a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Steel wives were desperate

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 3

By Scott Beveridge

By early 1962, the wives of hundreds of steelworkers in Donora were lucky to scrape together a few bucks to buy a cheap cotton dress from the local department store.
Some 1,200 workers had been laid off for 20 full months from the furnaces that fueled U.S. Steel Corp.’s Donora Works about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pa. Another 500 had been without paychecks for a year at the rod mill, bringing a near halt to business at the fine shops along McKean Avenue, two blocks up from the mill. At least 1,000 men had already lost their jobs in 1957 when the zinc mill was shuttered because the company had depleted its ore reserves. The 1960 furloughs were blamed on competition in the industry from the Ruhr Valley in West Germany and a sluggish market for wire. They couldn’t have come at a worse time. Nearly 550,000 members of the United Steelworkers of America were threatening a seventh strike since 1946 against America’s Big 11 steel producers. President John F. Kennedy urged a settlement, as he feared another walkout might lead to the stockpiling of steel and further unemployment. That was a calling for the Donora women to leave their “men home changing diapers and baking bread” and take a break from gossiping on the telephone to fight unemployment, the local newspaper joked about what these wives were cooking up.

More than 300 of them called a series of meetings and packed the auditorium of a local public school to save the mill. They demanded an ear with Secretary of Labor Arthur J. Goldberg and an audience with U.S. Steel executives. They wore bright green as a symbol of resurrection and hope, taking inspiration from an ancient Egyptian custom. They pinned homemade buttons bearing their slogan on their purses because that was where the layoffs hurt them the most. Similar signs were posted in storefront windows. Worse yet, they attacked the union.

The bold ladies scolded the workers for threatening a wildcat strike, believing one would surely spell the death of the Donora mill. There came demands that the men abstain from drinking alcohol at labor meetings and union dues be paid into an unemployment fund. It also was time for union officials to quit paying off politicians. Within a few weeks, Donora Local Union 1758 accused the women of obstruction for their malicious remarks. The steelworkers also denied the accusations that were aired by their wives, all of whom remained anonymous in the stories and photographs that were being published in the Donora Herald-American.

Oh, how it was getting hot in the town. There were four major fires in the months before the housewife crusade. Two Donora women and a local man went on an armed robbery spree that targeted service stations before they were nabbed by state police. Meanwhile, a local bank clerk embezzled $50,000.

On April Fool’s Day of 1962, the industry and union reached what Time magazine called the “most moderate labor agreement of the post war era.” The workers received raises of 10 cents an hour and the mills won the right to encourage early retirements. The pay increase would take the average wage in the mills to $3.27 an hour.

The outraged women of Donora did win a few meetings with labor officials in Pittsburgh during the steel talks, as well as mentions in newspaper articles across the nation. But in the end, there was nothing they could do to help their husbands, who, like them, were descendants of some of the most radical immigrants in the region's steel belt.

Chapter 4

(Photos courtesy of the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pa., which holds the copyright to the old Donora newspapers)

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