By Vince Guerrieri
Forty years ago today, Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it was shuttering its Campbell Works, at the time the larger of the now-defunct company’s two mills in Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, putting some 5,000 people out of work and signaling the end of an era for Youngstown, Ohio. It was a devastating blow to a city that had become synonymous with the steel industry and has since become synonymous with deindustrialization and its accompanying urban decline. At its height, in the mid 20th century, Youngstown’s population was well north of 150,000, with above average wages and one of the highest homeownership rates in the country. Today, the population of Youngstown — now one of the poorest cities in Ohio — has fallen below 65,000.
Within five years of the Campbell Works closure, a total of 50,000 jobs would disappear from the Mahoning Valley, but locals still point to September 19, 1977, as the day the death knell tolled for Youngstown. They call it “Black Monday.”
Here, on the 40th anniversary of the day still referred to as Black Monday — and less than two months after President Donald Trump held a rally in Youngstown, where he offered the empty promise, “We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories” — we talk to four people who were intimately involved with Youngstown Sheet & Tube, in its good days and its last days.
Staughton Lynd came to the Youngstown area in 1976, to work as a union lawyer and organizer for United Steelworkers (USW) locals in the region.
“There was the 12 o’clock whistle, and when we were kids, that meant go home for lunch. Then there was a 3 o’clock whistle for the shift change. People set their clocks by it.”
Lynd: There was a way of life where you graduated high school, which is still a bigger event in the Mahoning Valley than graduating college because not everyone goes to college, followed by a few years in the military and then you came back to the valley and you got a job at the mill. Moreover, there were several generations of a family that tended to live near each other. You’d talk to someone and they’d say, “Our family eats together three or four times a week.” It was a very tight-knit community.
Gerald Dickey was one of those steelworkers. After graduating from Struthers High School, he served in the Air Force before coming home and getting a job in maintenance at the company’s Brier Hill mill. By 1977, he was the recording secretary for USW Local 1462.
Dickey: As a kid, I could hear the clanging steel at night, and by the time I went to work there, I knew what all those sounds meant. They had the old steam whistles, and there was the 12 o’clock whistle, and when we were kids, that meant go home for lunch. Then there was a 3 o’clock whistle for the shift change. People set their clocks by it.
Youngstown native Pat Ungaro worked in the mills to pay his way through college. By 1977, he was a city councilman representing the North Side and the principal at South High School. He would go on to serve as mayor of Youngstown from 1984 to 1997.
Ungaro: Every night, the sky would glow orange. I’m sure it wasn’t good environmentally, but when the mills were booming, they lit up the sky. I always had a job in the summer making big money in the mill or one of the other industries related to it. You could quit one job and get another. I made enough money in the summer to pay for my school. It’s almost a fantasy world today.
Pittsburgh native Lou DeSimone graduated from Youngstown State University in 1970 and took a job with Sheet & Tube as a salesman that year.
“My wife and I moved here with $23 in our pocket. At the King Arthur apartments, I said I couldn’t pay until I got a paycheck, and the management said, ‘You work for Sheet & Tube? Then you’re good for it.’”
DeSimone: It was a great company to work for. They were so proud of the company in the community. When I first came into town, my wife and I moved here with $23 in our pocket, no checking account, no credit cards, no rich uncle, nothing. We moved into the King Arthur apartments, I said I couldn’t pay until I got a paycheck, and the management said, “You work for Sheet & Tube? Then you’re good for it.”
DeSimone went to work for Sheet & Tube in 1970, a year after it had merged with Lykes, a New Orleans–based shipping company. Twice the company had tried to merge with Bethlehem Steel; in the 1930s, it was killed by a stockholder, and in the 1950s, the government refused to allow it. But the merger with Lykes was allowed — and cracks started showing almost immediately.
DeSimone: The mills were fed by open hearth furnaces. We knew this was old technology. It would take eight hours to make a heat of mediocre steel, but the newer basic oxygen furnaces (BOFs) could produce the same material, even more, of better quality steel, in about an hour and a half.
I was one of 12 men hired in the sales training program, and one of the first cutbacks is that 10 of the sales trainee positions were eliminated. They kept two of us.
Dickey: The thing about being a locally-headquartered company like that, you had neighbors and friends who worked everywhere, so you heard a lot of stuff and you didn’t know what was rumor and what wasn’t. So you’d hear things about them having trouble paying their bills, but you’d try not to lose sleep over it.
“I knew immediately it was going to be bad. A rule of thumb was that for every steel mill job there are approximately four other jobs.”
DeSimone: We were cash poor because of what the Lykes Corporation did to us. They borrowed something like $50 million so they could buy a controlling interest, and when they did, they went into the company coffers and took the money out and paid the debt. They walked away with a company that had no debt and $500 million in revenues. We essentially paid them to buy our company.
Sheet & Tube always paid their bills within 30 days, and our bills ran about $50 million a month. They came in and said to our suppliers, “We’re going to pay you in 60 days.” They took the money out of cash flow and used it to pay down the debt. It was terrible what they did to our suppliers. We saw what was happening. We were holding the mill together with baling wire and tape, and they did not care to put money into the facility. We saw we needed BOFs, but the money went to Lykes and we were left with the open hearths.
Lynd: There was a metal processing company called General Fireproofing. They made a lot of steel office furniture. They had broken ground in the spring of 1976 to build a new plant here in Youngstown. The local steelworkers union went on strike and as a result, the company canceled its plans to build here in Youngstown and announced it would do new construction in Tennessee. That was the canary in the coal mine.
Dickey: Sometime in August 1977, the union representatives from the five local unions that represented Sheet & Tube had a lunch meeting, and I went. They were buying us lunch, and that didn’t happen, and they took us into the superintendent’s lunchroom in the back. We didn’t even know it existed. When we were done, the district manager said, “We’re just bringing you in to reassure you it was going to be all right,” I guess because of all those rumors. We left the meeting and we kind of joked, “Well, if they’re saying that, we’ve got to be in big trouble.”
On Sept. 18, 1977, a Sunday, the company’s board of directors met at the Pittsburgh airport. The next day, news broke of the closing. Jack Hunter, then the mayor of Youngstown, called it “the worst possible news.”
Ungaro: It was like it was not real. It was traumatic. It was devastating.
Dickey: I was scheduled to be in the union office that day. Sometime shortly after 10 o’clock, someone came into the office and said, “They said on the radio they’re closing the Campbell Works.” We thought, “That’s bullshit, he must not have gotten it right.” Then someone else came in and said the same thing.
DeSimone: I was on a vacation day and I didn’t hear it on the radio, but my next door neighbor knocked on my front door. He said, “Lou, I think you just lost your job.” I had no idea what he was talking about, and he explained to me that he’d just heard on the news that they were going to close the Campbell Works. I said, “If I lose my job, you’re going to lose your job too.” He was an engineer. I said, “All the iron ore that you carry and the coal and the coke, that’s no more. We’re not going to need trains in Youngstown.” And a year later, both of us were out of work.
Dickey: The first emotion was disbelief. We thought, “It’s a bluff. They wanted pay cuts.” And then when it did set in, it was complete shock. The open hearths tapped out and shut down. Then they shut down the blooming mill. The guys cleaned out their lockers because they weren’t coming back, and as they crossed the bridge to leave the mill, a lot of them just threw their bags right into the river. The mills were finished.
“I remember coming home with the office Christmas tree. I was the youngest and the boss said, ‘You take it home.’ My wife looked at me with this Christmas tree in my hand, and I said, ‘Merry Christmas, Sweetheart. I’ve been fired.’”
DeSimone: I knew immediately it was going to be bad. A rule of thumb was that for every steel mill job there is, there are approximately four other jobs in the community, anything from telephone operators to dry cleaners to bartenders. It wasn’t just the 5,000 people who lost their jobs, you had another 20,000 that were going to lose their jobs through the next year. I knew that was going to happen, and I knew it was going to be devastating. You take 25,000 jobs out of here, people are going to leave. They’re going to find a job to support their family, whether it’s Columbus or Timbuktu.
Ungaro: We had 2,000 kids at South, and people started leaving right away. Our enrollment dwindled almost immediately. Most people, when they used up their benefits, they left the area. To see the kids all saying goodbye, it was depressing.
Dickey: In 1978, there was a merger announced between J&L and Sheet & Tube. The parent company was LTV, which we said stood for “Leave the Valley,” and that’s exactly what happened. We asked for a guarantee they wouldn’t close the Brier Hill plant. We didn’t get it and it was clear they didn’t want Brier Hill. Because it was seamless pipe, we were allowed to live, but J&L also had a seamless business. The quality was nowhere near what we had, but they had a BOF furnace and they just didn’t want Brier Hill.
They said they’d keep it running through the end of the year. At least we got some holiday pay out of it.
DeSimone: My last day was a year later, after we merged with J&L. Legally it was a merger, but it was actually a takeover. It was December 19, 1978, when the merger took place, and that day, the sales department for Sheet & Tube was pretty much through.
I remember coming home with the office Christmas tree. I was the youngest and the boss said, “You take it home.” My wife looked at me with this Christmas tree in my hand, and I said, “Merry Christmas, Sweetheart. I’ve been fired.”
Lynd: There were three consecutive years when a significant closing was announced just before Christmas. These people were all heart.
Dickey and Lynd led an effort with a group called the Ecumenical Coalition, made up of religious and community leaders, for employees to buy the steel mill and reopen it.
Lynd: The government had a loan guarantee for the steel industry, but that fund, if I remember correctly, was $100 million, and it didn’t take into account a mill that needed to replace its entire steelmaking capacity, either with basic oxygen or electric furnaces. So we calculated that we needed something like $200 million, $225 million to do an adequate job, and the government didn’t have the loan guarantees. And it was very hard to put together an imaginary management team for something that hadn’t been approved.
Ungaro: I give the Ecumenical Council a lot of credit for trying. But the mills weren’t productive economically. Nobody wanted to buy them. Eventually, we tried to redevelop the land, and we had to tear the mills down. It was like losing your soul.
After Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed all its mills, U.S. Steel closed its Ohio Works in 1979. In a five-year span, 50,000 jobs disappeared. As more people left and the Mahoning Valley sunk deeper into crime and poverty, despair turned to anger.
Lynd: My wife and I retired from Legal Services in the 1990s. We as lawyers were immersed for 20 years with problems connected with what I would describe as the only economic development in this Valley, and that was the building of three new large prisons. Youngstown became a prison town and it still is. The chamber of commerce can have a program every two or three years that’s going to change everything, but it’s baloney.
Ungaro: We had the most aggressive economic development next to Hong Kong. But when you have something that devastating, you can only do so much. We had a lot of problems coming in every direction.
Dickey: The congressman we had at the time of the shutdown was Chuck Carney. He was a union guy. The very next election, guess what happens? We vote for a Republican, Lyle Williams. It was more about change, because who was helping us? Nobody! It kept getting worse. General Fireproofing shuts down, Truscon Steel shuts down, Commercial Shearing, Copperweld….
Lyle Williams served six years in Congress before being defeated by Jim Traficant, who represented the area for nearly 18 years until his expulsion after a federal conviction on corruption charges. In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump drew comparisons to Traficant — right down to the bad hair. In the election, Trump carried Trumbull County, the first Republican to do so since Richard Nixon in 1972, and very nearly carried Mahoning County.
Dickey: When Trump speaks at his rallies, to me, it looks like a union rally. He knows how to stir things up, just like Jim Traficant.
“When Trump speaks at his rallies, to me, it looks like a union rally. He knows how to stir things up, just like Jim Traficant.”
We weren’t equipped for this assault. Labor thought it had a seat at the table, and when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, we learned we didn’t. The No. 1 fear today is that they’re going to lose their job. You could be sitting at a computer, plumber, selling women’s shoes. They’re all afraid that they’re going to say we don’t need you.
Lynd: I think the Mahoning Valley is full of older couples who had certain aspirations for their kids consistent with the pattern that children do better than their parents, and they’re beginning to feel that isn’t going to happen. They think, “My children are going to have to leave town, and they have no reason to feel secure about their economic state anywhere else.” Imagine going there and working in the same damn heap of iron every day of your life because you thought first of all that you were going to have a secure retirement, but you imagined the family would still be together and the kids would be going on to better, less dirty jobs than their parents had. A lot dreams and hopes died that weren’t just economic.
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and he’s left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.