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STRUGGLES IN STEEL
Struggles In Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers is a fascinating and moving one-hour documentary that chronicles the little-known history of African-American steelworkers. Told through interviews with over 70 veteran African-American workers from Americas "Steel Belt," Struggles In Steel recounts their complex history -- a story of grueling work combined with heart-breaking discrimination and unfulfilled potential.
While jobs at the steel mills were highly sought after since they were often the highest-paying jobs available to African-American workers, these same workers were given the toughest, dirtiest and most dangerous jobs the so-called "man-killing" jobs. The African-American steelworkers, many of whom joined the mill after fighting for their country in World Wars I and II, faced discrimination from both their employers and their union and found that their chances for advancement, despite their education, qualifications or experience, were repeatedly thwarted.
The program is also the story of the end of an era in American industrialism; shortly after African-Americans were granted long-overdue workplace rights, the mills closed down, turning once-thriving middle-class communities into wastelands. Struggles In Steel is the story of generations of hard-working men and women who had to fight for the right to work at difficult jobs, facing incredible obstacles to giving their families a decent life.
The idea for Struggles In Steel began with Raymond Henderson, an ex-steelworker who had toiled for 18 years before his mill, Pittsburghs Duquesne, shut down. During those years, Ray served as a grievance man, was active in the civil rights movement and was constantly working for equal rights for his co-workers.
When a local TV station aired a documentary about steelworkers who had lost their jobs and never once made reference to the African-Americans among them, Ray was outraged. For Ray, that program negated the very important, valuable contributions that African-American men and women had made to the steel industry.
He called his friend, award-winning local filmmaker Tony Buba, to discuss ways in which they might be able to set the record straight. They wrote letters to the TV station and the newspapers but did not get a satisfactory response. Ray then suggested that they make their own program and Tony agreed. Henderson and Buba based much of the factual history on the landmark book Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980 by Dennis C. Dickerson, Ph.D., who also served as associate producer, scriptwriter and consultant.
Struggles In Steel
has had a national PBS broadcast and has played at major film festivals
around the country including Sundance, Philadelphia Festival of World
Cinema, ASPENFEST and Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at
Lincoln Center in New York City. Struggles In Steel has also been
shown at film festivals in Africa, France and Italy.
Before the Civil
War, more than 2,000 slaves worked in the iron mill of the South, creating
a skilled work force that the Northern iron companies were quick to exploit
after the war. When a labor dispute shut down the industry in Pittsburgh
in 1875, African-American workers were brought in to break it, setting
a pattern that would continue for decades. Strike breakers were resented
by whites for working for lower wages and, at that time, unions were not
willing to accept minorities. In 1890, a union local in Pittsburgh ordered
400 of its 500 workers of their jobs to protest African-American employees.
African-American mill workers reached record numbers during World War I, and by the 1930s, white unionists depended on African-American participation in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) to ensure the success of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee. But union membership did not insure equality for African-American workers. Discriminatory work practices sanctioned by the union, including department seniority rules kept these workers in hazardous, low-paying Negro Jobs, for decades, continuing uninterrupted through the years of civil rights activism in the 1960s. As one veteran steelworker in the film recounts, A white man would come in and you had to train him. In two weeks he was your boss.
Through the years of partial gains and tremendous losses, African-American activists came to trust the government far more than the steel companies. Following a series of lawsuits based on Civil Rights legislation, a consent decree was brokered in 1974 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the United States Department of Justice, nine steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America.
The decree established goals and timetables for the hiring and promotion of minorities, specifically African-Americans, women and Hispanics, particularly in supervisory, technical and clerical jobs and management training programs. The decree eliminated department seniority and replaced it with plant-wide seniority as the basis for promotions, demotions and recalls in the industry.
This moral victory,
however, did not translate into lasting employment gains for African-American
steelworkers. By the 1980s, the industry decline had decimated most
steel jobs, important gains attained by more than a century of steel employees
and a new African-American labor movement fell by the wayside, as both
blacks and whites stepped together onto the unemployment line.
MEDIA AND RESEARCH TECHNIQUES
If youre interested in finding out more, check out the following:
Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake & Horace R. Cayton (University of Chicago, 1993)
Black Workers and the New Unions by Horace R. Cayton & George S. Mitchell (Ayer, 1985)
Black Workers in White Unions by William B. Gould (Cornell, 1977)
Faded Dream: The Politics and Economics of Race in America by Martin Carnoy (Cambridge, 1996)
The Negro in the Steel Industry by Richard L. Rowan (University of Pennsylvania, 1970)
Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973 by Philip S. Foner (International Publishers, 1974)
Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980 by Dennis C. Dickerson (State University of New York, 1986)
Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers by Michael K. Honey (University of Illinois, 1993)
The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration by Nicholas Lemann (Knopf, 1991)
The Right to Challenge: People and Power in the Steelworkers Union by John Herling. (Harper and Row, 1972)
Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press 1976)
Lives Of Their Own: Black, Italians and Poles in Pittsburgh 1900-1960 by John Bodnar, Roger Simon and Michael P. Weber (Urbana, University of Illinois Press 1982)
Steel PeopleSurvival and Resilience in Pittsburghs Mon Valley Published by River Communities Project, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh 1986
Aliquippa UpdateA Pittsburgh Milltown Struggles to Comeback, 1984-86 and Trouble in Electric Valley, Local Leaders Assess the Difficult Future of Their Communities Published by River Communities Project, School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh 1986
Dreams Gone to RustThe Mon Valley Mourns for Steel by David Corn (Harpers September 1986)
Oral History As A Teaching Approach by John A. Neuenshwander (Washington, D.C. National Education Assocation, 1976)
At the River I Stand, on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King; winner of the Organization of American Historians Barnouw Award. California Newsreel, www.newsreel.org.
Eyes on the Prize, groundbreaking multipart series about the Civil Rights Movement. PBS Home Video, (800) 344-3337 (educational); (800) 531-4727 (home video).
The Braddock Chronicles 1 & 2, a series of short films documenting the people of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock Films Inc., P.O. Box 426, Braddock, PA 15104, (412) 351-4808; www.braddockfilms.com
Voices From A Steeltown, an open ended documentary dealing with the decline of Braddock, a steeltown in Western Pennsylvania. Braddock Films Inc., P.O. Box 426, Braddock, PA 15104, (412) 351-4808; www.braddockfilms.com
Americans for a
Black Workers for
on Civil Rights
for the Advancement of Colored People
Coalition of Black
This study guide was funded by The Pittsburgh Foundation/Howard Heinz Endowment-Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative. For more information about Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative, contact them at One PPG Place, 30th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-5401.
Struggles In Steel was funded for broadcast on public television by the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which was created by Congress to increase the diversity of programs available to public television, and to serve under served audience, in particular minorities and children. For more information about ITVS contact them at 51 Federal Street, Suite 401, San Francisco CA 94107, www.itvs.org. Additional funding was provided by Pennsylvania Humanities Council, The Pittsburgh Foundation/Howard Heinz Endowment - Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative, Falk Medical Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, American Film Institute, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
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