“All We Do Is Talk Steel”
Oral Histories Of Sparrows Point
By Bill Barry
143 pp. 2019
Reviewed by Samuel Borgos
The steel industry has long had a vaunted place in the American cultural imagination, ever since it began it’s slow expansion into the enormous empire it would become by the middle of the twentieth century. Novels like William Attawy’s Blood in the Forge and films such as Deer Hunter prominently featured the steel mills of Pennsylvania as a symbol of middle- American and working class grit as well the site of enormously dangerous and back breaking work. Part and parcel of that perception is the outsized role that the United Steel Workers (USW) played in the American Labor Movement.
While steel provided the proverbial backbone of American industry, the USW served much the same role for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in large part due to the prodigious membership. Even during the conservative doldrum years of the 1950s, the USW could claim enormous cache, helming a strike that brought the whole industry to a standstill in the last year of that decade and forcing the Eisenhower Administration to step in and arbitrate. The USW was also the site of inter union clashes over the importance of union democracy. In the 1970s, the late Ed Sadlowski led political campaigns (one, famously, for the presidency) within the USW, emphasizing democracy, transparency, and membership participation.
But the great sound and fury surrounding steel and the USW often obscures the fact that behind every organizing drive, every strike, every officer election were countless steelworkers. Men and women who did not make great names for themselves in the union but were proud to be members and saw collective action as a means to achieve dignity at work and security at home and in their communities. Bill Barry’s most recent book “All We Do is Talk Steel” Oral Histories of Sparrow Point tells the stories of these rank and file unionists in their own words. Studied are the lives of eight steelworkers from the famed Sparrows Point steel mill in southern Maryland; men and women of various backgrounds who talk at length about how they came to be working at the mill and their involvement with the union.
The sense one gets when reading the testimonies of these workers (many of whom are retired now) is that there is nothing romantic about working in a steel mill. The work was back breaking and dangerous, management was consistently breathing down your neck, and the union occasionally fell short of its promises for parity, both racial and gendered. Nowhere in these pages will you hear some paean to a golden age of steel, when management and labor cooperated to make every day in every way better for everyone involved. And yet, in spite of the hardships, these mill workers managed to reckon a sense of achievement and purpose both within their jobs and without. Many derived this purpose from their interactions with their fellow workers. Eddie Bartee, Sr. for instance, used the mill to promote social networks that could help people in need. Mary Lorenzo became involved in the Coalition of Labor Union Women and simultaneously pushed for greater collective bargaining rights and a more equitable place for women workers qua workers and union members.
“All We Do Is Talk Steel” is an essential collection of personal narratives to any reader (union member or otherwise) who is interested in the steel industry and rank and file unionism within the USW. Barry is adept at drawing out colorful and instructive stories from his subjects.From the founding of their union to the closing of the mill in 2012, these are important stories to hear, especially about the union movement, civil rights and women’s rights.