In 1968 there were more than 650,000 steelworkers in the U.S., laboring at scorching hot hearths in vast, mighty mills from Baltimore to Birmingham. They were as vital to the nation’s economy as breathing, and if few knew their names outside of their families and neighborhoods, they were nonetheless essential citizens who punched a time clock, paid their taxes, and raised their families. Today, a slow-moving avalanche of cheaper, subsidized imported steel has dropped that number to 150,000.
In a desperate endgame strategy, the United Steelworkers of America negotiated retraining funds for its abandoned members. But while new careers are little more than pipe dreams for older workers, the funding spawned a creative-writing workshop, run by poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, that helped members capture their experiences on paper. The results are collected here in a slim volume that, while often lacking in technique and polish, packs a bigger emotional punch than a year’s worth of graceful stories in Zoetrope.
“I’ll shovel shit with a smile,” says a determined female steelyard applicant, desperate to escape welfare and an abusive husband, in a story by Kathi Wellington Dukes, a third-generation steelworker. In the ’70s, when jobs were so plentiful a steelworker could quit one plant in the morning and be working at a second by the afternoon, the mills were “huge and looming, dark and smoky, with an orange sky,” as Jennifer Jones, a 30-year veteran, describes them. Many grew up in the plants’ shadows, playing on streets “dusted red from the open hearths,” in homes owned by the steel company itself, as Sandy Dunn did outside Bethlehem Steel’s mammoth Sparrows Point plant near Baltimore.
They were places where workers lost hands in huge, relentless coiling machines, toppled into 160-degree pickling tubs, and fell prey to asbestos that dropped on them in a gentle rain from giant padded rollers “dancing a Beethoven waltz . . . in and out of a beam of sunlight,” as Joe E. Gutierrez, who worked at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, pictures it. They were also places of comradeship and loyalty, where everyone scrimps and saves to help the leukemia-stricken daughter of one member of the crew in Gary Markley’s story.
If some of these tales are a little mawkish, it is because the everyday lives of the working people who authored them were filled with emotions as raw as the materials they turned into steel. The Heat offers a rare last glimpse inside those huge, old, abandoned plants that now litter the rust-belt landscape. What were they like? In a poem, steelworker J.A. Orellana offers one answer: They were “a good meal ticket at the price of 10 years off your life.”