Another way

Sept. 29, 2009  (Youngstown, OH –  Warren, OH, 8.8 miles)

It has been a generation since steel manufacturing jobs left the region. Many living in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana can remember family members working in the steel mills or perhaps worked there themselves. At it’s peak in the 1940s more than half a million people worked in the industry. That number was cut nearly in half in the 1970s. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2006 the steel industry had declined to just 154,000 wage and salary jobs in the United States.

It is disturbing to see a once thriving region in a state of decay and disrepair. As I walked through Youngstown I noticed plenty of small businesses thriving. But there were also many buildings that had been abandoned.

Unemployment rates are high. In August 2009 the unemployment rate was 10.8 percent for Ohio according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Youngstown the unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent. And that number does not include those forced to accept part-time employment or who have given up looking.

Jobs in the steel industry are largely gone and not coming back. If cities like Youngstown, and others once dominated by steel manufacturing, want to thrive again, they must try a new approach such as supporting smaller businesses or worker-owned corporations. It was attempted once after “Black Monday”–the day in 1977 when 5,000 workers at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube plant were told the mill was going to close. But that was more than a quarter century ago.

In his book, “America Beyond Capitalism,” Gar Alperovitz, details many ways in which workers and communities can regain control of their economic future. Alperovitz was part of the group that attempted to create an employee-owned steel mill in Youngstown in the wake of “Black Monday.” Though the attempt ultimately failed, that does not mean it cannot be done. And it does not mean similar solutions should not be pursued. Residents must demand something better.

Plans are now in the works to expand V&M Star Steel, which will likely mean jobs. Though this is good news, more must be done to ensure the city can weather the rise and fall of large industries. The city’s Office of Economic Development, which has numerous programs designed to encourage small businesses and target urban decay, is a start. But residents and city leaders must be proactive. Jobs will not magically appear from the sky. If you want something better, to try another way, you must stand up and be a part of the solution.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper