Workers United

Robert Bruno's Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown
12.02.99 | reviewed by Lisa Burrell

Black spots on his father's lungs convinced Robert Bruno it was time to reconnect with his family and his working-class roots. The result of his journey home is Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown, a well- researched argument that the post- World War II working class remained consciously and contentedly distinct from the middle class. Drawing from his own experience as a mill hand's son and from interviews with more than 75 Youngstown-area steelworkers, Bruno highlights the workers' commitment to collective action and their us-versus-them relationship with both mill owners and managers. When Youngstown Sheet & Tube and U.S. Steel relocated in the late 1970s and Republic Steel went bankrupt in the mid-1980s, Bruno demonstrates, the "retired" workers retained their class identity and, in many cases, became more class conscious than they had been as mill employees.

Bruno admits to a certain nostalgia for pre-1950 scholarship, when it was accepted practice to study people, not just "social indices." He nonetheless deftly integrates statistical analysis with his narrative data, offering much evidence to counter the common misconception that due to a relative increase in blue-collar wages, "every worker had hopes of becoming the proud owner of a middle-class lifestyle."

Unfortunately, he is sometimes thorough to the point of redundancy. For the sake of illustrating class solidarity, he crams in so many "characters"—especially in the book's first half—that the workers often reiterate one another's statements, and the individuals Bruno takes such admirable pains to promote (people, not just indices) get lost among their neighbors. None of the workers in this book is truly memorable, not even Bruno's father.

In his determination to present the working class as its own community, Bruno delves heartily into unifying forces such as church, kids' sports teams, strikes, environmental concerns (black rain was rampant when the mills were operating), and local politics. Perhaps for the same reason, he glosses over the issue of segregation. He says the greatest influence on housing patterns—income—had more to do with titles and occupations than ethnicity or race, but later contradicts himself by acknowledging that blacks and Hispanics were assigned the lowest-level jobs while high-level workers, such as masons, were almost always white. Though Bruno admits segregated housing "did substantially reduce community alliances," he clings to the thesis-friendly notion that "race did not necessarily hinder a worker's identification with class."

However, he does explore in some detail the workers' lapse of solidarity when Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed. While they liked the idea of an employee buyout, Bruno concludes, most didn't think it would work, and those who had put in their time weren't willing to risk their pensions. Here ambiguity is given its due space.

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