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The Glory and the Gutting: Steeler Nation and the Humiliation of Pittsburgh

Charles McCollester teaches industrial and labor relations and is director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also president of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society. He has lived in Pittsburgh for thirty-one years.

Last football season the Pittsburgh Steelers stunned fans with an unexpected series of victories. A Steeler Nation—composed of a generation of Pittsburgh’s workers who scattered across the United States as their jobs vanished in the last quarter of the twentieth century—filled stadiums in a dozen cities with their team’s colors, black and gold. The delirium peaked with the Steelers’ victory over the New York Jets, which seemed like an act of God. The improbable twice-missed field goals and overtime win continued the Steelers’ fourteen-game winning streak and their march toward the Super Bowl—until that road was cleanly blocked by the New England Patriots. Whatever deity oversees such matters, she must have a sense of equity or cosmic balance because the Steeler Nation in diaspora enjoyed its moment of glory just as the real, living, here-still-today city of Pittsburgh, near bankruptcy, suffered humiliation and dismemberment.

The Steelers epitomize the blue-collar ethic of hard work, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and teamwork that remain highly valued here. The city itself has not been so lucky; its once-vibrant neighborhood network of pools and recreation and senior citizen centers have been largely closed for three years. Its respected sanitation workers, firefighters, and police are facing privatization and/or massive cutbacks. In the birthplace of American unionism, the collapse of steel has been followed by the collapse of government.

Cavalier disregard for democratic process and majority rule, the imposition of unelected authorities, and the blocking of popular participation by arrogant elites who define “freedom” as the power to rule in their own interest without restraint or restriction, these are characteristics of our age. Anti-democratic, selected-not-elected models are being developed in the heartland as well as abroad. Little noticed among the impositions of governing authorities in Iraq and Haiti and the assault on popularly elected leadership in Venezuela is the dismantling and usurpation of public authority and accountability in Pittsburgh. The banana republic comes to the rust belt.

The steel rust-belt area from Youngstown, Ohio to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, centered in Pittsburgh and strewn with once mighty but now financially broken towns like Aliquippa, Braddock, Newcastle, Steubenville, Sharon, McKees Rocks, and Duquesne, is sinking into spiritual and financial bankruptcy. Workshops have given way to prisons and malls. Now gambling is hailed as economic salvation by the elites who presided over the region’s economic collapse. The political humiliation of Pittsburgh last fall was softened by the completely unexpected success of its beloved football team. It is eerie that the collapse of Pittsburgh’s industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s was also obscured in the popular imagination by the Steelers’ four Super Bowl victories and vain hopes for a fifth, “one for the thumb.”

With its rivers and gorges, its spectacular urban terrain and architecture, Pittsburgh is arguably the most beautiful city in the United States. Despite the loss of population and the tragic abandonment of its great industrial tradition, the city has a solid working-class ethic that its football team personifies. The team was bestowed almost mythic stature in the hearts of its fans by its founder Art Rooney. When Art, or the “Chief” as he was known locally, died, the most repeated phrase from Pittsburghers was that “he had a lot of class.” When I recently asked a group of college undergrads what they thought people meant when that was said about Art Rooney, out of a sea of blank faces one young man offered: “He wore nice suits?”

When you had a “lot of class” in Art Rooney’s day it meant that you respected people for the content of their character, not whether they were rich or poor, high or low. It meant that hard work and effort were the standard by which all were to be judged and that those blessed with power or fortune were called every day to help the less fortunate. Fr. Jack O’Malley, Pittsburgh’s present labor priest, remembers that when the Chief attended mass at St. Joseph’s parish near his Northside home, the collection total would double or triple.

The media focused on the team’s freshman quarterback, but the real hero last year of the Steeler Nation was Jerome Bettis, one of the greatest running backs of all time, who took a two-thirds wage cut to stay with the Steelers. On his broad shoulders, bandy legs, and great heart rode the team’s success. Jerome mentored his young replacement with magnanimity and then carried the team the whole second half of the season. The main thing that strikes a Pittsburgh chord about the Steelers is that they are “a team.” Every week someone new steps forward. They don’t talk trash, they prove it on the field or they don’t. Their blue-collar pride in hard work, determination, and collective effort endures. The Steelers, like Pittsburgh, are bloodied but unbowed.

As the industrial collapse gained momentum in the 1980s, young manufacturing workers with families fled mostly south and southwest—the Pittsburgh diaspora—maintaining an affection and nostalgia for a town that had a “lot of class.” Steeler games, wherever played, draw large numbers of black and gold fans; Steeler bars can be found in all sections of the country. Many older workers with strong local ties stayed in the region, many moving into their exiled children’s unmarketable suburban homes. Pittsburgh since the collapse has had the unhappy experience of being among national leaders in both urban decline and suburban sprawl. The immediate Pittsburgh area lost more than 100,000 union manufacturing jobs in the 1980s. Its population dropped from over 700,000 at the start of the Second World War to under 330,000 today.

As the industrial jobs evaporated and the professional classes that work in the city’s large universities, hospitals, and financial institutions increasingly moved to the suburbs, the city began sinking into perpetual financial crisis. With its universities and hospitals, Pittsburgh has one of the country’s highest percentages of large institutional nonprofits that contribute no taxes, consume large amounts of police, fire, and emergency services, and pay their managers many hundreds of thousands in salaries. The CEO of the largest, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, received $2.4 million in compensation in 2004. Large institutional nonprofits like Carnegie-Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, and the massive University of Pittsburgh Medical Center jealously guard their tax-free “nonprofit” status while constantly expanding and absorbing taxable small business and residential property.

The disastrous industrial collapse has been compounded by local leadership’s myopic pursuit of upscale retail, sports, and entertainment venues subsidized by the public through extensive tax breaks for developers. Tax-increment financing for projects added considerable weight onto the city without any return. The failed strategy of trying to entice upscale consumers back to a city where services are imploding is illustrated by the liquidation of new downtown Lazarus and Lord & Taylor stores that enjoyed heavy taxpayer subsidies and were touted as harbingers of economic recovery. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s debt service has swelled to 25 percent of its budget.

For the past year, Pittsburgh has been double-teamed, squeezed in a vise between two un-elected bodies bent on reorganizing the city by ultimatum. Increased taxation of city workers and residents, the marginalization of elected representatives, the stripping of the city’s neighborhood recreational assets, forced privatization, and union-busting are characteristic of the present crisis. The state legislature created an oversight board or Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) that acts as the guardian of the corporate, university, medical, and suburban anti-tax interests. It was charged with recommending tax reform measures to the legislature to solve the city’s long-range financial crisis by providing new revenues in return for an ever-expanding list of cuts.

Meanwhile, Act 47, the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, was invoked by Pittsburgh’s mayor and narrowly passed through a split City Council to declare legally Pittsburgh a “distressed municipality.” Over the past decade, the law had been used to reorganize the finances of dozens of financially distressed municipalities in the state. An “Act 47 team” was constituted by the Eckert-Seamans law firm (which advertises “union avoidance” on its Web site) to propose cuts in Pittsburgh’s operating budget.

The implementation of Act 47 proved to be highly divisive since the law was a two-edged sword: on the one hand it possessed the power to break union contracts unilaterally and impose budget cuts; on the other hand, it enticed beleaguered City Council members with the possibility that the cost of city services would be defrayed by imposing a commuter tax on suburbanite workers and municipal services fees on the large universities and hospitals.

Blocked by the legislature’s ICA from fairly taxing suburbanites or extracting reasonable service fees from the huge nonprofits, the Act 47 team revealed its dark side: unilaterally breaking union contracts, privatizing public services, and imposing budget cuts. The meager cost-sharing imposed by the parsimonious legislature on suburban workers derived from a highly regressive “flat tax” applied with equality to banker and janitor, resident and suburbanite alike—with the complete $52 taken by the city from the worker’s first paycheck.

In its final act before adjourning for the Christmas break last year, the legislature, in a gesture calculated barely to stave off the city’s bankruptcy: raised the regressive flat tax from $10 to $52 for resident and commuter workers; combined two business taxes into one that eventually becomes a business tax reduction while extending tax exemptions for the city’s largest corporations, utilities, and financial institutions; and mandated an escalating shift of school taxes to the city that will put a further squeeze on the city’s already struggling schools and especially their teachers’ union. Furthermore, they explicitly blocked the imposition of a percent commuter tax (similar to that enjoyed by Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Cincinnati). Finally, they left untouched the large institutional nonprofits who demand so much in services.

But then in a development of extreme perversity, on July 2 in the dying hours of the legislative session (when traditionally much “give and take” goes on), key Democratic and Republican leadership combined to grant massive pay raises (16–34 percent) to judges, the governor—and themselves. This at a time when most state employees (including professors at the state system of higher education) have had a two-year wage freeze and the introduction of medical copays. This action has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from left and right.

Those lucky legislators who voted against the pay grab are scrambling to give back a first-year raise engineered to be covered by an un-vouchered expense allowance in order to circumvent state law. The governor has turned down his raise. But this was not the only monstrosity that our legislature birthed. With the votes of most Republicans and some Democrats, the House passed a resolution creating an Investigative Committee to ferret out liberal bias by teachers in the state university system. This move was not triggered apparently by any internal student demand, but as part of a national right-wing strategy to extend private control over public universities and indeed over the national commons—what we as a people hold as public trust and common wealth. It is a piece of a broad-ranging attack on academic freedom and American liberties.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh, the cradle of the American labor movement, is experiencing a frontal attack on its unions. Last summer, one hundred positions were eliminated from the police department where the first local of the Fraternal Order of Police was organized in 1915. Several dramatic sprees of violence then reminded residents of their vulnerability. Pittsburgh’s firefighters—organized into the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 in 1903—thought they had a political deal with the mayor, but found themselves threatened with the closing of seven firehouses in a city where the terrain makes neighborhoods especially vulnerable. In January, the ICA raised the stakes demanding the closing of thirteen firehouses.

When the Act 47 team negotiated a new contract with the politically potent firefighters union to cut only six firehouses, the ICA sued the Act 47 team. The sight of two state entities suing each other at taxpayer expense while two-thirds of the city’s pools remained closed appalled many citizens. Pools and recreation and senior centers were not cut back 15 percent like the city’s top-heavy administration, but totally shut down the first summer of crisis—hitting neighborhood youth and the elderly especially hard—and less than a third of the pools and some centers have reopened. The four million dollars that the two anti-democratic oversight agencies are costing taxpayers could have reopened all the pools and recreation and senior centers for the past three years.

Under Act 47’s “managed competition,” the city faces the progressive privatization of a sanitation department that is 60 percent African American and highly prized by residents for its efficiency and reliability. This department is routinely cited by residents as the best service provided by the city despite the fact that employment has been reduced from more than 600 in 1977 to the current 170 while a separate recycling service has been added. Privatization of services like refuse collection simply shifts costs onto city residents and undermines a complex hauling system that presently works. Privatization will lead to trash covered hillsides.

Over the past year, the city was forced into an exercise in self-mutilation as each time it met a cost-savings benchmark it was given a new one. It was forced to bargain over the depth and severity of cuts while receiving no assurance that in the end it would get any consideration for its pain and sacrifice in the form of a more equitable tax structure—a tax system that would ensure that big business, large nonprofits, and commuters contribute fairly toward the maintenance of the city they use. Residents lost their pools, senior centers and park recreation centers, neighborhood firehouses and police stations, their roadside salt boxes (a prized city service given Pittsburgh’s rugged terrain and harsh winters) and the city’s animal and rat control services—all critical to neighborhood infrastructure and community health.

Pittsburgh’s municipal workers, virtually all residents, can look forward to job eliminations, health-care coverage reductions, increased copays and deductibles, and the elimination of four holidays and a week’s vacation. City service workers face outsourcing despite contract language forbidding it. School crossing guards can expect the loss of family medical coverage and the elimination of pensions for new hires. While the Act 47 team claims to have met with city unions, these meetings if held at all were mostly perfunctory, one-way explanations of the team’s mission and powers.

While workers and unions have had little or no input into the discussions, a regular parade of corporate luminaries over the years including former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, former U.S. Steel president David Roderick, and Republican power Elsie Hillman have delivered their prescriptions on city reform. As City Controller Tom Flaherty stated: “In all, Act 47 holds the largely unionized city workforce responsible for the current state of Pittsburgh’s finances—not management, not the economy, not an outdated tax structure that refuses to recognize the effect of commuter populations, tax-exempt institutions and large businesses that don’t have to share the tax load with the mom and pop stores.”

The entire affair reeks of contempt for any meaningful participation by residents or workers in the reorganization of the city. Over the past decade, extensive public discussions have been entertained about “branding” Pittsburgh, as if the economic collapse of the city can be alleviated through image rehabilitation. Externally appointed bodies have turned elected representatives into political eunuchs. Loss of political power and democratic legitimacy dilutes responsibility and increases the cynicism of an already bitter citizenry. Symbolic of this contempt is the Act 47 team’s mandated elimination of the city’s cable channel that allowed the benighted citizenry to follow governmental deliberations and hearings.

While comparable cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Cincinnati have a commuter tax to defray costs, Pittsburgh is blocked by the legislature from this relief. Non-residents hold two-thirds of the jobs in the city. On average, the commuter who works in Pittsburgh makes $47,000 per year, the resident worker $29,000. So who bears the weight of government, police, fire, roads, and parks for this regional economic hub? The more affluent two-thirds of Pittsburgh workers now pay an occupation tax of $52 a year. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh resident workers now pay $52 plus a 3 percent city and school wage tax and real estate taxes at rates generally higher than non-resident workers pay in the wealthier suburbs. Low-wage workers carry the load.

Gross unfairness applies not in revenue collection alone. Expenditures are equally skewed. While hard earned resident tax money goes to large regional projects like baseball and football stadiums, convention centers, upscale department stores, and infrastructure development that serves and employs a regional workforce, neighborhood assets like parks and recreation and senior centers are squeezed to the point where now they are threatened with total elimination. Twenty-two pools worth hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment remain closed to save less than a million dollars in operating expenses. With financial crisis upon the city, relatively low-cost neighborhood facilities serving families were savagely cut.

At the height of its industrial heyday from the Civil War to Vietnam, Pittsburgh helped shape many of the central components of modern industrial society. An innovator in glass production especially plate glass, it remained the center of American glass production throughout the nineteenth century. An early user of both Bessemer and open-hearth steel making, Pittsburgh made many key advances in the development of modern steel production methods and organization. Pioneering advances in structural and bridge steel as well as armor plate catapulted the United States into the first rank of world powers and permanently altered the urban skyline.

Westinghouse’s airbrake, rail signaling, and switching mechanisms laid the groundwork for modern mass transportation. The generators and motors that poured out of its vast East Pittsburgh plant electrified the world. The commercial production of aluminum first achieved in the city provided a key component for twentieth-century aviation, automobiles, and household wares. Pioneering advances in oil and gas exploration and transmission combined with a huge by-products industry derived from coke production made Pittsburgh an important center of chemical production. Finally, industrial food processing and canning, pioneered in the city, changed how people ate and where food was grown and marketed.

As impressive as Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage is, its labor heritage is equally important. The city was the cradle of the American labor movement. As early as the first decade of the nineteenth century, cordwainers were organizing to establish wage and quality standards. In the 1840s, female textile workers fighting long hours and low pay organized the town’s first large-scale factory strikes. In 1862, women were the victims of Pittsburgh’s worst industrial accident when the Allegheny Arsenal exploded. William Sylvis attempted to form the nation’s first national labor organization after the Civil War. Arguably the earliest albeit short-lived industrial union, the Trainman’s Union, played an important role in the “Great Uprising,” the Railroad Strike of 1877, the most violent labor rebellion in the nation’s history centered in Pittsburgh where approximately forty people died. In 1881, the American Federation of Labor was founded in the city.

The most famous incident in American labor history, the Battle of Homestead in 1892 pitted the nation’s most powerful corporation against the nation’s strongest union. The defeat of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers on the banks of the Monongahela determined the non-union character of American industrial organization for forty-five years. That defeat would dramatically lengthen work hours, depress working conditions, and remove the worker’s voice from the production process while slowing technological change and innovation in the industry. The importation of an immigrant workforce and their subjection to brutal hours and conditions would provoke the violent McKees Rocks strike of 1909 and the tragic 1919 Steel Strike. These struggles would be marked by the radical suppression of civil liberties and free speech as well as the cynical manipulation of racial and ethnic divisions among the working class.

The Pittsburgh region was the scene of important gains for labor that laid the foundation for post–Second World War prosperity. The signing of a contract by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and U.S. Steel in 1937 followed by the Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., which upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act, provided the framework for the industrial unionism of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—founded in Pittsburgh in 1938. During the Second World War, Jean Monnet, the father of united Europe, called America the “arsenal of democracy” and Pittsburgh was at the heart of that arsenal.

The postwar era saw massive strikes in the steel, electrical, and auto industries that significantly raised the living standards of America’s workers, but the issue of Communism in the unions would divide the Pittsburgh region in a particularly bitter way. These struggles would significantly contribute to the growing conservatism of unions. The disaffection of youth over Vietnam and mounting unrest by African Americans over job discrimination would provide the prelude to the collapse of the region’s manufacturing as free trade and cheap energy combined with lack of investment undermined local industry’s competitiveness.

Washington cut funds to state and municipalities in order to finance infrastructure repair in an Iraq we bombed and occupied on the basis of “faulty intelligence.” We face federal mandates to repair sewers without funds attached. Our mass transit systems are cannibalized for lack of governmental support while Pennsylvania imposes the second highest costs on students for access to public higher education. Cuts in public services and jobs pass economic pain relentlessly down the food chain. Faulty intelligence has become systemic.

The entire exercise is driven by right-wing ideology and an increasing spirit of meanness. In a town that once deeply respected physical labor and expected decent public services right-wing talk show hosts now foam at the mouth over bus drivers making $36,000 a year. At the same time that legislators gave Pittsburgh just enough revenue to keep its fiscal nose barely above water, they refused to provide stable funding for mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh causing the loss of hundreds of jobs and major service cuts. Pittsburgh’s bus system is on the verge of cutting all weekend service. Meanwhile, U.S. Air, one of the most important private employers in the region is hemorrhaging, cutting jobs and regional services. Workers there, like their public sector brothers and sisters, are forced into circular exercises in contract mutilation spurred by the fear that a bankruptcy court will demand even more.

When a young soldier in Iraq sharply questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of armor plating for military and transport vehicles, the secretary alluded to production problems. Production problems indeed! The premier armor plate facilities historically were U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works just outside Pittsburgh and Bethlehem Steel’s main plant. Both died painful deaths in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1980s, plant-closing activists spoke out repeatedly against the collapse of industry because of the loss of human capital, metalworking skills, and the devastation it visited on proud industrial communities. We can still roll armor plate at the Gary Works of U.S. Steel and at some smaller mills, but the question of this nation’s shrinking productive capacity—sacrificed on the blood-soaked altar of free trade and laissez-faire capitalism—should be reconsidered in light of its multiple consequences.

As one of those Mon Valley plant-closing activists, I argued in the early 1980s that a great nation with a powerful military couldn’t cede its productive manufacturing base without being impelled to adopt an imperialistic military strategy. Financial and military power uneasily poised upon a heavily subsidized, petroleum-based transportation and agricultural infrastructure is driven to control the natural resources and the productive capacities of others. Leaving aside the moral issues, an imperial strategy is not sustainable over the long term by a nation that discards its mechanics, machinists, and farmers with callous indifference.

Contempt for workers and fierce resistance to their democratic organization was at the center of the American industrial decline. The struggle of workers for participation and organization is at the heart of the Pittsburgh story. A capitalistic class-warfare economic model that refuses to acknowledge the intelligence and the democratic rights of the people who actually do the work has been the undoing of what was once the world’s most productive country. Now industrial leadership has arguably shifted to China and India where labor conditions resemble the plight of workers in Pittsburgh a century ago, and the United States (especially its future generations) is sliding into permanent indebtedness.

For nearly twenty years, a Pittsburgh organization, MAGLEV Inc., championed and worked for the creation of a 300-mile-an-hour magnetic levitation transportation system based on German technology that would relieve the congestion of cities, take pressure off our overcrowded airline system, and restore manufacturing to Pittsburgh. The adventure in Iraq has put such dreams on hold indefinitely. Meanwhile the Chinese took their suitcases full of Yankee dollars and bought the German system for the eight-minute eighteen-mile trip from the Shanghai airport to center city (attaining a top speed of 275 miles per hour) and built it in less than three years. They subsequently announced plans to extend the system more than a hundred miles.

Pittsburgh is little known or appreciated nationally despite the important role that the city played in the rise of U.S. global power. Pittsburgh’s birth occurred at the cutting edge of imperial French and British expansion into the heartland of the continent. The city’s rapid decline coincided with the recent assumption of global imperial power by the United States. In between these two eruptions of global imperial realities into southwest Pennsylvania flows a story of collective work, struggle, and skill that arguably created the most productive region on the earth between 1880 and 1950 considering both diversity and volume of production.

Plant-closing activists in the 1980s used to refer to what was happening to Pittsburgh and other manufacturing centers as “breaking America’s backbone.” Now the once muscular city lies on the operating table surrounded by ideologues with knives, its public services and union contracts are of being eviscerated. While the black and gold faithful from coast to coast sport colors in salute to their team, Pittsburgh itself is being gutted economically without anesthesia or mercy.

The glory that is Pittsburgh today derives from its stunning beauty and historic character, its people and its memories. Sitting in a natural amphitheater carved by the three rivers, its hillsides green and leafy, its rivers once again filling with fish, its neighborhoods a crazy quilt of accommodation with its convoluted geography, the town has character and complexity. Pittsburgh has always been a proud place despite the often bitter labor relations that played a significant role in its history. What has remained true is an intense loyalty to this rooted locale: its neighborhoods and hollows, its forgotten corners and “seldom seens,” its churches, teams, taverns, schools, and unions. A loyalty from the heart beats in the Pittsburgh Nation, at home and away, waving the “terrible towel” of memory.

2005, Volume 57, Issue 07 (December)
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