachian foothills. The industry that sustained a region, girded the world's infrastructure and underwrote a now vanished way of life has long since crossed oceans.
[PROTESTERS SINGING, "Solidarity"]
NEWS REPORT These are unemployed and laid off steelworkers in the Monongahela Valley, the area around Pittsburgh that was the birthplace of American steel.
PROTESTER What do we want?
PROTESTER When do we want them?
NEWS REPORT These workers are angry because they are losing their place in the American dream. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Decades into this new Pittsburgh, the vanished economic sector, the vanished mill jobs and the vanished industrial working class, persist in the American imagination. Back in March, Joe Biden used a Pittsburgh labor hall as a backdrop for his infrastructure plan, and it's good union jobs – and then again in his address to Congress.
JOE BIDEN Look, think about it. There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can't be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Donald Trump, who lied to the coal belt about reviving the moribund mining industry, used the city to define what America first is all about: Pittsburgh, not Paris. And when John Kerry stumped here in 2004, he invoked Depression era poet Langston Hughes.
JOHN KERRY He said, let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be. For those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain for those whose hand at the foundry, something Pittsburgh knows about. For those whose plow in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But they were all seeing ghosts. Steel City, is now healthcare city, representing almost 1 in 4 jobs in the region. Some 92,000 of them work for just one employer; the sprawling, omnivorous University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, UPMC, whose logo now adorns the black skyscraper sentinel of the Three Rivers. But this is not just a case of a clean economy displacing a filthy one. To historian Gabriel Winant, author of The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Healthcare in Rust Belt America. The story of economic transformation in Pittsburgh is the story of disparity, of wealth, income and political power that did not vanish when the smokestacks came down. As we shall see, it was a metamorphosis that has so marginalized those 92,000 hospital workers that their employer has claimed they're not employees at all: ghosts, too, it turns out. In this hour, we'll explore with Winant how the saga of twPittsburghs reveals in grim detail how America has strayed so perversely far from its founding promise. Gabe, welcome to On the Media.
GABRIEL WINANT Thanks for having me. Nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD We're going to approach this as a story in three acts, beginning with Steel. It was an industry built on minerals like iron ore, limestone and coal and hard labor. Folklore celebrates a hearty Croat named Joe Magarac, whose last name translates to Jackass in Croatian and who the story goes, only knows how to work and to eat like a donkey.
FOLKSONG [SINGING]...and I had that furnace eating out of my hand, but the blasted furnace wouldn't get enough, so I jumped on in, I'm made that tough, Mighty Joe, Mighty Joe, Mighty Joe Magarac! [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT I mean, the absolute first thing you have to say is it was hot. It was dangerous, it was filthy.
STEELWORKER 1 One of the guys came up and took his goggles off and the skin came off with it, because it was so hot.
STEELWORKER 2 When you'd come out of that thing, hey, completely dirty. Just like a coal miner. And this stuff had gotten all into my skin all around my privates and everything like that. It got in and I had to go to the doctor because we just peeling, you know, that was a hell of a thing.
STEELWORKER 3 One of my friends died recently from the interview. He got a whole seam of iron fell on him from a crane and crippled him for life.
FOLKSONG [SINGING] Mighty Joe, Mighty Joe, Mighty Joe – MAGARAC [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT Yeah. You know, I quote a memoir in the book written by a steelworker who describes trying to understand what was under the mills, rusty sheet iron skirts that caused our house to rattle and shake. Why did the old men in the neighborhood curse and worship it? The cursing and the worshiping together is a window into how profoundly industrial work shaped this whole world.
BOB GARFIELD Many steelworkers were able to establish solidly middle class lifestyles. What was the evolution that got them there?
GABRIEL WINANT The turning point really comes during the New Deal.
NEWS REPORT In 1936, the men and women in these industries made up their minds to do something about their deplorable conditions. They built the most powerful union of all time, the United Steelworkers of America. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT They leverage these employers again and again in these strikes in '46, '49, '52, '54, '56 and '59.
NEWS REPORT The sixth major shutdown since World War Two. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT The steel workers were powerful enough that they could make the deals a problem for the president.
NEWS REPORT President Eisenhower expressed weariness at the unbending attitude of both sides.
EISENHOWER I'm not going to try to assess any blame. I'm getting sick and tired of the apparent impasse in the settlement of this matter. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT Every steel industry strike in those years got settled in the White House.
NEWS REPORT A solution had been found in America's number one labor crisis. Production was resumed on the basis of a wage increase of 18 and a half cents an hour, offset by a price increase of five dollars a ton. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD You write about one of history's little noticed policy decisions directly related to steel workers, fringe benefits: the public-private welfare state. What does that mean?
GABRIEL WINANT It was thought during the New Deal that eventually they would be able to establish what we would today call Medicare for all. Harry Truman didn't succeed doing that. And instead, the unions that had been agitating for that decided, you know what, let's just get the employer, whether it's GM or U.S. Steel, to provide a plan through the private sector. This is really where the idea that you get your health insurance from your job, comes from. And over the course of the 50s, collectively bargained health insurance spreads really rapidly across the working class.
BOB GARFIELD Health care was a life changing benefit for steelworkers and eventually millions of other employees around the country. A western Pennsylvania academic named Jack Metzger was moved to write, quote, If what we lived through in the 1950s was not liberation, then liberation never happens in real human lives.
GABRIEL WINANT Wages were going up year after year. They would have these strikes and they would win. They had to find benefit pensions in a way that we don't have now. They had this health plan that got better and better. You couldn't imagine how few dollars steel workers and their families had to put toward their health care. By 1959, steelworkers didn't even have to contribute to the premium. They also had power on the job itself. The 1959 strike was fought over the question of whether or not managers could just change job assignments arbitrarily and they couldn't. I mean, this was written into the contract. Management can change the equipment, and then they could reassign people if they did that. But they couldn't just say, you know what, two of you were doing this job the four of you used to do, that wasn't allowed, and again, that's hard to imagine today.
BOB GARFIELD In the post-World War Two period, the American steel economy was essentially a global steel economy, a de facto cartel that for decades didn't need modernization or manufacturing efficiency to prosper, it just raised prices. Management and labor fed at the same trough with ultimately disastrous consequences. Meantime, though, you write a whole social order had developed around single male, mostly white breadwinners.
GABRIEL WINANT The way that you get access to these benefits is either you get a job as a steel worker if it's Pittsburgh, or you make yourself the legal dependents of a steelworker, which is to say, be his wife or be his kid. This creates these kind of stratified layers of who is in on this golden age and who's not in on it and what you have to do to be in on it. There are people who don't have such an easy time getting jobs of steelworkers that's racialized. And there are people who have to kind of put up with what their husbands say because their husband is how they have access to all this. So a system that's supposed to deliver broad based prosperity, but is that internally divided, was a really unstable configuration.
BOB GARFIELD So who or what was the arbiter of all that?
GABRIEL WINANT Well, ultimately, the middle is the arbiter, right? The middle is the reason these people are here. It's the reason their parents, their grandparents came to Pittsburgh. It's what's giving them access to wages, benefits, all of this. Ultimately, the household and the family are subordinate to it.
BOB GARFIELD And in these mill towns, you say, lives were hyper gendered and also racialized.
GABRIEL WINANT Men were heavily overrepresented and women underrepresented in wage work in Pittsburgh, even compared to the 1950s norm. That didn't mean women weren't working. The kinds of work that they did happened more outside of the money economy. Now, that was true for white folks, for African-Americans, even this kind of tenuous security that white people had. African-Americans really couldn't hang on to it much at all. And that meant that African-American women had to bring in wages at much higher rates than white women did already starting in the 50s and 60s. And then that kind of goes up over time. And, you know, going back all the way to the New Deal itself, domestic work, which was obviously heavily assigned to women, was not regulated by labor law. And from the 40s onward, health care work also was not protected by labor law or minimum wage or ours regulations. And so when women do have to go get these kinds of jobs, they are exiting the protected circle of the New Deal state that their husbands work in. It's like they're going into a different country.
BOB GARFIELD The racialized structures in the mills were a sort of informal but nonetheless omnipresent Jim Crow.
STEELWORKER 1 When it goes to jobs, you would think they're separated. Whites went to good jobs. Blacks went to the lowest wage jobs.
STEELWORKER 2 All the craft jobs and high paying jobs went to white folks. See the black folks and all the dirty jobs.
STEELWORKER 3 Then a white man would come in and you had to train him. The next two weeks he was your boss [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT in steel and this was common. And a lot of big industries in this time, seniority, which rules everything in a unionized factory, was determined at the level of the department rather than the whole factory. Even if you were accumulating seniority, you are a long term employee. You are unlikely to be able to change what part of the plant you worked in. And so that created these racialized traps. In the blast furnace, which was a hot and dirty and hard job, in the open hearth, which is a hot and dirty and hard job. And worst of all, in the coke ovens where they baked coal to turn it into fuel was disproportionately work that was assigned to African-Americans and also African-American workers because they couldn't get out of these undesirable departments. When there is a cyclical downturn, they would be the first out and the last to be hired back in.
BOB GARFIELD And if I understand your book correctly, the unions were complicit in this.
GABRIEL WINANT Absolutely. So organizations like the UAW or the United Steelworkers or the United Mine Workers would accept African-American members and sometimes embrace them. They supported civil rights nationally at the political level, but they didn't really want to disrupt this small scale pattern within the plant. Who got the good jobs and who didn't get the good jobs. White men who had the good jobs, more or less wanted to be able to pass them down to their sons. They certainly didn't want the integration of the seniority lines. And there weren't really enough African-Americans inside the union to disrupt that politically, so straightforwardly.
BOB GARFIELD We discussed earlier how the cartel's grip on the global market created a spiral of higher wages and higher prices and higher wages and so on. Isn't that more or less the definition of an inflationary cycle?
GABRIEL WINANT Yeah. So if you're going to organize working class prosperity through attaching large groups of workers to big kind of monopoly employers, then this is a risk that you're going to run into. And already in the late 50s, you see this strange thing happen where inflation is starting to go up and at the same time unemployment is starting to go up. And those two things are supposed to be opposite. It's supposed to be that one or the other that we would know that phenomenon in the 70s later is stagflation, right? It came back in a big way, but it's a kind of intrinsic feature of the New Deal state, the public-private welfare system and these big industrial corporations that were its private sector component. This is a structural fault in that system.
BOB GARFIELD Meantime, another kind of inflationary phenomenon. Steelworker families really leaned into healthcare. Now, the work was taxing, as you've said, and dangerous and the environment was foul, but does that entirely explain the medical gold rush of the 50s, 60s and 70s?
GABRIEL WINANT No, it doesn't. So there's a couple key things. First of all, I think it's actually hard to overstate how significant it was for people who did backbreaking work all day long, felt cast off and looked down on and treated like mules and different ways that they could go to this kind of modern house of science that is the hospital and, you know, have someone pay attention to them and take care of them. You know, in an effort to reduce health care use, one hospital does an experiment of trying to enroll people in getting mental health services, you know, some kind of therapy and seeing does that affect how much they use the rest of the health care system? And the answer is yes, actually. So there's reason to see the health care system as a whole doing a kind of social work for this population. But it's also important to say steelworkers were at their most numerous at the time of the Korean War, and their numbers diminish steadily after that. What that means is that young men have a harder and harder time getting into the industry because of the seniority system. Therefore, the workforce is getting older over these decades. And so you have these people who have this really good insurance, who are increasingly an elderly population, have these social needs and have these health needs. And that drives very intense use of the health care system. In 1979, at the kind of end of this cycle, the Pittsburgh region generated 1.6 inpatient days in the hospital per capita that year. That's about triple our national rate today.
BOB GARFIELD So all these seeds have been planted in the economy and the culture, from health care consumption to fiscal policy to racial segregation, to the devaluation of non-industrial labor to the patriarchy which seeds maybe didn't fully germinate until the steel economy began to erode. How did it look, the beginning of the beginning of the end?
GABRIEL WINANT Well, you know, at first it didn't look like anything much. The union president would look at the numbers and he would say, gee, there are 50,000 fewer steelworkers this year than there were 5 years ago. But it wasn't for quite a long time that people started to realize something profound is changing and has already changed.
BOB GARFIELD Denial ran high, but then in September 1977, just across the border in Ohio, it all began to accelerate.
NEWS REPORT in Youngstown and nearby Campbell, they have a name for the day disaster struck. They call it Black Monday.
STEELWORKER 1 It's Hard to believe this is happening after working here for so many years. Hard to believe they were put out on the street, and don't know what we're going to do. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT So between 1977 and about 1986, millions of industrial jobs are lost in places like Youngstown, like Pittsburgh.
NEWS REPORT The U.S. Steel Corporation announced today that it will close all or part of more than 20 of its plants in Cleveland and Elmira, New York, Trenton, New Jersey, and three towns in Pennsylvania, Johnstown, Shiffler and Ambridge. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT There's basically a kind of localized Great Depression that happens. I mean, unemployment rates rise up to near 20 percent. Whole communities are devastated, really profoundly, in a very short period of time.
PROTESTER People are losing homes. The American dream has been turned into the American nightmare, with job loss, families breaking up and suicide. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT The population, which has been already aging, and also shrinking, as the young leave, that speeds up really intensely. There are increases in homelessness. In a couple of these steel mill towns suicide rates, double. Depression rates, alcoholism, domestic violence, all of these kinds of indicators of social distress are increasing really rapidly.
BOB GARFIELD In 1983, President Ronald Reagan offered some choice words of consolation.
RONALD REAGAN How could the major employer in the town, the very lifeblood of the town, close its gates and lock its doors? This was as inconceivable as the town itself closing down. But we know the plant can close no matter how essential it is to the employees and the townspeople. We know that America's economic strengths change and grow in different directions, sometimes without regard to the people who serve the old industries. This is called a free market, and it's what gives our children and their children an economic future. [END CLIP]
GABRIEL WINANT You know, Reagan's message to the steelworkers was always learn to code, basically. You know, keep up. The question of whether or not the steel mills could have been kept open, should have been kept open. We could debate that. We could argue about whether there was another path, but what I don't think we could really say is that it had to go in such a harmful and injurious way for the people who were displaced from this industry. Right. That they had to be thrown to the wolves.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up from the ashes rises health care. This is On the Media.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Hi, listeners, I'm Eloise, a producer at On the Media and I'm working on a story on mental health, specifically how to describe it nowadays, and I need your help. Have you found new words to make sense of how your mind has been affected by the pandemic? Here are some. I've had: pandemic brain or fog, hitting a pandemic wall. I've also noticed older words like nervous breakdown or burnout take on new meaning. What words are you using to describe your pandemic mental state and which words fall short? Record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and please include your name and where you're calling from. You may just be featured in an upcoming show. Thanks.
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