Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Robert Bruno.
Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown.
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1999. 222 pages. $25.25 paper (0801486009) $66.75 cloth (0801434394)

Steelworker Alley is a compassionate book based on extensive research chronicling the lives and identities of men who had been steelworkers. Bruno offers a significant contribution to the debate on class consciousness by examining how the similarity of their lives on the job, at home and in their neighbourhoods created the basis for a shared sense of identity for steelworkers.

Bruno is the son of an ex-steelworker, who had worked for a plant in Youngstown, Ohio. At university, he discovered that many social scientists and historians claimed that his parents and others like them had considered themselves middle class. This interpretation did not correspond with Bruno's own recollections nor with some notable scholarly exceptions such as Halle, Frisch, Milton, Leggett and Gutman. Questioning the widely held view of the pervasive middle class and informed by Katznelson's interpretation of working-class identity, he returned to Youngstown to conduct oral interviews and a social historical analysis of typical steel towns in the valley. He collected a treasury of stories by interviewing 75 ex-steelworkers; spouses were present for one quarter of the interviews. The men had an average of 31 years of service. His interviews focus on the period between 1945 and 1977.

This well-written book explores how class informed many facets of the mens' lives: working at the plant, race differences, neighbour relations, religious practices, leisure, union involvement, and party politics. He marshalls evidence in each case to support his argument that these men had a working-class identity while they worked as steelworkers and continued to hold such an identity after the plant shut down. Each chapter is well introduced and the prose is conversational. Clever insights and captivating examples keep the reader's attention.

Bruno clearly defines his study as limited to the circumstances which generated a working-class identity of male workers. He did not include the relations between spouses nor the structural supports endemic in these working-class communities that propped up the traditional division of labour. Yet, he had an ideal opportunity as only three percent of these spouses had been employed while their husbands were steelworkers. Unfortunately, this interesting piece of working-class identity and class practice is left out.

Bruno begins with a captivating account of the development of steel mills and communities in Ohio. As early as 1803, Ohio's first blast furnace fired up. At the end of World War II, forty thousand area residents worked in the steel plants, with another thirty-five thousand employed in related industries. These good jobs began to erode in 1977 and by 1992 less than a thousand people remained as steelworkers. The Youngstown area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs, 400 satellite businesses, $414 million in personal income and many people.

Prior to 1977, the steel industry provided so many jobs that families in whole neighbours would be reliant on steelworker paychecks. In neighbourhoods, workers socialized together, helped each other out and when finances permitted, and continued to live close to each other. Dense networks developed among men through social interactions involving clubs, teams, churches, and unions. Very few of these social interactions included non-working-class people. This multidimensional portrait shows that these housing patterns and social arrangements fostered a working-class way of life.

Bruno contends that children growing up in these working-class neighbourhoods entered the steel plants with a sense of class orientation that was further fostered by their employment conditions. He offers valuable insight into how shared consciousness among workers was generated by similarities in standards of living and the huge gap between the economic resources of workers and management. They saw themselves and other steelworkers as a group sharply differentiated from management.

He cleverly explains how workers interjected a community into their work environment to avoid both having their spirit consumed in the daily grind and being turned into "costs of production." Worker resentment over wage levels, unstable employment and working conditions generated shop floor resistance which was manifested in wildcat strikes, contract strikes, grievances, and subversion on the shop floor. Bruno marshalls evidence to demonstrate that the threat of injury, actual injuries, abuse by management, and comradship amongst workers contributed to the workers' shared identity. This shared identity carried over into local politics. Workers participated in local politics to influence the structure and condition of their daily lives either by running for office or voting for the steelworkers who did so.

In a strong conclusion, Bruno explains that a critique of the capitalist organization of production was not incorporated into their class consciousness. Most of these people did not criticize private property, rather they accepted private ownership of steel plants with waged workers making steel. They saw management and workers as both having a legitimate role to play, but they strongly objected to unfair treatment of workers by management. For these steelworkers, class identity and class actions were meaningful. During the boom time in steel, thousands of steelworkers developed a working-class identity, and engaged in effective resistance at the work place and in class-based politics at the local level.

This analytical account, though, effectively demonstrates that once this company, or any company for that matter, decides to shut down, the acutely powerful leverage of private ownership is dramatically exercised. Despite over a century of working-class struggle in Youngstown, the jobs are gone, the young people have moved, and only unemployed, under-employed and retired workers remain. This case study raises troubling concerns regarding the options people have to provide for their families in a economic system so heavily weighed against them.

June Corman
Department of Sociology
Brock University
March-April 2000
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