Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Arrogance in America.

In my  junior or senior year of high school, as part of the Middletown High School Marching Band, we were trotted out to an open field east of Armco's south gates. In full uniforms we played Sousa marches to the arrival of Governor Jim Rhodes and the local dignitaries, including Armco's top brass. They used gold and silver shovels to turn some loose dirt (the ground was too dry and hard for these old guys to actually dig in and get a real shovel full). Photos were taken. The shovels were collected to be engraved and hung on office walls. Speeches were made. The occasion was the groundbreaking for Armco's "Project 600", a construction project to build the world's most automated rolling strip mill to produce carbon steel. It would replace Tytus's mill that would still run till the project's completion. The "600" in the title represented the projected cost of 600 million dollars (it ended up costing a billion and a half). This mill would use half the men to produce more than twice the steel of the old facilities. The speeches that day tied the event to America's business genius and future prosperity. The American steel industry forsaw no limits to its growth, none.

A couple years later, while I was at school between Armco summers, the steel industry agreed to the most lucrative union contract in history, they were making so much money the thought of a slowdown from a strike caused their  quick compliance to union demands. As always the unions had included items they would deal away for extra pay but they didn't have to. My pay, the bottom rung, went up a dollar an hour. But, the real kicker was a provision that after 12 years with the company each employee was entitled to 13 weeks of vacation once every 5 years with the normal 4 weeks they had earned for the intervening years. As it turned out, many of the old-timers didn't even like this and returned to work after the regular 4 weeks and drew double pay for the other nine. The provision was dealt away the next contract for even greater wage increases. When I was there it did open up work for guys like me in the summer replacing vacationers.

My dad's Armco stock value was approching a quarter of a million dollars in value (as head of Industrial Engineering he was making a salary under $30,000 but he'd been with them a long time and was nearing retirement).

So, my first summer at Armco. I'm in labor reserve. On mondays we go down in the trench under the hot strip (it shuts down a shift on mondays for maintenance) to shovel the scale into a water stream to carry it out into a collection pool for reclaimation. The furnaces are left on so the temperature down there is about 110 degrees F, we work in shifts, three teams 20 min. at a time each. When we come up we're given salt pills to avoid heat stroke. We rest 40 min. before going back down and it takes at least half that to stop sweating.

My actual first day on the job another summer worker and I dug a 5' by 5' by 5' pit down to a pipe that was leaking, using a jackhammer to break up the concrete on top and then shovels and pick axes to dig the pit. But, most of the time I was pushing a broom, sweeping the red-brown dust that covered everything into piles and shoveling it into wheelbarrows. That's what I was doing on this one particular day, I was sweeping up in the huge cavern of a warehouse where overhead cranes lifted the steel coils, several tons each, hot off the mill and moved them to pallets to cool. This space was part of my regular routine by late in the summer. On another day in this same space I had watched a crane leader (the guy on the ground who put the hook into the coil, or out) direct the operator to drop the coil and it came down on the leaders own foot. The next day the big sign at the mill entrance read "0 days since the last major accident". He lost his foot. But, on this particular day, things were normal. I always paid attention to where the crane was and where it was going. A group of guys in suits and hard hats came in, about 30 or more. I recognized a couple of them as guys from my dad's engineering department.They seemed to be leading a tour. The rest were Asian. They were talking to everybody. One came up to me and in perfect English asked how I liked working here and what my duties were. He asked how often my supervisor checked in with me and what encouragement I was given. I answered and he took notes.

I latter asked my dad about this tour. He told me they were Japanese engineers who had paid Armco several thousand dollars for an engineer guided tour. He had, under instructions from the top brass, personally shown them the scale model of Project 600 on the floor of the big conference room and they had poured over blueprints for the new mill  with upper management on hand to answer questions.

Before Project 600 was finished several small automated mills were rolling out steel in Japan and offering it to Detroit at unmatchable prices. By the time the new Armco mill came online they didn't have enough orders to fill more than one shift a day. It would be several years before the mill would run at full capacity. Within 6 years of dad's retirement his stock was worth $40,000, that's when he finally sold it. It would have gone down from there. The steel industry was betrayed by Detroit. They went to Washington to beg for quotas on foreign steel. The Nixon and Ford administrations were deaf to their pleadings. Steel executives blamed their expensive Union workers for their inability to compete, never admitting the part played by their own arrogance.

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