A poem and remembering Adam.

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Every Sunday morning I look forward to opening my email in order to read the weekly poem  Glen Brown sends out to a list of his lucky friends.

I received this one today.

The Price in the Eyes by Fred Voss

As I entered the steel mill at age 23,

far more frightening

than the slam of the 2-ton drop hammer

down onto steel to make the concrete floor quake

and the heart jump

was the look in the eye of the man

who had squatted before it for 34 years,

the rage

and the humor

and the toughness to go on with his trembling jaw

and bloodshot eye.

Far more frightening

than the blast furnace with its white-hot flame

turning a ton of steel red-hot

as it roared and seared

the nostrils and lips

was the look in the eye at the man who tended it

for 37 years,

the pain

and the strength and the brutality and the desperation

of somehow making it through

the noise and the shock waves and the stink and the heat

of the steel mill

as his hands turned into gnarled claws

and his back bent

and his fingertips shook.

Far more frightening

than all the huge machines and cut steel and flame and poundings

between tin walls

were the eyes

of these men

who had somehow made it through

like I wanted to make it through,

who knew so many terrible

gut and heart and soul-wrenching secrets

I would have to learn.

In 1973 I arrived in Chicago with three cardboard boxes full of everything I owned and nothing in the way of marketable skills.

In 1973 Chicago was a very different city than it is now.

Neighborhoods had neighborhood factories that paid union wages. There was a neighborhood school and a couple of corner bars or package stores, as we called them then. Package stores had a liquor store in the front and a bar in the back.

Today in Rahm’s Chicago the factories are gone and so are the neighborhood schools.

On the east side there were steel mills that hired tens of thousands of steelworkers. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement had reached basic steel as African American steelworkers were being hired into formerly all-white skilled jobs in the mills. For the first time, women were also finding jobs making steel. It was hard work, but at union wages. My union local had elected the first woman ever to head a basic steel local in the United States: Alice Peurala.

I was hired as a millwright apprentice. A millwright fixes what’s broken.

The journeyman I was apprenticed to was a Polish immigrant named Adam Konwerski. At the time, Adam had worked at Southworks for 25 years. He often worked double shifts to pay for the parochial schools and Catholic colleges he wanted to send his kids to.

The 100-year old 96-inch plate mill ran steel on two shifts. Steel plate stopped rolling for eight hours out of twenty-four so that we could cobble together machinery that the United States Steel owners didn’t want to make the investment in to replace for 20th century steel production.

Now all the steel mills are gone.

Adam would stand on a shear, hard-hat cocked forward, a cig dangled from his lips and he would shine a flashlight down into the grease and slag, a doctor making a diagnosis.

“Ka-lonsky,” he would say. “Go to the shop and get two nine-inch bolts.”

And I would run to the shop and get two nine-inch bolts.

Then I would get down into the grease and slag to clean out the area where the repairs needed to be made.

Meanwhile Adam would stand up top, hard-hat cocked forward, another cig dangled while he held the flashlight.

Young and stupid as I was, I would look up at Adam and say, “Adam. How come I’m down here shoveling all this slag and grease and you’re up there smoking a cigarette and holding a flashlight?”

“Ka-lonsky,” he would say. “Dey pay me for vat I know, not for vat I do.”

5 thoughts on “A poem and remembering Adam.

  1. Sounds like an old mentor I once had in the Water Dept. Couldn’t understand why I was the only one in the ditch all the time. At the time though just felt lucky to have a job and raising a young family. Of course everybody had each other’s backs back then.

  2. Obama has forgotten about unions and the middle class. China’s economy is slowing down, so to keep their steel mills running they are dumping steel in the US, hurting the steel industry and costing union steelworkers jobs. Obama should enforce the anti-dumping tariffs, but he is too worried about upsetting his Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. The TPP deal is even worse then NAFTA, and will cost millions of US jobs, especially union jobs. No matter how much money is invested in modernizing our basic industries, we can not compete with $1/per hour labor. He should enforce the anti-dumping tariff, and drop the fast-track TPP. Support from union members helped him get elected, he should represent us.

    • I have no love of the TPP. But Southworks closed in 1992, long before TPP or NAFTA. Obama was a young community organizer then. There were 130,000 jobs in steel between south Chicago and Gary in 1970. Those jobs were gone by 1990. Not because of China. But because USX decided to invest their money in oil and chemicals instead of domestic steel.

  3. Fred,
    You would have better knowledge of the bad management because you were there inside the plant. Of course, Obama had nothing to do with the economic crash that started in the early 1980s. The steel industry was already having troubles, when steel from overseas was massively dumped into the US market. The US government was supposed to enforce anti-dumping tariffs and import limits. Ronald Reagan privately let it be known he was not going to enforce the tariffs. The resulting loss of volume from the economic slowdown and the dumping of foreign steel caused many of the steel mills to reach a tipping point and close down forever. Reagan had an intense hatred of unions, and suggested the steel companies could compete better if they became non-union. Then to make matters worse, regulations were ignored that called for Navy ships, federally assisted public buildings, highways and bridges be built with American made steel.
    I don’t know the accuracy of an article I read about the increased efficiency at U.S. Steel Corp. It said the ballpark in 1980 was 1 ton per employee per shift, today, 1 ton per employee per hour. A tremendous increase. However, if a foreign steel company can pay $1/hour, even if it takes them 10 hours to make a ton of steel, they still have a $10 labor cost. Also, cheap land, little or no pollution regulations, cheap energy, currency manipulation, and foreign government subsidies lower their costs. These are things beyond the control of American steel companies no matter how much they invest in state of the art steel mills.
    Right now, an economic slowdown has hit China, and to keep their own steel mills running, they are dumping steel here and now. Unlike Reagan, Obama is not against unions, but he seems to have forgotten about us. He is too busy with other things.

    • Yes, you are right on these points. The de-industrialization of the United States is a 70-year long, bi-partisan effort in support of globalization, cheap labor and union-busting.

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