Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Homestead Past

A few days ago I got a phone call from former Munhall neighbor George Couvaris, who is now living in Florida. (He happens to have been born on Christmas Eve on a Greek island ).  We reminisced about old times on Wayne Road and Eighth Avenue, where George and his wife Carol had a restaurant.  Before he hung up, George said, "You know, I could not have chosen a better place as my new home than the Homestead area.  We had such a wonderful sense of community in those days.  Everyone on the Avenue knew everyone.  If someone needed help, it was there. We worked hard, but got satisfaction from it.  I think many people really miss that today."

Of course, that's true, not only of Homestead, but other towns and neighborhoods across North America. It got me thinking about my childhood Christmases in Homestead.  Some memories stand out:
         The decorations on Eighth Avenue--garlands strung across the street with lighted plastic bells.. Our cocker spaniel Buffy knocking over the tree not once, but twice, chasing the train around underneath. . .Candlelit Christmas Eve services at St. John's Lutheran Church, with a large creche surrounded by evergreens to one side of the altar. . .The bells in the numerous Homestead churches pealing together at midnight. . .My father driving around in a Santa Claus suit, creating a sensation among the kids who sighted him. . .Visits to all the aunts' and uncles' homes on the Day, each one short and sweet.
St. John's Lutheran in 1976 (photo by G. Edward Busch)

And then there were the memories of the older generations, the stories that were repeated each year: During the Depression, my mother ripping up a newspaper and giving it to her young brother Bernie as a "jigsaw puzzle."  He burst into tears. . .My Great-Grandfather Busch drilling holes in a broomstick and inserting twigs in it to make a tree. (One of the first artificial ones?) They were too poor to buy a real tree for their eleven children.

There are also images of those long-ago Christmases.  One I like to hang up in my house every year is the one taken of my grandfather, George Busch, on December 23, 1937 in the Homestead Machine Shop.  Grandpap is standing to one side, admiring the tree. American flags "fly" on the railing around the tree, while behind the tree a sign warns workers about safety concerns .  It suggests the pride the machinists, many of them immigrants, took in their work and in being Americans. 

     These stories and images are literally long ago and far away now.  It's easy to indulge in sentimentality about the "good old days", which for many involved backbreaking labor and a constant struggle to stay afloat financially.  Nevertheless, it's important to recall the good part of these times:  the joy in community--working, playing, dancing, and singing together.

May we all recapture some of the pleasure derived from simple gifts in these turbulent and alienating times. Let's join the angels in Luke, singing, "In terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis" ---"Peace on Earth and goodwill to all."


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Visible Darkness: Cover Design

The preliminary cover design for Darkness Visible

Slag pouring from an open hearth ladle
I am coming down the home stretch in preparing Darkness Visible for publication.  My son-in-law Richard Mueller has come up with a preliminary cover design, shown above.  We have settled on a four-color image of molten steel being poured from a ladle.

I like it for a couple reasons. First, the image works as a graphic metaphor for the title itself, the text being visible only via the light from the molten metal.  Second, the image is reminiscent of the opening cues of  "The U.S. Steel Hour," a TV drama series that ran 1953-63. One of the cues is a shot of molten steel pouring into a gigantic ladle. When I showed the cover design to two of my Pittsburgh friends, they immediately thought of this image. In their memories (and mine) these images of molten steel blazing forth in the darkness of the mill interior is emblematic of U.S. Steel, and by extension, its predecessor, Carnegie Steel.  This may be a faulty memory, but I recall my dad saying that the cues were filmed inside the Homestead Works, which at the time was USS's flagship mill.  If they weren't, they could have been.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Subterranean Homesick Blues 2011

"Well, I rapped upon a house
With the US flag upon display.
I said, 'Could you help me out,
I got some friends down the way.'
The man says, 'Get out of here
I'll tear you limb from limb.' 
I said, 'You know, they refused Jesus, too.' 
He said, 'You're not him.'"
--"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"

One hundred and nineteen years ago on July 4th, the inhabitants of Homestead, Pennsylvania, were on edge.  The Fourth of July was one of just two days off annually for the workers at Carnegie Steel, the other being Christmas.  Only this year, 1892, was different.  On Saturday, July 2nd, the company had paid off all workers and served notices of discharge.  Andrew Carnegie was off in his castle in Scotland, letting Henry Clay Frick handle the situation. Frick had ordered a lockout.  He had called in the Sheriff to deal with the workers, but they had overpowered the lawmen and sent them away.  Frick then decided to bring in a private militia, the Pinkertons, to handle the workers.  The mercenaries were on their way by rail to Pittsburgh, where they would be loaded into barges and brought to Homestead.  The majority of these soldiers, many of them young men who had signed on for temporary summer work, had no idea how dangerous their job was going to be.
On this steamy, drizzly Monday, Homesteaders tried to carry on with their usual Fourth activities, but their hearts weren't in it.  Over the town hung the shadow of impending violence.  Most townspeople believed that Frick would try to bring in scabs via the river, as the deputies' arrival by land had been thwarted.  The workers, armed with guns, some dating back to the Civil War, patrolled the roads and lined the river banks, on the alert for the next assault.
 The confrontation between company soldiers and the workers came at daybreak on the morning of July 6th.  Very few on either side had any idea that this confrontation would blossom into a full-fledged battle that raged throughout the hot afternoon.  Frick, however, did know of the likelihood of war on the riverbank.  He had to know, as he had brought in both private and public militia to protect corporate interests on occasions before that, and they had all ended with one or both sides suffering casualties.  What he probably didn't understand was the steely (pun intended) determination of the Homestead workers.  
Usually, historical accounts of the Battle for Homestead focus on the casualties of the battle itself.  What they do not relate are the stories of the countless casualties that came afterward: strikebreakers killed by explosions and poison, strikers' lives claimed by despair and heartbreak.  The stories of these casualties have not been told in print. The company kept a lid on unionist sabotage at the mill because they didn't want to scare away new workers.  Many of the strikers, demoralized and starving, moved away, leaving the town to the company and its scabs. 

As a child, I heard the story over and over of my Great-Grandfather Busch's post-battle death in a boiler explosion set by unionists.  It made me anti-union.  In the 'Sixties and 'Seventies, the steelworkers' union was at the peak of its power and influence.  Workers who had not completed ninth grade were making two or three times what my father made as a teacher with a master's degree.  It didn't seem fair.

In 1986, three years after the Homestead Works shut down, I found myself confronted with the choice of whether or not to join a union, the union for faculty in the Minnesota State College and University system.  One had to pay one's fair share anyway, so I chose to join and thereby have some control over union decisions.  It took a few years, but I eventually realized that if it were not for the union, as an adjunct, I would be doing the same work for far less than full-time instructors, unable to build seniority, unsure of whether I'd be hired back during the next semester. 

Thanks to a fair and decent dean, Manley Olson, and a department chair, Karen Gleeman, who worked tirelessly to support adjunct faculty, I was hired as a full-time faculty member in 1992, assuming the rights and privileges attendant thereof--many of these acquired by union representation at MNSCU negotiations.  I enjoyed these benefits throughout my teaching career, but the situation started to change during the last few years.  When I retired in 2006, the department had more adjuncts than tenured faculty.  New hires did not get anything like the salaries and retirement packages my generation enjoyed.  I got in and out just in time.

Now, five years later, the situation with public unions is far worse than many of us could ever have envisioned.  With Wisconsin in the lead, many states are slashing away at unions, rescinding the workers' collective bargaining rights.  Governments at all levels are cutting away at publicly funded programs such as medical care for the aged, poor, and vulnerable, and police and fire departments.  Few would argue that we do not have to tighten our belts, to sacrifice some of the government benefits we've enjoyed for so long. What I don't understand is prevailing attitude among supporters of draconian cuts that these are all we need to set things right with the economy.  How conveniently they forget that it was the unbridled greed of banks, corporations and "investors" that took down the U.S. economy in 2008.  How easily they forget that it was the Bush administration that, while dragging the country into two extremely costly wars abroad, let this blind rapaciousness run unfettered. 

Take, for example, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.  He is trying to fuel his run for the presidency by bragging about what he did for the state during his tenure.  Go ahead and brag, smug Timmy, about how your "no-new-taxes" policy threw millions of dollars of tax burden onto the middle-class, especially city dwellers, who have been forced to live with much less while paying much more.  My property taxes more than doubled during your governorship, while my property value plummeted. You don't fool me, nor apparently 94% of your targeted Tea Party supporters, who are backing other candidates.

As I see it, the government of the state of Minnesota is shut down now, at a loss of millions in state revenue, for one reason and one reason only: Governor Mark Dayton's insistence that the wealthiest 1% Minnesotans pay their fair share of the tax burden.  There is no way to justify their refusal to shoulder a bit more of the burden to keep the state solvent.  Have we reached such a sad pass that the greedy rich have the state and nation in their grip so tightly that they are willing to the country go to hell before giving up even a little of their wealth? 

Doesn't it get you angry that Big Business and Big Government, bolstered by a stacked Supreme Court, have been methodically funneling the nation's resources into the coffers of the big banks, big oil companies, and big corporations for years now?  Doesn't it get you angry that this small minority--and their corrupt judges and public officials--want you and me to keep sacrificing so they can keep biggering and biggering?

If so, speak out.  I'm not arguing for you to grab a rifle and head for the riverbank. Just let the moneybags and their minions know that you are tired of their jive.  Unlike Homesteaders in 1892, you don't even have the option of moving to somewhere with better opportunities.  Where are you going to go--Iceland?  Greece? 

As Ben Franklin put it, if we don't hang together, we will hang separately. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Truth Is Out There.

From the very first episodes, I loved "The X-Files."  What wonderful stories of life in McWorld!  What a vivid dramatization of the fears and anxieties of life in the 20th Century.  Well, it's now the 21st Century, but I don't see that much has changed.  Big Brother is still watching. Aliens are still abducting people.

In researching and writing Darkness Visible, I came to realize the horrors of industrialization.  These horrors existed on so many levels: pollution, very dangerous working conditions, no social or economic safety nets, no job security, political corruption, extreme economic and class oppression. (I'd like to point out that the majority of people in the world today live in conditions similar to those of working Americans in 1892.) The advantage that our great-grandparents had over us today is that they could clearly see who was running the country: the Robber Barons and their banker buddies.
A bessemer converter in action.

But we live in a world that's run by powerful, hidden forces.  The World Bank, the IMF, the Federal Reserve, the G20 Summit--Who are these people?  Some folks find it easier to believe that visitors from outer space are running the show on Earth.  I hate to tell them. It's far, far scarier than that.

BBC-America is re-running "X-Files" episodes as part of their "scifi" afternoon series.  I'm enjoying seeing a pre-sex-addition-scandal David Duchovny and a lovely, very young Gillian Anderson once again fight the dark forces in collusion with the government to get to the truth, which has to be out there, somewhere.  You never know whom to trust.  Cigarette-smoking-man, Krychek, the Black Guy with information. They aren't the prime mover, but they act at his (its? their?) insidious bidding.  It's a much, much darker vision that that of the mythology of the 1990s, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."  To get imprisoned in a Siberian gulag where alien slime oil is poured into your ear is a helluva lot more frightening than confronting a wisecracking bleached-blond vampire.

However, is it scarier than working at a Bessemer converter, or a blast furnace with molten iron running in hellish rivers just feet from you?  I'd say it is.  With steelmaking, the dangers are manifest.  If black alien oil is sloshing around in your eyeballs, you've had it.  You're in the thrall of the Unseen Forces running the planet.  You don't know who did it or why but you're being punished.
Fox Mulder is attacked, yet again, by a mysterious force.

My advice to you is to trust no one in power. Or allegedly in power.  I say that after looking at centuries of human history.  If you want to believe, believe your senses.  There are many truths, and they are still out there.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death and Other Symbolic Acts

A. A violent order is a disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. 

--Wallace Stevens "Connoisseur of Chaos"

"Should we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?" asked the TV reporter. "Well," said the thoughtful young lady,"as a Christian, I know we should not be happy about any death, but I think of him as an evil machine, not a human."  Interesting rationalization. Combine "evil" with "nonhuman" and you can justify celebrating death.

Let me add quickly here that I am not implying that the US should not have tracked down and killed bin Laden. Maybe this young woman has watched "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" once too often. Still, I can't help wondering how much Osama's death will change anything in the dynamic of terrorism. Not much, methinks. Acts of terrorism are symbolic:  Bring down the World Trade Center, blow up the embassy, sink the warship, kill the evildoers (viewed from both sides of the terrorism divide).

This week marks the 125th anniversary of another violent labor confrontation in U.S. history: the infamous Haymarket Square incident in Chicago.  The stage was set when the company, McCormick Harvesting Machine, locked out workers who were seeking an eight-hour workday.  Workers had come under attack by company-hired Pinkertons during a strike the year before.  This time, strikebreakers were brought into the plant under the protection of hundreds of police.  On May 3, 1886, the unionists rushed forward to confront strikebreakers at the end of their shift.  The police fired on the crowd, and gunfire erupted.

Outraged, local anarchists called for a huge rally to be held in Haymarket Square the following evening.  The large crowd assembled was calm and quiet--until the police tried to clear them from the square.  Someone threw a bomb at the police, the police fired back.  The five minutes of ensuing chaos ended with 8 police dead and 50 wounded, many of these from "friendly" fire, and an estimated 60 casualties among civilians  from the unfriendly variety.

In one of the great miscarriages of justice in US history, four of the union organizers were convicted of murder and hanged in November of 1887.  In 1893, the mayor issued a posthumous pardon, but the damage had been done.  The dream of an eight-hour workday was put on hold for decades.  A company had once again asserted its control over the lives of the workers.

Emma Goldman, lover of fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman, deemed the Haymarket martyrdoms "the most decisive influence in my existence."  Berkman called the Chicago anarchists "a potent and vital inspiration."  After Berkman's ill-fated 1892 assassination attempt on Frick, Goldman said that Berkman had felt compelled to go to Pittsburgh after reading about Carnegie Steel's throwing Homestead strikers' families out of company homes into the street.

For decades afterward, violence continued in Haymarket Square, this time of the symbolic kind.  Commemorative statues were erected, and repeatedly vandalized. During the Vietnam War "Days of Rage" Weathermen planted a bomb on one and blew it up.  My point is that anarchists have always been big on symbolic acts of violence: blowing up statues, assassinating archdukes at Sarajevo, shooting at evildoing company executives.

The parallels with the Homestead confrontation six years later need not be belabored (pun intended). While the Big Company was the prime mover, Pinkertons, police, strikers, and anarchists all played roles in the outcome.  What good was all this violence? No good at all, for anyone, except the few who owned the companies.  In fact, acts by anarchists ironically set back the labor movement for years--but on the other hand, they wouldn't have been spurred to violence had the companies been more amenable to concessions to workers.

Anarchists, terrorists, and insurgents of all stripe have completely given up on Those In Power and can see no other course to unseat them but violence. Bin Laden had said  in interviews that his initial inspiration to establish al Qaeda came after seeing Palestinian families thrown out of their homes and herded into camps. He had grown increasingly frustrated at instituting reforms in the repressive rule of his home state of Saudi Arabia, and gave up trying.  Did all the killing and destruction he initiated do any good?  No.  But it did accomplish one of the goals of al Qaeda:  Create fear and loathing on both sides of the Have/Have Not global constituencies.  Turn "them" into evil machines.

As we congratulate ourselves on bringing Osama to justice, we should also keep in mind that nothing has changed, really.  The global war goes on, and will go on, out of the control of any single government or movement.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is dead, but so are 16 million others. A violent order is a disorder.  A great disorder is an order. These two things are one.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Things Worth Preserving

My dad used to say he hated Victorian houses.  He disliked the overstuffed furniture, the heavy draperies and rugs, the endless clutter and bricabrac, the dust and darkness that he remembered as a child. Looking at old photos of the interiors of Victorian houses, I can understand his displeasure.  The furnishings are rather overwhelming. I shudder to think what it would have been like to clean these rooms without modern appliances like vacuum cleaners or floor buffers.

Nevertheless, Dad got worked up when, in 1960, US Steel decided to move their superintendent out of the old house next to the library, relocate his family in a fashionable suburb, and demolish the house.  Despite the local outcry, the company quickly reduced the fabulous stone Romanesque Revival residence to rubble without bothering to salvage anything.  Apparently, they didn't want anyone to be reminded of the history  associated with the inhabitants of the house. ( I should add that the daughter of the superintendent at that time, Jill Hagen, who was in my class at Munhall High School, was not happy at being forced to move to Mount Lebanon.)

The company allowed the other, less spectacular superintendents' houses to stand for several years more. I suppose they weren't fancy enough for the company to worry about its image. Shortly after the demolition of the main house, three of my friends--Barbara, Joyce, Mary Ann--and I decided to sneak into the vacant houses and take a look before they were wrecked.  We were scared to death of the police catching us and charging us with B&E, but that didn't happen.  Once inside, however, we were disappointed. We had seen the extraordinary stained glass and cabinetry in the big house, and these were remarkably plain by comparison.
The General Superintendent's House, Munhall c. 1901

Dad's outrage at the destruction of the house marked the beginning of my interest in historic preservation. And thus began my fascination with old houses that culminated in 1976 with the purchase of a ramshackle 1885 Queen Anne house in Minneapolis.  It suffered from years of deferred maintenance, and has required thirty years of hard work to get it back to some semblance of its original appearance.

However, remembering Dad's aversion to the dreary interiors of his youth, I chose not to adopt an 1880's interior decorating style. Instead, its furnishings are an odd assemblage of antiques, family heirlooms, castoffs from the previous owner, plus a sofa, chair, tables and dining set from Katilius Furniture. The back parlor is my ancestral "shrine," hung with old images of my relatives, their houses, and the old Homestead Works.
Looking into the back parlor from the front parlor of my house.
When I was recreating the streets and houses of 1891-92 Homestead in the book, I turned to contemporary descriptions, notably those from Hamlin Garland's famous 1894 visit: "The town was as as squalid and unlovely as could well be imagined, and the people were mainly of the discouraged and sullen type to be found everywhere where labor passes into the brutalizing stage of severity." Garland goes on to describe the muddy streets, broken sidewalks, wretched tenements, shabby houses, and filthy people of the town.

Sixty years later, as I remember it, the Homestead area was still smoky and dirty. If you went outside wearing a white shirt, in no time it would be flecked with soot and grit. Even at a distance of over two miles from the mill, at our house in Munhall my mother had to wash the kitchen curtains every couple weeks in warm weather.  Our next-door neighbors, the Sokolowskis, destroyed the furnishings of their house via nonstop cleaning.  Their curtains and upholstery were in tatters, but they were clean, dammit.

Laundry drying on lines in Whitacre, overlooking the Monongehela River, 1976

In Darkness Visible I have tried to recreate the noise and filth of 1892 Homestead, but I don't think it's possible to capture the extremity of the nastiness of the town.  The slums were sunken into open cesspools; smoke billowing from the mill stacks blocked out the sun and stars.  Even the mill superintendents lived and worked right across the tracks from the mill in Munhall. It must have been a nightmare of contagion and pollution.

Dad was one of the fortunate residents of Homestead-Munhall. The four houses he called home were all in Munhall, ever farther up the hill from the mill and ever newer: Hayes Street (where he was born), West 21st Street (1912), East James Street (1942), and Wayne Road (1959)--the last two being my first homes. He didn't care much for the dark, grimy dwellings of his youth, but when all is said and done, he was a preservationist. I think he would agree that although not all buildings are worth preserving, the legacy of our forebears is.
3612 Wayne Road, Munhall, 1976

To this end, I have retold the story of the 1892 Battle of Homestead --according to the PBS television series, one of the "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."  And that's no exaggeration.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

Last week my friend Joyce sent me a clipping from The Valley Mirror, a community tabloid with offices on Main Street in Munhall.  In his commentary "The Governor's Drama," Ernie Spisak gives a brief history of organized labor and its struggles throughout the last two centuries.  Of course, he mentions the Strike of '92 and the Battle of Homestead.  In conclusion, Spisak urges readers to "listen to the history of organized labor. Realize what it provided to you, even if you do not carry a union card. You have an eight-hour work day, paid vacation, paid holidays, paid sick days, and partially paid medical leave."

Frankly, I was surprised that the paper ran this commentary.  In almost every issue one of their columnists rants about how left-wingers are destroying the town, state, and nation.  Curious about local reaction to his piece, I contacted Spisak.  He said that his article had received some negative comments (not unusual for any commentary).  What took him aback is that these Steel Valley anti-unionists were all thirty-somethings.  Why couldn't they see the connection between their grandparents' fight for better pay and working conditions and their enjoyment of these fruits today?

To answer this question, I called my thirty-something daughter Ceridwen, with whom I see pretty much eye-to-eye on political and social issues.  We decided that every generation has to learn anew what previous generations figured out.  If one enjoys decent pay, safe working conditions, and other benefits, one has little motivation to buck the system.   It was always like this, wasn't it?

However, since the rise of Neo-Cons and Tea Partiers to positions of power, these hard-won gains have been increasingly eroded.  Gone is the kind of job security enjoyed by workers fifty years ago. The union-busting currently under way in Wisconsin and other states is the inevitable result of the wealthiest Americans ever-tighter grip on government and the media.

Take Rudolph Murdock, for example, who controls a significant portion of the "news" in both print and television.  Murdoch, the 36th wealthiest person in the US, owns not only the Fox News Channel and his News Corp, but also The Wall Street Journal, Direct TV, Intermix Media (MySpace), Sky TV, Star TV, and many other media outlets worldwide. The 2004 documentary Outfoxed estimated that Murdock's media reaches approximately three-quarters of the world's population. Pretty impressive.

On the other hand, the continuing efforts of Scott Walker to reduce workers' rights while keeping tax cuts for the rich, has generated significant resistance.  The Wisconsin state workers who sat through the last election in blissful oblivion suddenly woke up to the fact that It Can Happen Here. It brings to mind a favorite saying of Matt Stark, emeritus director of the ACLU-MN, "If you don't stand up for your rights, no one can do it for you."

Twenty-one years ago this spring, Henry Clay Frick's Pittsburgh estate Clayton was opened to the public after four years of restoration work.  My parents and I went on one of the first tours of the chateau-style mansion.  When we reached the master bedroom (see photo below), the docent noted that there Frick had recovered from wounds received in an assassination attempt "after the Homestead Strike of 1893."  My hand went up. "The strike was in 1892," I said. The docent shook his head. "I'm sure it was '93," he replied. To that, I said,"Well, we're from Homestead and I'm sure it was '92."

To my surprise, the effect on the group was electric. Their terrified stares telegraphed the message: "Here, right in Frick's own bedroom, are people from Homestead!  Run!"  The frightened docent acknowledged the correction, and quickly ushered us into another room.

When I told my architect friend John Martine this story, he told me that when he was working as a consultant on the Clayton restoration, those responsible for the project had received anonymous death threats.  Maybe the docent and tour-goers weren't overreacting, I mused.  But that was two decades ago. Many people in Pittsburgh are too young to remember Frick and his role in union-busting. For this and many other reasons, I think that the story of the Strike of '92 needs to be retold.

Case in point: In 1984, as US Steel was winding down operations at the Homestead Works in preparation for closing it, my friend Joyce's brother, Ken Bergert, was within a week of reaching enough service with the company to be eligible for a pension. They laid him off. (Frick would have been proud.) His co-workers offered to take a week's vacation so he could work, but the company refused to bargain. He was out, with nothing. The union stepped in, and after a protracted legal battle, got him his pension.  Without the union, he would have been, as my mother used to say, SOL.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings, take heed. In 2011, as in 1892, if you don't stand up for yourself, no one can do it for you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How the Other One Percent Lives

As of last year, reports show that 1% of the American population owns 35% of the nation's privately-held wealth.  The bottom 80% (salaried workers) hold 14%.

Two weekends ago, a Minneapolis newspaper article revealed that Ameriprise Financial CEO James Cracciolo receives $715,000 in perks and another $18 million in salary.  I looked at those figures and blinked.  My investments are with Ameriprise.  How much of the fees I pay the company go to him, I wondered.  When I complained to my Ameriprise financial adviser, she told me that the article had touched off a firestorm of outrage among both clients and Ameriprise employees.  Will Jimmy C. repent his greedy ways and accept less? Not on your life. He and the boards of directors of these big corporations have the system wired so that, throwing their shareholders a bone now and then, they keep the big bucks flowing right into their growing coffers.

It was ever thus. No matter what you call them--kings or corporate heads--these privileged few get the huge cuts of the pie.  Take, for example, Carnegie Steel in 1891.  Workers at the Homestead mill made between $1-2 a day for laborers to nearly $8 a day for the few top skilled workers (such as melters).  To earn this pay, they worked in extremely dangerous conditions for 10-12 hours a day, six days a week.  The infamous strike of '92 came about because the company (that is, Carnegie and Frick) decided that the skilled workers, members of the Amalgamated, were making too much.  When the union contract ran out, the company declared that it would henceforth negotiate wages only with individuals.  Translation:  Goodbye, collective bargaining.  After that, it was literally every man for himself.

To make matters worse for the workers, in 1893 a "panic," brought on by the overbuilding of railroads, resulted in a series of bank failures. Guess who lost their jobs. For the next decade, the unemployment rate in the U.S. stayed around 10%.  Greed fuels bad decisions by corporations and banks. These trigger an economic crisis, and millions lose their jobs. 'Sound familiar?

While my dad was alive, my mother kept her views of the Strike to herself. My father had definite opinions about the Strike (after all, he had written his senior paper at Pitt on the subject), and Mum had no desire throw in her two cents' worth. While she had no direct connection with US Steel, she and her family relied on it for their livelihood.  As in the 1890s,  the town economy was completely dependent upon the mill throughout most of the 20th century.

However, after Dad's death, Mum broke her silence.  We were discussing one of the books about the Strike (see sidebar), and I commented that I was appalled at how strikers attacked the Pinkertons during and after the battle.  Her immediate response was to cry: "They were fighting for their lives!"  If she had been there, she probably would have been one of the women who ran to the riverbank to stop the Pinkertons from coming ashore.
On another occasion, we were looking at my Grandfather Busch's pocket watches, which Dad, being the only son, had inherited.  The sturdy watch with a nickel case is the one he took to the machine shop daily; the other, smaller one has a 14-karat case.  Mum opened the gold watch and showed me the inscription inside: from the men of the Homestead Machine Shop to G. W. Busch on his retirement in 1937.

"Can you believe this?" Mum asked indignantly. "He worked nearly 50 years, most of these as a superintendent, and the men, not the company, give him his retirement watch. The only thing US Steel gave him was a small pension--and he was one of their top bosses!"  (One can easily extrapolate that the other workers were treated even more shabbily.)

Antique watch specialist Marshall Ferster told me that the gold watch was made in NY in 1922. Ferster says that as was the custom, the watch likely was bought used (from Katilius?) in 1937 with money collected from the men of the machine shop.  They had it engraved and presented it to him as their thanks for his service. (Ferster restored the nickel watch, and I keep it by my laptop, where it cheerfully keeps ticking away as I work.)

Well, all that's ancient history, as Dad used to stay.  US Steel's Homestead Works is gone, as are many of the thousands of people who once worked there.  Still, sometimes a turn of the page in the Business section of a newspaper will bring into sharp focus a fact that hasn't changed in many decades:  The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

If this be treason, make the most of it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reconstructing Spaces

I never was inside the Homestead Works, despite the fact that I lived in the shadow of its smoke for the first 18 years of my life. Very few people who didn't work there got into the mill. It was just too dangerous. If you had political connections, you might have gone on one of the tours they occasionally offered. The rest of us saw it while shopping on the Avenue, or from passing cars, or from the steps of Munhall High School or the Carnegie Library, or from one of the hundreds of residences perched on the hillside.

Even out of view, the mill was constantly in the periphery of our awareness, manifest in the clouds of smoke hovering over the area, or the loud booms and crashes reverberating through the valley, or the steam whistles that thrice daily marked the turns of shift--audible for miles. At night, the sky would pulse with the glow of molten steel, punctuated by fireworks from the blast furnaces and more dramatically, the old Bessemer converters.

In telling the story of the Strike, I had to reconstruct the inside of the mill. Emlyn Phillips, the novel's protagonist, was going to be working there. Not having been in the twentieth-century mill, how was I going to describe it in the 1890s? I found a couple accounts of work inside steel mills of the early 1900s. In those days, working in a steel mill was extraordinarily dangerous. Every day, workers were hurt; every week or so someone was killed. They hadn't yet posted the sign at the mill gate: "This plant has worked ___ days without a disabling injury."  If you were one of the injured, tough for you. No workers comp. No health insurance. No OSHA regulations. If you were a dependent of a killed worker, tough for you. No Social Security. No big company payout for your future care.

In 1892 the Homestead Works had state-of-the-art equipment, a technology that didn't change much as the decades passed. By the 1940s, government regulations made the working in the mill much safer, but the process was basically unchanged. From the contemporary narratives and interviews with my cousin's husband Phil Krepps I managed to put together a vision of how the open hearths and other parts of the mill operated.
At Rivers of Steel, I saw an old film of men making back wall at an open hearth furnace, and it amazed me how casually the men went at this scary task.  Of course, I incorporated that insight into my narrative.

Here is an excerpt describing Emlyn's second day on the job at the open hearth. He and Virgil, an American worker, are assisting with the tapping of the molten steel:

Emlyn took the small, flat shovel and went around to the rear of the furnace near the tap-spout. He looked down into the pit where the giant ladles were kept. There some workers, the clean-up men, painstakingly were gathering up all the fragments of spilled or sprayed metal to save for another melting. They suddenly left the pit.

"Yeow!" shouted the senior melter, and Frank, the second helper, came up to the tap-spout with a pointed rod and poked it into the material at the spout.

"Now he’s gonna ravel ’er out. Pay attention," admonished Virgil. Frank suddenly leaped away as if chased by demons and the molten steel spilled out, terrible and red. Spitting flame, the concoction fell into the ladle with a great hissing and plopping sound. The first helper and Frank staggered up to the ladle with huge bags of a fine black material and dropped it into the contents of the ladle, with very dramatic results.

Emlyn gasped as flames erupted from the cauldron, shooting up to the roof of the pit, curling viciously along the platform on which they stood.

"They’re putting in fine anthracite,” said Virgil. "’Know what that is?"

"Of course. I’m from Wales, where they dig up a lot of it."

"Hmph," responded Virgil.

Frank and the first helper kept dumping in bagsful of the coal until they had an enormous conflagration going. Then they stepped back.

"Get ready,” said Virgil. “When he gives the signal, we’re goin’ to shovel manganese—fast!"

Emlyn gripped the handle of his shovel tightly.

The melter gave the cue and Virgil, followed by Emlyn, ran along the gallery to the side of the spout where the molten metal was coming out. He thrust his shovel into the pile of manganese and started tossing it into the ladle. 

Today, much of the process of steel-making is automated, controlled by computers.  Workers don't have to stand just a few feet from the zillion-degree tap stream shoveling manganese as the steel is is shifted from furnace to ladle. That's certainly to be desired--but I don't think it would make a very dramatic scene in a novel.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Memory, Oral History, and Scholarly Research

Homestead Works, 1976. Photo by G. Edward Busch

As I child, I listened with fascination to my father's story of his grandfather's death at the hands of Irish unionist saboteurs in September 1892.  Grandpa John Paul was trying to restart one of the numerous furnaces that had been shut down during the lockout, when it exploded.  He and three other men were killed. A couple of months later, my grandfather, George W., went to work in the mill's machine shop.  By 1900, he had worked his way up to the lofty heights of machine shop superintendent.
Machine Shop, Homestead Works, 1936. George W. Busch, Superintendent (in center with white shirt)

Over the years, as I went through college and grad school, I repeatedly wondered what the whole story was about regarding the infamous strike and battle of July 6, 1892. I didn't dare plunge into retelling the story via a novel until after my father's death.  Understandably, he took a proprietary interest in the Strike story (as of course I do as well), and I didn't want to have to negotiate my way with him through my version of the story.

At the time, I thought it strange that Homestead-Munhall  locals didn't talk about the Strike, at least from a personal perspective.  Only after I began researching this book did I realize that the entire community, the descendants of scabs, is wracked with a kind of "survivors' guilt."  The consensus was that Frick was the main Evildoer, a ruthless bastard who engineered union busting first in his coke production plants, then in Carnegie's steel mills. Views on Carnegie were mixed, ranging from Good Guy who built our fabulous library, to sneaky coward who fiddled in Scotland while Homestead burned.

In 2000, I began research in earnest.  Over the next 14 months, I worked my way through everything on the Strike from books to TV programs to scholarly articles. (See list of recommended books.) When I found a particularly good resource, I'd pass it on to my mother and then discuss it with her.  I interviewed her, classmates, neighbors, cousins--anyone who had some story to tell about immigration, work in the mill, and life in Homestead.  Some of my classmates obligingly sent stories about their families via e-mail; my cousin's husband, Phil Krepps, was invaluable in developing a sense of what.was involved in steel production--and what the Homestead Works was like from the inside.  I hied myself to the Bost Building on 8th Avenue, union HQ during the Strike and now the home of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Ron Baraff and his staff were very helpful in leading me through primary documents related to the Strike (e.g. letters by one of soldiers posted to Homestead).  I had a grand old time.

But alas, if one wants to write, one must put aside research and pick up the laptop. I had a vague idea about the main characters: an older doctor (who could get into the best and worst of Homestead residences) and a young man from Wales.  In 2003, on a visit to Wales, Welsh-speaker Emyr Morris kindly took me around to the sites I envisioned my character inhabiting: Treorchy in the Rhondda, Ton du.  I interviewed Vivian Jones, a retired minister who had served in Minneapolis.  He gave me the names of scholars who could answer my questions about Welsh Congregationalism in the late 1800s.
Treorchy, South Wales. 2003.  Photo by Trilby Busch

Then I plunged into writing.  From 2003 until 2007, it was slow going.  I was teaching all but six weeks out of the year.  The various drafts became hard to manage, and I resorted to e-mailing dated copies to myself to keep track.  During the months preceding and following my mother's death in July of 2008, I, an only child, focused my attention on her care, and afterward, on settling the estate.  It was a sad day in September of 2009 when I pulled out of the driveway of my parents' former house on Wayne Road in Munhall, knowing that I would never have a physical "home" there again.

Since that day, as I toiled in exile, I managed to put together the whole story, starting with exposition in November of 1891, and ending with the protagonist, Emlyn Phillips, leaving Homestead in December of 1892.  As so many writers have described the process, once I got going, the characters wrote their own stories.

At the suggestion of an editor, I added characters based on my Busch ancestors, incorporating my dad's narratives (like Grandpap Busch's childhood friendship with Honus Wagner) into the story.  To this I added my memories of my grandfather in retirement: an avid gardener and Pirates fan, a hymn-singer, lover of watermelons, and fount of folk expressions (e.g., "How's your liver?").
George W. Busch c.1955 (Photo by Ed Busch)

The quotations from contemporary accounts seemed very stilted, so I used my recollection of the rhythms and metaphors of his speech in constructing the dialogue of the American characters. (Also, I should thank Harry Sinclair Lewis for some help with that, too.)  I was unable to faithfully reproduce the inflections of Welsh-speakers in English (as Llewellyn does in "How Green Was My Valley"), so I settled on simple word order changes in the speech of the Welsh characters.  To that, I added bits of dialogue in the Welsh language, contributed by Emyr's mother, Ann Morris.

It's been quite a ride writing out this story.  I've learned a lot (more about what I learned in other posts) and cried a lot.  It's not a pretty story, any way you look at it.  I tried to tell the story without editorializing. But I really didn't have to, as the truth is self-evident. Even anti-unionists will have to admit that the only winners in this tragic event were the owners of the mills.  Everybody else, from management on down, lost something--their jobs, their livelihoods, and some their lives.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Some Things Never Change

Homestead Works Mill Gate, 1983. Photo by Trilby Busch

As a native of the steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, I've witnessed the decline and fall of the American steel industry.  I remember the smoky town of the '40s, '50s, and '60s, US Steel's flagship mill belching toxic fumes and raining grit onto its inhabitants. I remember my mother's family store, Katilius Furniture, and their customers, honest, hardworking millworkers and their families.
Franklin Elementary School, Munhall. Sixth grade class. 1955

Today, that huge three-mile long riverfront site is inhabited by a gigantic shopping mall, featuring national and international corporate stores and restaurants. Gone are Katilius Furniture, Levine's Hardware, the H&H Restaurant, and just about every other small, locally owned business (with the notable exception of Mantsch's Blue Bonnet Bakery). Many of the younger folk who work in the stores at the Waterfront have no idea that an enormous, sprawling mill once stood there, turning out beams, girders, slabs, and other finished steel products.

I became obsessed with the '92 Strike through my father's stories of his grandfather's death--and father's rise to become boss of the mill Machine Shop. In 1999, the year after my father's death, I began this fictional recreation of Homestead in 1892.  For many hours of many days I "lived" in Homestead Past, using my memory of the town and mill during my childhood to reproduce the town my Grandfather Busch knew.

Coincidentally, the week after I declared a polished draft of the book finished, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Tea Party cohorts began their work of dismantling collective bargaining rights for state workers.  Soon after, Tea Partiers in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania (groan), and other states followed suit.

Some things never change.  Corporate greed always finds a way to reach into the pockets of the middle-class, be they white- or blue-collar workers. Sometimes it's done by wiring systems (like banking) to funnel profits their way; other times (as in Wisconsin) they buy elections to wire the legal and political systems.

Either way, the result is the same:  They win, we lose.