Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

From Steel Fundamentalism to the Politics of Representation

Judith Stein would have been bemused to observe the Trump Administration’s abrupt announcement on March 1, 2018 of its intent to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. In Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism and Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies she chronicled how, throughout the post-World War II years, basic steel had become the foundation that was expected to support all of the permutations of Keynesian macroeconomic management, U.S. foreign policy and liberal employment dictates intended to address racial and gender inequities.1 This “steel fundamentalism,” together with the lack of a coherent industrial policy and the rise of a newly deregulated financial sector, led to the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1972 there were 364 integrated steel mills in the U.S. employing 469,000 workers.2 In 2017, basic steel employed an average of 85,000 workers in fewer than 100 mills—only nine of which were fully integrated.3 At one time, across-the-board tariff protections coupled with an aggressive industrial policy may have averted this precipitous collapse and all of the human suffering connected with it. This is the tragedy so brilliantly narrated by Stein. She would have recognized the Trump tariff as the archetypal farce: intended not to revive an already dead industry but simply as a symbolic gesture to buttress a right-wing populism without disrupting fundamental economic power relations.4 Once again, what was once a source of vibrant working-class employment and empowerment was being used to advance an external agenda that would do little to make things better for those few workers remaining in the industry. This latest intervention had nothing to do with a coherent economic policy. Its purpose was merely to represent; to signify concern to an embittered working class and small business constituency.

Nonetheless, Trump’s “American Carnage” right-wing populism has real resonance among many white workers. Perhaps the most important reason why is because they recall a time when workers had real power. There was a time when you could graduate from high school or get discharged from the military on Friday and start working in the steel mill on Monday. If you didn’t like it there, you could hire into the auto plant on Tuesday. While the labor market was substantially segmented along racial and gender lines, the period from the 1940s through the mid-1970s was the era of the “Great Compression” that increased working class incomes and opportunities. And, unlike the latter years of the twentieth century, in which the decline of employment and income among white male workers pushed them much closer to the conditions of similarly situated women and people of color while overall inequality mushroomed, prospects for people of color and women were also improving throughout the Great Compression.5

Much credit for this phenomenon goes to the postwar collective bargaining regime. Unions helped set the terms and conditions of employment in the controlling sectors of the U.S. economy, resulting in vastly improved lives and greater security for the entire working class. There was an expansion of public goods in housing (albeit with severe racial segmentation), healthcare, transportation, physical infrastructure and education that also helped stimulate overall economic growth. Until the latter 1970s, there was a broad political consensus that these things were good for America. There is a reason why some consider Richard Nixon to be the last pro-labor president.6

On the ground, workers experienced the Great Compression as personally empowering. Especially by the late 1960s, when the economy began to overheat because of Vietnam War spending and the war on poverty expanded the social safety net, workers could really tell the boss to “take this job and shove it.” There was a widespread erosion of discipline on the factory floor. Collectively, wildcat strikes and mass contract rejections proliferated with two-and-a-half million workers involved in major strikes in both 1970 and 1971 and a million or more each year from 1964 to 1979. (Only 99,000 workers struck in 2016.7 ). Unlike labor’s post-1980 actions, these were not defensive strikes. They rarely resulted in union defeats and often won substantial victories, including the expansion of collective bargaining rights to millions of public-sector workers.

I got my first full time job in 1973 just as the post-World War II golden age was winding down. Like thousands of other workers, I had been radicalized by the antiwar and social movements of the 1960s and thought that the time had come for workers to break the constraints of the collective bargaining regime. But, as UAW leader turned dissident Jerry Tucker liked to say, “While you be dreaming, they be scheming.” When the assault on workers’ power now known as neoliberalism began, we didn’t know what hit us. Instead of overthrowing hierarchical capitalist power relations, creating new definitions of work and expanding the provision of public goods, we spent our lives as union activists circling the wagons around the tattered remnants of that regime.

The architects and administrators of that collective bargaining regime in the institutional labor movement and related sectors didn’t fare much better. Despite UAW President Doug Fraser’s 1978 epiphany that, “leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old…,”8 most national union leaders viewed the full-throated assault on workers and their unions as a temporary aberration. They spent the 1980s trying to get back their seat at the table. It wasn’t until the contested 1995 election for the leadership of the AFL-CIO that it could be said that the labor movement had come to the realization that the table no longer existed.

While the collective bargaining regime always functioned as a “second best solution” in the face of a historically strong capitalist class and a relatively weak working-class movement in the United States (especially in the political sphere), it is important to recognize that it was built on real gains extracted from employers and the state over decades of struggle.9 Because those gains were primarily secured through collective bargaining agreements and the attendant “private welfare state” arranged with individual employers rather than through universal social legislation, they were particularly vulnerable to the neoliberal onslaught that began in the late 1970s. As these gains quickly evaporated, misconceptions arose as to the purpose and effect of the regime.

Perhaps the most pernicious misconception is the assertion that the regime existed primarily to enforce white and male privilege. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, places the origin of the regime among the compromises the Franklin Roosevelt administration made with southern Jim Crow Democrats in order to pass the Wagner Act and key elements of New Deal legislation. Nearly all of this legislation excluded the occupational classifications in which a majority of black workers earned their living. Rather than seeing these compromises as based on the interplay of class forces, the political balance of power and other historical circumstances, Coates views them as evidence of an overarching regime of racial privilege and exploitation in which white workers are eager participants and beneficiaries. “The most obvious problem with th[is] claim,” notes Touré Reed, “is that it ignores the fact that the majority of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, mixed farm laborers and domestic workers in the early 1930s were white. According to the 1933 labor census, roughly 11.4 million whites were employed as farm laborers and domestic workers, compared with 3.5 million blacks.”10

Because he sees racism as “ontological” rather than as embedded in the political economy, Coates fails to appreciate the dynamic role it plays in facilitating exploitation and reinforcing class power. Coates’s view of racism is not unlike that of the movie Django Unchained, in which human degradation and loss of autonomy are the primary and eternal purposes of the system rather than consequences of a brutal regime intent on the extraction of the maximum profit and control from labor. In this world, any proposed solution that fails to remove the ontological curse of racism, no matter how well intentioned, is doomed to merely strengthen white privilege. This view, of course, is unable to conceive of any practical political solutions that aren’t racially based. (Since racial politics formed the wedge that allowed the exclusion of so many workers from New Deal labor protections, Reed asks rhetorically, “Should employers have been required to pay into Social Security for the 23 percent of farm laborers, personal servants, and domestics who happened to be black, but exempted from payroll tax for the 74 percent of such workers who happened to be white?” [“Between Obama and Coates”].)

Proponents of this view fail to recognize the real and significant improvements in the lives of African Americans and other marginalized communities under the collective bargaining regime; nor do they recognize the agency of people of color and women in this effort. Black socialists like A. Philip Randolph led the fight for the inclusion of their concerns in a resurgent labor movement, and African American-led organizations like the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union helped win significant, albeit temporary, New Deal legislative victories such as the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937.11

A largely forgotten foundational principle of the collective bargaining regime is the concept of industrial democracy. This, too, was a product of the “second best solution.” It conceded to capital the power to control the workplace and direct the workforce. But, instead of arbitrary dictatorship, the rule of law would prevail. Employers had to establish just cause for discharge and discipline, and their decisions were subject to appeal to an impartial third party. Industrial democracy concerned itself with the mundane realities of the workplace—setting standards for hours and intensity of work, how opportunities for training and promotion are distributed, access to and regulation of overtime work, and dozens of other terms and conditions of employment. Its demise is rarely lamented (except, of course by those millions of working people condemned to a new feudalism), and it was even ridiculed as inefficient and antiquated by some advocates of “new directions unionism,” who sought to replace its thick web of representation and adjudication with toll-free call centers and other innovations scavenged from the worst features of capitalist consumer service.12 But its heyday represented the high-water mark of worker power and, despite the willful misconceptions of the Coates crowd, its practice often established and enforced a rough racial equity in the workplace.

No one understood these dynamics better than Judith Stein. Eschewing ontology, the workers, union representatives, capitalists and managers, government officials and other players that populate her dense histories of the postwar steel industry (Running Steel) and the deindustrialization of the United States and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s (Pivotal Decade) all have agency and are situated in history with all of its complex contingencies. Rarely do you encounter someone who can explain both how Keynesian macroeconomic policies undermined the long-term viability of the United States steel industry and why Polish workers at Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna Works (but not at the Sparrows Point Works) made common cause with black coke-oven workers.

Stein’s key insight was that, just like labor radicals and union administrators of the collective bargaining regime, those responsible for economic policy and for addressing the accumulated racial disparities of 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow also thought that the postwar economic arrangements would go on forever. This led to what Stein called “steel fundamentalism”: the belief that steel, and other core economic sectors, were so robust and enduring that they could be made to bear the burden of economic, social and foreign-policy decisions. Coupled with this was the assumption that the Great Compression had essentially solved the issues of working-class incomes and employment and that any remaining disparities were caused by legacies of discrimination or cultural impediments to human capital formation. The policy elite and the courts and government agencies that administer racial and economic policy, “had separated poverty from the functioning of the economy” (Running Steel, 75).

Stein shows in powerful detail how black workers and union officials used the tool of industrial democracy to create their own “second best solutions” to racial disparity in the workplace, primarily through the negotiation of job descriptions and lines of progression that resulted in relative income equity and job security with other workers in the plant. The ham-handed efforts of the Justice Department and some civil rights attorneys to address employment disparities with sweeping, pro forma solutions often disrupted these arrangements without securing any significant improvement in the prospects of black workers. “The Justice Department’s and the courts’ separation of black experiences from those of other Lackawanna workers and then from the facts of declining employment were typical of elite formulations of labor issues during this period. They offered black workers little that was concrete and embittered a good many whites” (Running Steel, 136).

As the collective bargaining regime was buffeted by economic forces beyond its control and in the absence of any real social protections beyond the enterprise level, workers scrambled for advantage, security and protection using the only tools available to them. Often, those tools were wielded by “civil rights lawyers [who] expanded the idea of discrimination to justify policies designed to protect blacks from the results of automation, poor education and structural change” (Running Steel, 75). The government could use “transported solutions fashioned in the South to the North,” using “racism as its sole critical category,” to intervene in the employment market. “Racial conflict,” however, as Stein explains, “was an inevitable result of such solutions” (Running Steel, 121).

In the end, the collapse of steel industry employment overwhelmed all the attempts at affirmative action. “The black presence in the crafts increased, from 5.30 to 8.39 percent in the electrical trades, for instance [in the period from 1974 to 1988]; however, it would be difficult to call this progress, because the number of black electricians declined from 718 to 431…Viewed in this light, the conflicts over affirmative action may very well be a narcissism of small differences” (Running Steel, 195).

Interestingly, some of the tools developed to address racial disparity ended up providing protections for all workers. Stein would have appreciated hearing former Baltimore steelworker Len Shindel discuss the conflict within the Sparrows Point Works after a consent decree eliminated the system of departmental seniority in favor of plant-wide seniority:

Racial conflict threatened to erupt in fisticuffs on the job. Even some of us who acknowledged historic discrimination advanced the notion the decree “punished” white workers for the sins of the company

We were wrong, very wrong. A wave of technology was eliminating jobs throughout the plant. The technology didn’t discriminate by race. Now the consent decree, the legal document that had been derided for favoring black workers to the detriment of whites, ended up being a lifesaver for tens of thousands of white workers, too. They transferred to other departments and used their plant seniority to move up the ladder in their new departments.13

Meanwhile, in a process that Stein dissects in brutal detail in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, foreign policy decisions made to promote European and Asian economic development as a bastion against communism and economic policy decisions made to favor the growth of global financial capital resulted in the hollowing out and eventual collapse of the very economic sectors that were tasked with fixing race and gender disparities and developing and deploying human capital. Worse, the liberal political establishment, which unions and their members relied upon to promote working class interests, had become blind to the class interests at play and thus incapable of formulating real alternatives to the neoliberal advance. “By defining Reagonomics simply as an attack on the poor and seeking welfare solutions to compensate for the decline of industry, they yielded the economic terrain and thus themselves offered little to the working class and the poor” (Running Steel, 320).

The consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1980s came as a shock to nearly all of the parties to the postwar political consensus. But its rise was abetted by the countless decisions and entailments of a liberal political establishment and by an institutional labor movement that had made its peace with second-best solutions. Embedded in a collective-bargaining regime and a two-party winner-take-all political system that subordinated working-class interests to the contingencies of the electoral cycle, unions were unable to leverage their still-considerable power to implement and enforce an industrial policy that could have mitigated the ascension of a financial elite intent on turning industrial enterprises into pawns in a global race to the bottom. As Bruce Springsteen sang in Youngstown, “Seven-hundred tons of metal a day./Now sir you tell me the world’s changed./Once I made you rich enough/Rich enough to forget my name.”

Judith Stein’s intricate histories provide invaluable insight into how and why this happened. Given the immensity of the defeat suffered by the working class in the period that she devoted so much of her work to, you would think that she might be overcome by pessimism and powerlessness. But, precisely because of her deeply nuanced capacity to see humans as both acted upon and as actors in their own right, she remained always open to the possibilities for change. “Just as the postwar order was created by the rise of the CIO, a new compact will require a stronger labor movement… Men and women can [still] make history, even in an era of globalization” (Running Steel, 323).


1. Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) and Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).
2. Federal Trade Commission, “Staff Report on The United States Steel Industry and Its International Rivals”, November 1977, 45,
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Establishment Data (accessed 3/15/17),
4. The purely representational purpose of these tariffs was further clarified by Trump’s subsequent waiver of them for the nations that were the primary sources of imported steel.
5. Claudia Goldin & Robert A. Margo, “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century,” National Bureau of Economic Research, 1991,
6. See also: My uncle—an IBEW member—marched in this demonstration while my high school buddies and I were chased down the street by a group of pro-war hardhats.
8. Cited in Jefferson Cowie, “‘A One-Sided Class War’: Rethinking Douglas Fraser’s 1978 Resignation from the Labor-Management Group,” Labor History 44, no. 3 (August 2003): 307.
9. Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Crisis of Labor and the Left in the United States,” Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes, ed. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (December 2014).
10. Touré F. Reed, “Between Obama and Coates,” Catalyst 1, no. 4 (Winter 2018): n.p.,
11. “The Farm Tenant Act and the FSA would prove to be one of the most beneficial New Deal programs for African Americans, assisting many with low interest loans and farm ownership.” Interestingly, Senator Bankhead was a Jim Crow senator from Alabama and Congressman Jones was from Texas.
13. Len Shindel, “Former Steelworkers Divided Over NFL Protests,” Baltimore Post-Examiner (October. 7, 2017): n.p.
Show CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment