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Remembering the Golden Age of steelmaking

February 23, 2012
Times Leader
By IAN HICKS, For The Times Leader

The full-body protective suit was akin to spending the day in a sweatbox, but it sure beat the alternative of heat so intense it would fry you where you stood. When you washed up after work you found dirt in places you didn’t know existed, but there was food on the table. If you had a strong back and a willingness to learn, there almost certainly was a place for you. And chances are, there was something in your home — a soup can, a bucket, something tangible — that was a direct product of your labor. That’s the steel industry that guys like Santo Santoro and John Saunders remember, more than 40 years after going to work in the mills that once were among the world’s most cutting-edge and supported thousands of local families. Today, they work to represent the dwindling cadre of Ohio Valley steelworkers, Santoro as a representative of the United Steelworkers District 1 and Saunders as a contract administrator for USW representing employees at RG Steel, which owns the former facilities of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. “Back when I started, they made garbage cans and mop buckets and washtubs,” said Saunders, who began working in 1971 at Wheeling-Pitt’s Martins Ferry galvanizing mill where he spent most of his career as a quality control inspector before taking a job with the union. “That’s when we used to make things in America.” Santoro went to work at Wheeling-Pitt’s coke plant in Follansbee in 1971 after exiting the military and later held jobs in the blast furnace and oxygen plant at the Mingo Junction hot mill before moving to the union in 1993. When his career began, he said, you made your way with work ethic and perseverance, not college degrees. “There were some people that got hired that didn’t have a high school education. They were jobs that you could learn,” said Santoro. Not long after his career began, news of a massive explosion killing about 20 people during a test at Weirton Steel’s coke plant on Brown’s Island shocked the valley. It hit particularly close to home for Santoro, shaking that all-too-common youthful feeling of invincibility. “It was a very sad time in our lives. ... You think my gosh, we’re working in a coke plant, too,” he said. “The fear was there all the time that something like that could happen.” But despite the nagging fears, the heat and physical demands and the constant rumors of layoffs or strikes, Santoro said he thoroughly enjoyed his job. He was able to provide for his family and be part of a close-knit community. “Everybody worked together and everybody helped each other. “The people were close,” he said. “They went to picnics, they went to departmental dances — they did a lot more together with the people they work with than they do today.” Saunders said the workplace camaraderie was something special. People were expected to “pay their dues” as they moved up the ladder, and they did, he said. “Back then, the old-timers took care of you. They knew your father, your grandfather,” Saunders recalled. “They were there to teach you and show you the way. We’ve kind of lost that now.” Scattered up and down the Ohio River as opposed to Weirton Steel’s fully-integrated process, the various Wheeling-Pitt mills fostered an intense pride in one’s workplace and your community. Saunders said workers at the Follansbee coke plant and Mingo Junction hot mill, where the labor tended to be tougher and grimier, liked to refer to the finishing mills downriver in Yorkville, Martins Ferry and Benwood as “country clubs.” Mingo Junction’s status as the “mother mill” was never in doubt — without the steel produced there, the smaller mills wouldn’t exist. That’s all changed, as for about five years now the former Wheeling-Pitt mills have been part of larger corporations that own mills elsewhere, allowing them to feed steel to the smaller plants while leaving Mingo’s state-of-the-art electric arc furnace cold. It’s a situation Saunders never would have predicted 40 years ago, and one that leaves him concerned for future generations even as the local natural gas rush provides some hope for recovery. “Now, people tell me today that we’re going to build around Marcellus Shale like we did the steel industry. I hope that’s true (but) I can’t picture Marcellus Shale ... bringing that level of jobs and paying those kinds of wages and benefits,” he said. “I hope so.” Santoro said foreign steel made with cheap labor is to blame, and he believes the government has lost its will to stand up and fight for American industry. “I can never understand that, why the government would do that,” he said. “The government has actually given our jobs away in the steel industry. That’s what needs to change. “We could outwork anyone around — believe me, I’ve seen it. We’ve probably got the best workers in the world. We’ve just got to be able to compete with them.”



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