“It was really a grim reaper for jobs…sweeping away thousands at one time.”
Edited by Welcome Project Intern Ella Speckhard
Transcript for Eliminated by Technology
First time I went in the steel mill was 1969. I came home from college to work in Christmas break. I worked at Republic Steel where my dad was. It was a smaller mill. And it was an eye-opening thing. The locker room there had this much standing water on the floor. You had to stand on wooden pallets to wash your hands. And I always wondered why my dad would come home dirty. And really, you know, ‘Why don’t you take a shower in the mill?’ Well, when I got there, I saw why. It was awful. It was a pigsty. The working conditions, as far as hygiene, was awful. And that all changed, too, over the years, but…
One year I came back from college, and I worked in a tin mill assorting room, and it was all women, and—who were hired during World War II. And they were now getting up there in age, and I was a young guy, and they would feed me, and you know. And I’m working with all these, what I considered old women at the time. Now they’d be young chicks to me, but I’m working with all these old women and one time, you know—and they like me, pinch my cheek, feed me cookies and all that stuff—I was driving a particular piece of equipment and I had a very unique steering system, and I crashed it through a wall. And it scared all these women, and they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. But this one particular area, because women were very good at it—it was called ‘the assorting room.’ They would take these sheets of tin-coated plate and they would flip them, looking for imperfections. The ladies had the good eye. They were very good at it, ok? That was another job that was eliminated by technology, ok? So they all left. But as I started coming in the mill, as years go on, there’s been a point for hiring more women in the mill and as women came in, they did different things. They could be crane-men, they could do stuff that, you know, hand-eye coordination, excellent, but as far as brutal labor, they weren’t there. But nevertheless, that being said, they came—the numbers increased tremendously.
I don’t know of anybody that thought working in the mill was a drudge. Well, I shouldn’t say that. They didn’t think it was abnormal to work in the mill or abhorrent. They just—it was something you did, and you did it. It wasn’t—they weren’t mad at the mill, so to speak. I’m sure there were other people that were mad at the mill, but most people, nah, they were grateful to have a job. If you have twenty-nine thousand people there, they had their own hospital, they had their own police force, they had their own power generation. At one time, before I was born, the gases that they generated making coke, it heated the city of Gary. You know, instead of natural gas, they used coke oven gas, and it was piped all over the city.
Technology kept coming up every few years eliminating steps, eliminating steps, eliminating steps. And so what that meant was eliminating jobs. And they had to do it, or else you know, you wouldn’t be competitive. A lot of people started losing their jobs. And at one time, twenty-nine thousand. When I left, it was like, eight thousand. So that’s quite a bit. But the impact was tremendous. The mills were not very popular when they were putting people out on the street, I will tell you that. And I think, at that point in time, that was it. I mean, before that, the mill was our big protector and that sort of thing. The person, or the entity, with all the power. But after that, it was just like, “What are they going to do to me next?” Mid, late ’60s. That’s when it really started to kick in. And then really kicked in in the ’70s. And of course, by that time, I was on my own and I could see up close the competition. Many times they said, “We’re going to close the coke plant.” Or, “We’re going to close this part because we just can’t compete.” Lot of that stuff did not pan out, but the technological improvements, I saw, and it—that was a really, a grim reaper for jobs. Just sweeping away thousands at one time when the new technology came in.
It also—the environmental issues were starting to come up, and it was a culture change because in the past, it was, like, “Do whatever you want. Production’s number one. Dump it in the river. Get rid of it. Bury it. Whatever.” But when the environmental consciousness came, it was, like, hard to change. It’s like a ship in the sea. It’s, you know, it’s going this direction. All of a sudden they say, “Change directions.” Well, that ship don’t change just like a motorcycle. It takes a big arc, and it takes time, and energy. And that’s exactly what it took here: time and energy. People finally understanding what the heck it’s all about. At first, it was like, they changed the culture because they had to. They were beat into it, ok? Fines, whatever. But as the years and decades, actually, rolled people understood, you know, “We have kids, and when we die, we don’t want to leave them a ball of garbage as a planet. So we want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
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