Struggles in Steel: A Story of African American Steel Workers

Struggles in Steel: A Story of African American Steel Workers

Directed by Ray Henderson and Tony Barber (1996)

Film Review

This documentary explores the extreme racial discrimination African Americans experienced in America’s defunct steel industry. In steel mills across Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Gary and Chicago, Black employees were always limited to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs – for example the so-called “man killing” jobs inside the coke furnaces.

It was virtually impossible for Black workers to be promoted to foreman or manager, even when they undertook specialized training. Instead companies would hire an inexperienced white workers and expect black workers to train them as foremen.

As a result of a lawsuit Black steelworkers won in 1974, the union and nine steel companies signed a consent decree requiring Black workers to be paid and promoted based on the same criteria as white workers. However ten years later, most of the mills covered by the consent decree began shutting down.

The filmmakers interview Black steelworkers who blame the demise of the US steel industry on companies’ failure to “tool up” and the failure of the US government to to protect the industry (via tariffs and imports) against cheap steel imports.

The collapse of the steel industry devastated Black communities in Pittsburgh and across the Midwest.* With the loss of good paying union jobs, the Black middle class would vanish in little over a decade.

*Simultaneous with the steel industry collapse, hundreds of US manufacturers moved to (non-union) low wage Southern states or to third world sweatshops.

The full film can be viewed free on Kanopy.





The Preston Model: Empowering Local Economies

Building the Local Economy: From Preston, UK to Cleveland, OH

Produced by Laura Flanders (2018)

Film Review

This is a fascinating documentary about empowering local communities. It offers an in depth exploration of the so-called “Preston Model” of community wealth building.The Preston Model is based on the “Evergreen Model,” adopted by Cleveland’s cooperative movement. Although the UK city of Preston (pop 130,000) is much smaller than Cleveland, the economies of both communities have been devastated by the loss of heavy industry that previously supported them.

The goal of both models is to strengthen local economies by

  • promoting buy-local campaigns
  • actively procuring local investment
  • lobbying local government and “anchor” agencies (schools, hospitals, etc) to buy locally
  • pressuring local government to invest pension funds and tax remittances in local businesses
  • investing in apprenticeships and retraining programs
  • campaigning for a living wage in all industries.

The most interesting part of the film is an interview with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Preston’s MP), who explains how the Labour Party is systematically rolling out similar programs in other councils they control.



More Babies Die in Cleveland than in North Korea, Sri Lanka, Albania and Guatemala

Behind America’s Infant Mortality Crisis

Al Jazeera (2013)

Film Review

Since the mid-1990s, when Bill Clinton eliminated Aid For Dependent Children (AFDC), the US has enjoyed infant mortality rates among the highest in the world. Rust belt Midwestern cities lead the US in infant mortality. The loss of steel, auto and other manufacturing to third world sweatshops has virtually crushed many of these cities, leaving massive unemployment – particularly among African Americans.

Cleveland is the US city with the highest percentage of babies dying during the first year of life – with an infant mortality greater than third world countries like North Korea, Albania, Sri Lanka and Guatemala.

Trying to identify the cause of Cleveland’s skyrocketing infant mortality, filmmakers interview African American mothers and expectant mothers and neonatal specialists. The neonatologists identify prematurity as the number one cause of infant deaths. Factors that contribute to mothers delivering prematurely include homelessness and lack of access to healthy food (or money to pay for it) and prenatal care. Ohio is one of the states where Republican legislators declined federal funds to expand Medicaid (which pays for prenatal care) to the working poor.

The neonatologists also point out the false economy of this ideological stinginess. Ohio’s Medicaid program spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep premature babies alive in state-of-the-art neonatal ICUs – it would cost taxpayers far less to prevent prematurity by ensuring expectant mothers have warm housing, healthy food and prenatal care.

The Worker Revolution in Cleveland

In 2008, the Cleveland Foundation approached Democracy Collaborative co-founders Gar Alperovitz* and Ted Howard* about revitalizing Cleveland’s decaying inner city.  With the help of the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and Cleveland’s municipal government, they formed Evergreen Cooperatives (EC)

EC is a network of for-profit, employee-owned, green businesses. Network-based worker cooperatives have several advantages over independent worker cooperatives. In addition to their ability to attract funding from foundations, philanthropists and investors, they are more likely to enhance buy-in from “anchor” institutions. “Anchor” institutions are large businesses, such as hospitals, universities and hotels, that are permanently linked to the community.

Belonging to a network also makes it easier for worker cooperatives to resist pressure to cut corners (in competing with investor-owned companies) on environmental and work safety standards.

Creating Jobs and Revitalizing Cleveland’s inner city

EC’s  goal is to create ten living wage, environmentally sustainable jobs in six low-income neighborhoods (43,000 residents with a median household income below $18,500). Each worker-owner purchases a $3,000 stake in the cooperative, with wages adjusted to allow a 50% payroll deduction until the buy-in is paid off.

They have create three so far and plan to create many more:

  • Evergreen Cooperative Laundry – serves Cleveland University, as well as Cleveland hospitals, hotels and other “anchor” institutions.
  • Evergreen Snergy Solutions – designs, installs, and develops PV solar panel arrays for institutional, governmental, and commercial markets.
  • Green City Growers – produces leafy greens in a 3.5 acre hydroponic greenhouse (America’s largest urban  greenhouse) for Cleveland’s “anchor” institutions, as well as local hotels, supermarkets and restaurants. It sells sustainably grown produce at the same price as factory farmed vegetables imported from other states and countries. Yet because it’s produced locally it has a 7 day longer shelf life.

Atlanta, Washington DC, Pittsburgh (Amarillo) Texas are launching similar non-profit schemes to use worker cooperatives to create jobs in low income neighborhoods.

It’s extremely gratifying to learn that neighborhoods and communities are finding real life solutions for income inequality and the extreme economic distress in our marginalized communities. Imagine if this stuff were headline news, instead of the idiotic garbage John Kerry spouts about Ukraine.

*Gar Alpervitz is an historian, political economist, activist and author of The Next American Revolution and What Then Must We Do.

*Ted Howard is a social entrepreneur, author, and co-founder and executive director of the Democracy Collaborative.