Monday, March 29, 2010

Working Until They Turn Out The Lights

Fresh out of high school in June 1973, within two weeks, I got hired at a steel fabrication plant in downtown Youngstown, Ohio called The William B. Pollock Company. This place had started in the middle of The Civil War in 1863 making items used in the steel mills and foundries.

I really had no experience or knowledge of factory life. My dad worked in a food warehouse and my high school jobs ranged from grocery stores to gas stations. The father of one of my good friends was a foreman at The Pollock Company and the head of personnel went to my church and knew my family well. Nepotism never hurts. My initial job there was a Helper, which was just that. Helping some one else in doing their job which could be assembly, welding, or a Fitter. A Fitter built steel fabrications and tack-welding things into place that were completely welded and/or machined by others.

After six months at mostly menial jobs, I was eligible to bid on other jobs in the plant, which were awarded on basis of seniority in this Union environment. I next became a Black Smith's Helper which involved heating an bending huge steel parts like rings that reinforced steel ladles that had a thirty foot diameter or putting rivets in hooks that were eight inches thick that picked up sixty- ton ladles full of molten steel. Many days I looked like a coal miner by the end on my shift. Fortunately, a locker room and showers were there and I didn't have to bring the dirt home with me. Because of the grease and grime, my work clothes needed to be replaced about every three months. That's when I learned about Goodwill and other thrift stores. They sold work shirts for fifty cents and pants for a buck. What a deal!

My next occupation I advanced to was the Burning Department. No, this wasn't where you learned about becoming an Arsonist, this is were steel parts were made by burning out patterns on a sheet of steel on varying thicknesses with a cutting torch powered by acetylene and oxygen.
My initial job was a Scrap Burner, where I cut left over steel pieces into to small sections to be loaded in a scrap box to be recycled. I still have scars where a hot spark shot down my neck, through an opening in my shirt, or the worst, down my boot. When a hot ember went down your boot, you grabbed anything liquid nearby to douse the ember that was now burning your sock. I then graduated to running a Burning Machine that looked like a toaster holding a burning torch. it ran on small portable tracks to burn a straight line on the piece you were cutting.

Bored with that job after a year, I bid on an overhead craneman job and got it. I began operating a small five-ton crane thirty feet high that ran on railroad tracks the length of a hundred yard building. I advanced to a eighty- foot high one, then a crane with two hooks, one capable of lifting forty tons, the other ten tons. It was scary using two hooks at once to flip over a steel ladle that was thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. The chains used for such a big lift were huge. One link was two feet long and four inches in diameter. I guess years earlier, a man was killed while standing behind a ladle as the crane man moved the chains to the far side of the ladle. They came together like cymbals, crushing the poor guy who was out of sight of the crane operator. Ever since then, a worker was assigned to guide the crane operator for large lifts.

My final assignment was in the Machine Shop as a Horizontal Boring Mill Operator. I felt at home doing this job. I had three years of Machine Shop in high school and learned how to operate everything. This humongous machine traveled ten feet high and bored holes in casting up to forty inches in diameter, up to eight feet long. It often took an entire eight hour shift to bore one pass through a large cylinder. When milling a large piece of steel with a rotating cutting head, chips flew off the work like red-hot Cheetos. These cuttings were hot enough to light a cigarette on and often found their way into the most inaccessible parts of your clothing, safety glasses, or bare skin. I quickly learned not to wear anything made of polyester or nylon!

My seven years there served me well. I was making over twenty bucks an hour in the late 70's. not bad for a young Buck, still wet behind the ears. It financed my college education and afforded me the chance to study quite a bit during slow periods on the job. This wasn't uncommon for a guy in the Youngstown area.

Making that kind of money was standard in just about any position in the Steel Industry. Most of the steel mills were out of business by the early 80's. No wonder. The strong union environment that was so necessary during the earlier days of organized labor became the downfall of many businesses that could not pay the high cost of labor and afford to modernize to keep up with foreign competition. Union officials will tell you it was greed of the corporations that kept them from modernizing. In any event, twenty three miles of uninterrupted steel mills that stretched from Warren to Struthers was no more. The Mahoning Valley was no longer the "Cradle Of The Steel Industry". We all moved on, but it will never be the same.


  1. How cool, Tom. I didn't grow up anywhere near these types of mills. I guess we had logging mills out here in the West, but I was never in that part of the locale or culture. It sounds like it was very exciting and that you learned and earned well. It's also another great example of how we used to really work at our jobs growing up.

    I worked for 10 years in a grocery store, and it appalls me to see the lack of enthusiasm, the indifference to customers, and the general slow-poke attitude the the kids in these jobs have today... yet they all still have the audacity to expect more money for the time they do put in!

    Recently, I was able to visit the Pella Windows and Doors plant in Pella, Iowa. Again - having never been exposed to large assembly-line production plants, I was blown away by the incredible process and the hard-working people that work there!

    I enjoyed reading about your adventures in the Steel Mill. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Woah, I had always heard that it was dangerous to work in the mills, but reading your descriptions made me realize how scary those jobs must've been. Really interesting.

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