Just 30 years ago, there was this amazing thing in America called "Steel." Humans would take iron ore, coke, and a few other additives, throw it into great furnaces until it all melted together, then pour and press and stamp it into various shapes. It was an extremely strong product, this steel, and could be used to build things that lasted a long time -- things like building frames, railroads, or automobiles. In the evenings over Youngstown, Warren, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, they'd open up the furnaces at shift change for maintenance, and the skies would turn red.
Millions of people all over this area worked to produce this steel and the resulting products. They worked to move the raw materials to the furnaces; to produce the steel; to process it into products; to maintain the equipment they used; and to transport the products to the rest of the world. Steel was more important to this area than oil is to Alaska.
There were these things called "unions:" groups of workers who maintained the standard of work in the mills, and negotiated for fair wages, safe conditions, and retirement programs for those who worked day after day after day to make the steel and value-added products. Thanks to these unions, workers could afford modest houses of their own, medical care for their families, and they could pay taxes to build better schools, better roads, and pay for programs that increased the quality of life for everyone in the community. Of course this meant lower profits for the companies, but for decades those companies still made a good living.
This was The Steel Belt. It was a place where people were proud of their accomplishments and communities, and they had a damned good reason to be. They had worked to build their lives, and they'd done a damned nice job of it.
Then one day, rumblings of the industry's demise began to shake the people who produced this steel and its products. Living in Warren, OH, I remember when Republic Steel began laying off its employees. I remember when the skies stopped turning red at night. I remember when the automobiles stopped rolling off the assembly lines, when our sister cities of Pittsburgh and Youngstown began declining in their quality of life. Pension funds were raided in scandals, leaving little or nothing for those who'd worked their modest lifetimes to make others wealthy.
It is now appropriately known as The Rust Belt.
The collapse of the economy was a complete devastation. I remember standing in line at a fast food restaurant to apply for a single part-time opening when I was 17, when a man came walking down the line to tell us that, unless we were supporting a family, we would not be considered for employment and were wasting everyone's time by being there.
It's *hard* to believe, but understandable. There are several theories about why the mills closed down -- poor management, lack of reinvestment, cheap competition from overseas in Europe and Japan.
In the late seventies and early eighties, the politicians pointed their fingers directly at the people themselves. They said the people were to blame, causing the people to point their fingers at one another. The unions were the blame, they said, because they caused wages to be too high, made people lazy, and for this reason, the entire industrial base of this 150-mile radius was destroyed.
Reagan was the worst of the lot -- when we turned to him for help, he told us it was all our own fault, and actually cut all the work and education programs, like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG), cut taxes for the rich, diverted our tax dollars into unnecessary military flights-of-fancy, then took an active role in building a culture that said the unemployed were the enemies of the state. Suicide and divorce rates skyrocketed.
After 30 years, I thought some recovery might have occured, but I've looked for it and found no signs. In the Post-Gazette, I found less than a pageful of employment ads; only one of those was in "Engineering/Technical," and it was for an asbestos removal technician. Monster.com had only one job in my field here, and it was with a temporary agency. The roads (as I mentioned) and schools are in disrepair. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra -- once one of the more respectable US orchestras -- is now asking to renege on its contract with the musicians and asking them to take further pay cuts.
Headline stories mention Pittsburgh's fiscal crisis; they're trying to solve problems with a bizarre property tax assessment scheme that nobody can really explain or understand, while the state is pushing for a tax relief plan (although, if none of these basic services is being met, one has to wonder where the tax money is going in the first place....)
Yet this once working-class stronghold now votes for Republicans who just voted a large wage increase for themselves; and right up the road in Harrisburg, the Scopes Monkey Trial is being replayed due to a right-wing school board forcing the teaching of Intelligent Design instead of science.
Pittsburgh and the surrounding area once had a real reason to be proud. They'd worked hard to build an enviable community, strong in homes, labor, and education, and now? Well, I guess at least the air is cleaner than it was.
Pay attention, Alaska, because this is where you'll be when the oil is gone. At least you know it will end some day -- but I really doubt you'll have the wisdom to plan for it.