By Brian Corbin and John Russo
“And even the bitter experiences and fights that have been lost need to be remembered- so as not to diminish their importance.”
From Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place:
Urban Landscapes and Public History
"Black Monday" was a bleak day in Youngstown’s history. With the beginnings of the steel mill closings on September 19, 1977, many residents felt hopeless, worried not only about the loss of jobs but about the loss of their community’s identity and its fighting spirit. While factory closings became common in that era, what distinguishes Youngstown from other deindustrialized communities is that we fought to save the local economy, a fight led by religious and civic leaders through the Ecumenical Coalition. Less than a month after the 1977 announcement the Youngstown Sheet and Tube was closing the Campbell Works, Bishop James W. Malone, the former Bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, called together other religious leaders to explore how they could provide leadership on this community crisis. A number of area clergy, including Episcopal Bishop John Burt, United Methodist Bishop James Thomas, Rabbi Sidney Berkowitz, the executive Presbyter the Reverend John Sharick, Reverend Edward Weisheimer of Central Christian Church, and others, made a decision to stand up for the Mahoning Valley and its workers. The Ecumenical Coalition would challenge corporations and government policies in America to create and sustain a just economy.
The Ecumenical Coalition created two working groups to respond to the steel crisis. One group, directed by Father Ed Stanton, the director of the Catholic Diocese’s Office of Social Action, led a technical group to engage researchers and policy makers to develop a plan for a worker-community owned steel company. The other group, guided by Presbyterian Pastor Chuck Rawlings, would organize the community to support this steel company buy-out through education and fund raising. Attorney Staughton Lynd of Legal Services Corporation provided legal advice to both groups.
In November, 1977, during Thanksgiving week, the Ecumenical Coalition published a Pastoral Letter that laid out the moral framework for understanding the situation and a call to action. It stated that the Judeo-Christian tradition “insists that economic life ought to reflect the values of justice and respect for human dignity. The purpose of economic life is to serve . . . the needs of people . . . . Economic institutions, although they have their own purposes and methods, still must serve the common good and are subject to moral judgment. We are convinced, in short, that corporations have social and moral responsibilities." The religious leaders go on to argue that "Our traditional teaching points out that economic decisions ought not to be left to the judgment of a few persons with economic power, but should be shared with the larger community that is affected by the decisions."
While the technical group of the Ecumenical Coalition was doing their work, the community organizing arm worked with civic and religious communities to raise awareness, support and local monies. One outcome included the creation of the SAVE OUR VALLEY campaign that raised over four million dollars in religious and community support. Dozen of churches participated creating thousands of special accounts to provide private capital support for this effort.
Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Coalition obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to study a worker-community-owned steel mill. Scholars and industry experts concluded that a $300 million investment in improvements and working capital was needed for the community and workers to make a go of the closing steel mill. The Ecumenical Coalition applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, but the government denied the grant request.
Despite the energy and outreach, and the technical know-how, the effort to create a worker-community-owned steel mill failed. But the Ecumenical Coalition’s work succeeded in important ways, and we should take pride in local efforts to create an alternative vision or new choice for our local economy. Certainly many will disagree about the causes of the decline of the steel industry or argue that the Coalition was naïve to think that its plan could work. Still, the story offers some important lessons.
One lesson is that religious and civic leaders are called to provide moral leadership in times of crisis. The Ecumenical Coalition provided moral leadership through the pastoral letter but also through action. In fact, many tenets of the moral foundations of corporate social responsibility can be traced to this effort and document. In 1986, when Bishop Malone served as President of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, various sections of the Youngstown pastoral letter found national and even international voice in the U.S. Catholic Bishops pastoral letter on the U.S. Economy. One section of that document specifically addresses the moral issues around plant closings and is a direct outcome of Youngstown’s experience.
Another lesson surrounds the important work of ecumenical and inter-faith work in our region. Religious leaders were able to suspend theological disputes and work together. This important work continues today, through the efforts of groups like Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods (ACTION) and Mahoning Valley Association of Churches (MVAC). Certainly more needs to be done.
A further lesson is that the Mahoning Valley is far from dead. People wanted to stay here even as the mills were closing, and many want to live here now. As the young professionals of MVP 20/30 have argued, even some of those who moved away in search of jobs are returning, because they value this community’s history and its commitment to family and because they see economic opportunities here. We see various non-profit development corporations, like Community Housing Options Involving Cooperative Efforts (CHOICE), Common Wealth, Jubilee Housing, and ACTION providing organizing efforts and massive investment in reconstruction for affordable quality housing and neighborhood redevelopment. Over $60 million dollars has been invested through private capital investors and governmental entities to recapture the long tradition of home ownership. Look at the new Arlington Heights HOPE VI investment, for example, sponsored by Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority, located near Wirt Street, for one small example. Commercial groups have engaged young entrepreneurs to reinvest in the city and suburbs to create and sustain good living jobs.
Another lesson regards the power of family and culture. We are inspired by continued family connections rooted in ethnic and religious diversity here in this valley. People are proud of their heritage. Yes, we have work to do regarding racial relationships and myths about immigration, but this Valley is alive and well in terms of hospitality and a sense of community.
Unlike other communities, Youngstown fought deindustrialization and did not accept it as part of the natural economic order. Though this week we acknowledge the 30th anniversary of Black Monday, we are not merely commemorating a great tragedy. We are also celebrating the innovative work and fighting spirit of this community. We should be proud that religious and civic leaders like Bishop Malone and his colleagues made a hard choice: they acted on their faith, and they called their followers to do so as well. This valley chose to struggle for social and economic justice. This struggle continues both here in Youngstown and nationwide.
Brian R. Corbin is the Diocesan Director of Social Action for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown and John Russo is the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at YSU and co-author of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown.