December 2010

Mariya Strauss

Prole Art Threat

After the Smoke Clears

How marvelous industrialized life is! We don't have to split firewood by hand just to shiver all winter beside an open hearth. We reach into a stocked fridge instead of eating half-rotted meat from the cellar. We work inside of steel-reinforced concrete structures designed to keep our workspaces safe and well-lit in almost any circumstance. Instead of throwing our miscarried fetuses into the gutter and letting them poison everyone's water, we use sewers and medical services to help us through life's tragedies. Wondrous!

Progress demands its price. There's been an ongoing, terrible human cost to the development and production of industrialization's raw materials. That cost -- the lives and well-being of working people -- is well-documented in American folk culture: in Springsteen's ouevre, in Ralph Fasanella's and Diego Rivera's and Orozco's murals, in the Delta blues, in Jacob Lawrence's paintings, in Ben Shahn's paintings, in films like Silkwood and Salt of the Earth and Harlan County, USA. Check your library for titles about workers' lives in industrial America, though, and you'll come up a bit short. Allow me to direct your attention to two chronicles, one fiction and one nonfiction, that focus with laser-beam intensity on the ordinary worker's experience of producing for the robber barons, and on exactly how the robber barons in turn screwed the entire community.

Deborah Rudacille, author of the new Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, grew up in the steelmaking boom town of Dundalk, Maryland, in the shadow of the Sparrows Point mill just east of Baltimore. She's a science writer by trade, but this chronicle of how the steel industry consigned her thriving hometown to a desolate, poverty-addled fate has probably been in her for many years. She knew exactly who she needed to interview to get the full story, which is why she managed to record the voices of many of the Sparrows Point old-timers (meaning guys in their 60s and sometimes 70s) before they died of steelmaking-related cancers and heart failure.

Baltimore was in many ways the town that steel built, and Sparrows Point workers were treated like made men during both World Wars and throughout the 1950s. In the 20s, the company built a workers' enclave of awesome Arts and Crafts period bungalows, using top-notch building materials and a floor plan that would set any 2010 hipster drooling. Those historic homes, deeded exclusively to white workers as a matter of company policy, formed Dundalk's core -- a core that slowly decayed over the 1960s, '70s and '80s as the US market gradually opened itself to cheaper foreign steel.

We may be able to guess how the story ends, but Rudacille paces it beautifully. Elbow deep in boxes of old files and city records, Rudacille holds up for our examination document after document proving that the steel industry pitted white and black workers against each other in order to keep out the unions, that the owners knew of safety hazards and didn't make the retrofits and repairs that could have saved lives, that Bethlehem steel had chronically underfunded the workers' pension fund so that when the mill was sold, retirees lost everything.

Heartbreak resounds from most of the pages. Ainsley Dickinson, the son of a Sparrows Point steelworker whose dad worked there during its heyday of the 1930s and '40s, told Rudacille that she should call the book Roots of Sadness, because "Nobody's working there anymore and they lost everything they had." Workers got asbestos poisoning, lung cancer, lymphoma, heart failure. The industry that had promised Baltimoreans a job and a secure family life, abandoned the whole community when it became less profitable to keep those promises. Perhaps no one should have been surprised. But try telling that to the men and women who had copies of the contracts that the company had signed in good faith, promising that the pension funds would be there when they retired, promising that medical care would be theirs for life. Those contracts were evidently written in disappearing ink.

Even more hideously dangerous, inhumanly exploitative zones of human labor are the coal mines. To read Emile Zola's dense 1885 tragedy Germinal is to squint through incredulous tears at every other sentence. It's fictional, of course, and Zola's French mining town has so many politically aware, scheming characters at every income level that I'm thinking he used Middlemarch as a template.

Part grandiose melodrama, part workers' rights manifesto, Germinal spins the tale of a lonely newcomer to the mining town, Etienne, who gets a job in the mines and bears witness to a series of deadly mine explosions as well as child labor, sexual predation and intolerable hunger among the workers. Ultimately the conditions in the town reach toxicity levels as deadly as those inside the mine, and the workers organize themselves to confront the mine owners.

Zola stops short of actually blaming the mine's owners for all the tragedy. They try to get the workers to timber up the mine's caverns more safely. They pay for all the workers' housing, inadequate though it is. They respond with serious intent when some workers sound the alarm about conditions in the mine. But the mine's hungry maw creates and fuels the cascade of disasters. There's a grim echoing question here in 2010, for the families of the dead in West Virginia and New Zealand. Has it really been 125 years?