Youngstown State University ‘s Center for Working-Class Studies teamed up with the Professional Writing and Editing and Journalism Programs to create a tribute to the city’s new generation of workers. The book, Worker Portraits: Faces of Strength, displays the talent, dedication and strength of the people who keep the Mahoning Valley alive. With stories on individuals, their careers and their personal stories of struggle and triumph, the book opens up its readers to the world that is post-steel Youngstown.
The original web version of this book was created by a senior student in the Professional Writing and Editing Program, with the hopes of making it more accessible to the community and to encourage the participation of the people of the Mahoning Valley. It contained four previously unreleased portraits and was able to be updated to accommodate more stories of local workers, as requested by the people of Youngstown.
Work defines who we are, as individuals and as a community. For most of the twentieth century, the Youngstown area was “steel town.” It seemed as if everyone either worked in a steel mill or knew someone who did. Steel had built our economy and defined our identity.
Over time, the auto industry grew in the region, with the Packard electric (now Delphi Automotive) and the GM Lordstown plant employing thousands. The Mahoning Valley became known as a manufacturing center.
When the steel and auto industries dominated the area, we all knew what work meant: hard, often repetitive physical labor in a noisy, sometimes dangerous environment.
In these jobs, people made real, tangible things like big rolls of steel or shiny new cars. These jobs paid well, and the benefits were good – health care, life insurance, programs that paid part of your tuition if you wanted to go to college.
Men and women in the Mahoning Valley spent their entire working lives at Youngstown Sheet & Tube, WCI Steel, US Steel, GM or Delphi. While strikes and temporary lay-offs caused some ups-and-downs, these were secure jobs, good jobs. Our shared knowledge of that kind of work helped bring us together.
Not anymore. We still make steel and cars here, but manufacturing is a much smaller part of the local economy. Thirty years after the steel mills closed, the auto industry is declining.
The Mahoning Valley ‘s story has been defined by the loss of jobs and our continuing struggle to recover.
Despite all those lost jobs, people here still work. And work still shapes our lives and our community.
The difference is that we no longer have a shared experience of work. Without the common thread of familiar work, we don’t know how to define ourselves.
Across the Mahoning Valley , men and women work as nurses, teachers, waitresses, bankers, and store clerks. And many of us still work at steel mills, Lordstown and the many small manufacturers of everything from dance clothes to office equipment.
The goal of Worker Portraits: Faces of Strength is to help us learn about the meaning of work in the Mahoning Valley in the 21st century. Through stories and pictures of real people and the work they do, we can take a new look at the work in this community. Each of those stories is a part of a bigger picture of changing patterns, not only here in the Mahoning Valley but nationally and internationally.
We still make things here – steel, cars, specialty equipment and parts – but we also work in schools and hospitals, stock shelves and run cash registers in retail stores and conduct the work of local, state and national government.
Since the late 1970s, what we do here has changed dramatically. thirty years ago, 43 percent of the jobs in the Mahoning Valley were in manufacturing. Today, only 17 percent of us do that kind of work. The largest category of employment is education and health care, but that accounts for only 17 percent of jobs in the area. Steel and auto industry jobs have declined, but other job categories have grown.
Because our economy is now so diverse, work isn’t a shared experience anymore. If you work at Delphi, you might not know what it’s like to be a high school teacher. A middle school teacher like Don Kollar probably doesn’t have any idea what Gloria Steward’s experience is like as a bus driver. Neither of them may know anything about Ian Maynard’s work at a funeral home. We know all those jobs are out there, but we don’t understand others’ experiences. Most of us work, but work no longer connects us.
These changes are part of a national trend, as fewer Americans make tangible products like cars or clothes and more work in jobs that provide services. Eighty three percent of Americans work in service jobs. We answer phones, make lattes, process bills and design software.
We know that “service” jobs are growing, but what is it like to do that work? Education jobs include not just teachers but also the secretaries and maintenance workers who keep our schools running smoothly and the professional staff who manage budgets and hiring. Health care workers include doctors and nurses as well as technicians, account managers, orderlies, and cooks. Retail jobs include clerks, stockers, and managers in large chain stores and small, locally-owned businesses. We interact with people in these jobs every day, but we don’t know what their days are like.
Even familiar kinds of work are different these days. Technology has made steelmaking a very different job than it was 25 years ago. Then, a single shift at WCI could bring 1,000 people streaming through the gates. Today, only a few hundred show up at one time. Working alone in a control room, interacting with a row of computer screens, feels very different from working side-by-side with five other guys, collecting and testing samples to get the right mix of minerals.
That sense of disconnection can happen in other kinds of work, too. Take Diane Thomas, who stocks shelves and works the cash register at Marc’s. Lots of people work on her shift, but she does most of her work alone. Shawanda Boss-McIntosh spends some time every day talking with her colleagues, but she spends most of her day working alone, transforming handwritten notes and recorded rulings into formal documents at the workers comp office.
Work has changed in other ways. The manufacturing jobs that once defined this area came with good pay and benefits. Most were full-time jobs with regular opportunities for overtime. Working conditions, wages and benefits were guaranteed by union contracts. Today’s education, health care and government workers are also union members, and they often have full-time jobs that pay well and provide health insurance and other benefits.
But many of today’s jobs are part-time, low wage positions that offer little or no benefits. In such jobs, workers feel little loyalty to a company or connection with co-workers, and the international corporations that operate local warehouses, big box stores, and offices have no commitment to this community. Workers live with constant worries about making ends meet and staying healthy enough to keep working. As a community, we remain anxious about our economic health.
The declining poverty rate in the Mahoning Valley suggests that our economy is improving. It’s tempting to read those statistics as evidence that the poorest members of our community have begun to find better jobs, but we also know that some of that decline reflects people who have given up and moved away.
On the other end of the spectrum, more households today have incomes over $100,000. Does that reflect a growing economy? Or simply an influx of higher-income workers living in our area and commuting to Pittsburgh or Cleveland? How does that growth affect the community at large?
But even as we see changes in household income at the top and the bottom, most families in the Mahoning Valley are just barely holding steady. Household income remains almost the same as it has been for 16 years, even as the cost of living has increased. We’re working as hard as ever, but most of us are not getting ahead.
As work moves from factories to offices, stores and clinics, we see other changes in our community. More people are going to college than ever before. While we still lag behind the rest of the country and even most of Ohio in our level of education, more local residents now have at least some college. Over time, this shift should help the local economy grow.
The statistical portrait of the Mahoning Valley may give us the “big picture,” but the real meaning of work lies in day-to-day life, in the experiences of individuals. It’s one thing to know that more of us are working in service industries, and quite another to learn about Rob Zura’s typical day working as a bouncer at a video store. We can understand that more people are working in health care, but if we really want to know what that work is like, we have to meet Debbie Anderson. We may interact with retail clerks and waitresses every week, but if we want to understand how the work looks from their point of view, we have to talk with Ashley Miller and Jen Sutherin.
That’s just what we’ve done. Worker Portraits: Faces of Strength introduces you to the individuals behind the statistics. These stories were written by professional writing and editing and journalism students, and the photos are the work of Steve Cagan, Scott Stackhouse, Elizabeth Boon and several other students. Together, we hope they will help you understand the changing nature of work in the Mahoning Valley.
We may no longer be made of steel, but we’re still strong.
Gloria Steward | Bus Driver
Don Brown | Delivery Driver
Don Kollar | Art Teacher
Marty Whitmore | Shipper
Ashley Miller | Retail Clerk
Ian Maynard | Mortician
Jen Sutherin | Bartender
Marilyn Hodge | Bank Teller
Shawanda Boss-McIntosh | Word Processor
Heather Sommers | Machine Operator
Josie Puskar | Seamstress
Rob Zura | Video Store Clerk
Becky Mace | Retail Clerk
Debbie Anderson | Mammographer
Karen Wenberg | Print Shop Worker
Alizé | Stripper
Kathy Murrell | Janitor
Mike Thornburg | Police Officer/Parking Attendant
Randi Pappa | Bookkeeper
This project was made possible by the support of these generous sponsors:
Ohio Historical Society
Frances Schermer Charitable Trust
Scwebel Family Foundation