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HOMESTEAD STEEL MILL, THE LAST TEN YEARS

By Charles McCollester

Pittsburgh social justice activists, labor union radicals, and environmentalists would have to be deaf and blind and unaware to not know Mike Stout. Singer, prolific songwriter, stump speaker/agitator, Warrior of the Rainbow, Mike Stout with his guitar is a fixture at rallies and picket lines for worker and community health and safety; for union strikers and war resisters; for a Green New Deal with a just transition for displaced workers; for those committed to a responsible and compassionate socialism rather than the dog-eat-dog capitalism that is devouring us. With hundreds of original songs, what Mike stands for, he sings about. 

Mike has written an account of the vibrant and militant Homestead Steel workers’ struggle that only he could have written. The early section of the memoir will be of interest to many who know him because it explains the forging of his convictions. This book, however, is about an extraordinary time and place: Homestead Steel during the decade from 1978, when the USW Local 1397 Rank-and-File insurgency took over the local union, until 1987, when Mike rescued the history of the most famous USW Local from a dumpster. 

Mike and I have collaborated for more than forty years. Before I was elected Chief Steward of UE 610 at the Union Switch & Signal and Mike became the Head Grievanceman at Homestead, we were drawn to the plant struggles in Youngstown, Ohio and were equally influenced by Staughton and Alice Lynd. With different titles in two historically different systems, our union responsibilities were the same: oversight of the grievance procedure and the inside-the-plant operation of the union. While the UE was the purest remnant of the Old Left in Pittsburgh, USW Local 1397 became the archetypal expression of New Left unionism with its media conscious leadership and extraordinarily graphic, profane and inclusive 1397 Rank-and- File newspaper. 

Mike and I collaborated closely in the plant shutdown struggle as activists in the Tri-State Conference of Steel and organizers of the Steel Valley Authority. We were united by a conviction that to fight for the preservation of American manufacturing and working-class communities was a noble cause. The book’s first chapter evokes the “strange beauty” of the mill as seen by an industrial crane operator from Kentucky with extensive radical experience in New York City (especially in anti-Vietnam War struggles). Instantly, he recognized what an intense and special place he’d landed in. “It was mystical, wild, especially during daylight, when the dust was going up and the sunlight was coming through the cracks in the roof. It was like you were in a theater watching a play; and the play was industrial production.” 

What set Homestead apart was its fighting spirit and its history. There is no labor struggle as well known as the 1892 battle along the Monongahela River between skilled industrial workers and Pinkerton hired guns over the governance of the revolutionary new industrial workplace that was emerging. The battle’s shadow weighed heavily on American labor relations, but inside the vast mill historical memory, stirred by the upheavals of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, inspired solidarity. 

What made the final ten years of the great steel mill’s existence so meaningful was the democratic involvement and engagement of hundreds of workers in the struggle. Solidarity from below was spurred by an invigorated union grievance procedure that Mike effectively prosecuted on the members’ behalf, and the most distinctive radical union newspaper ever produced. Mike’s book is copiously illustrated with the art, photos and cartoons that unleashed free speech and promoted class conscious participation in the relation between workers and management. The book is a love letter to the communal solidarity of people who share the experience of a sometimes dangerous, sometimes awesome, but always complex interaction of humans and powerful machinery. 

The inside story of the historic mill’s final decade inspires by display of the humor, imagination and intelligence of the membership, but there was also an outside strategy. The union reached out to the community, supporting food banks, other unions’ struggles, environmental groups, religious allies and the Merton Center. Outside, we worked together in the Tri-State Conference on Steel to organize the Steel Valley Authority to challenge the property rights of major corporations with the threat of eminent domain. “If they abandon the facilities that created their wealth, let us take them and put them to use for the common good.” 

Mike Stout continues to sing out against war and racism, but his main focus at present is to bridge the urban-rural and the worker-environmentalist divides. He heads the first urban chapter of the Izaak Walton League, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of clean water and air. He campaigns for a Green New Deal that structurally engages all workers who grow, make and build what we need to survive in a just transition that preserves families, communities and unions. Mike Stout will always be a union man. 

His heart was forged in Homestead Steel. For information on buying Mike’s book, contact: miststout629@gmail.com 

Charles McCollester is a longtime friend of the Merton Center and former professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 

NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.

Categories: News

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