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.