Hi Ho Off To Work I Go

When I was young, I had to walk 9 miles to school and 9 miles back home and each way was uphill.   And before you ask how this is possible, I did not have two houses, one downhill from the school where I would start out in the morning, and the other uphill where I would go after school.  OK, enough of an introduction, as this post is not going to be about how easy kids have it these days.  I am going to tell you about my experiences of working in a steel mill.

Trump is ready to hit our allies with metal tariffs (steel and aluminum) and Mexico and EU have vowed to retaliate.  Trump’s tariffs won’t rebuild the hundreds of thousands of steel jobs that were lost.  Not too long ago, the US had a mighty steel industry, but it fell into shambles after World War II.  When World War II ended, no industry was stronger or more important than American steel.  WWII killed off foreign competition, almost literally, with the massive destruction of the industrial base in Germany and Japan, along with Moscow’s demands for reparations in the form of German mills being transplanted to the Soviet Union.  By 1948, with America producing 40 percent of the world’s steel, U.S. mills employed nearly 700,000 workers.  Today only 83,000 people still work in the nation’s steel mills.

Numerous bombs were dropped in Europe and Japan, unlike the US which was basically left untouched by this war and they had to begin rebuilding after the war.  War is hell and the only thing that matters is winning, but the US felt sorry about the atomic bombs that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so we contributed to reconstruction in Japan and ignored our own aging steel industry.  Immediately after the war, the global demand for steel was more voracious than ever, as cities in Europe and Asia needed to rebuild, and the demand for new cars was great, along with the need for steel in the Interstate Highway system that was under construction.

While Europe and Japan constructed mills using new and innovative technology, but in the US our steel industry became decrepit.  These basic-oxygen furnaces and continuous casting methods proved to be far more efficient and less expensive than the steel that was being produced from the open-hearth integrated mills in America.  Rather than adopt the new process, US firms stubbornly stuck with their outdated methods.  It was not until the 1960s that a few basic-oxygen plants did eventually open in the United States.  Since the 1970s, China has emerged as a major producer and consumer of steel.  Most of steel produced today comes from recycled scrap, as opposed to using the more expensive and complex process of turning iron ore into steel and this has killed off many of the American steel jobs, much more than China becoming a global producer ever did.

I was a pretty mixed up kid when I was in High School, mostly because I had my head in the clouds and I never thought about my future.  I mostly thought about partying and listening to music.  I spent seven years out of High School before I matriculated, jumping around from job to job and spending my paychecks on beer and weed.  I probably had about twenty different jobs before I went to college and one of those was working in a steel mill as a helper.  It was a pretty good job for an uneducated person, and back in these days it was a respectable wage, as I think that I made seven dollars an hour.  The first thing that I found out about working with steel was that this is not the place where people whistle while they work.

Working with steel is a dirty job, but as they say someone has to do it.  I am not referring to the toxic emissions in the steel industry, as of course there is plenty of stuff there polluting the environment, I mean the filth and dirt that was everywhere I looked.  It was like working in a giant dumping ground, as ashes and garbage were strewn around everywhere.  A steel mill is an industrial plant, so workers are required to tolerate a lot of dirt, and possess the ability to work in a high-temperature environment and the risk of being injured is always present, because this work can be very dangerous.

As a helper, I was told to move things or go fetch supplies and also perform some minor housekeeping duties like emptying trash.  It was kind of boring, but it was better than some of my previous jobs like when I worked on an assembly line.  Being the new man on the job, I did what I was told and I hoped that I would be able to learn some things and get promoted to a better position.  I showed a willingness to listen to directions and an ability to work independently and it did not take that long for me to get my wish.  I was soon promoted to being a grinder, but I am not really sure if this was actually a promotion.

I was given a hand grinder, which was powered by electricity and it was kind of heavy, having this stone attached that spun around very quickly.  They also issued me safety glasses and a mask, because my job was to grind the rust off of pieces of steel around the plant.  I went all around the plant asking all of the supervisors in the different sections if they had any rusted steel parts that needed grinding and there was never a shortage of parts for me to work on.  When I located the rusted steel, I placed it in a vice and then applied my grinder to it to clean it up.  The rust always had a way of penetrating through the mask.  Every day after work, I coughed out dust particles and these particles were also present every time I blew my nose.

After working as a grinder for about three weeks, I got a new position as a spot welder and I was glad to get away from all of those dust particles.  A spot welder gets to operate a portable hand held welding machine that connects two pieces of metal together and this was also called tack welding.  Once I gathered the items that needed to be welded together, I positioned them next to each other and then I would clamp them onto suitable fixtures.  I had to place small tack welds on one side of the joint with the filler rod.  When the weld cooled down, I would flip the newly joined metal parts over and weld the other side of the joint.  I got to wear this cool helmet that made me look like a real space cadet and I was happy because I was learning a valuable skill.

I was working at this steel for just over six weeks and I knew that if I was able to hang on to this job for a few more, that they would ask me to join the union.  That was not to be the case, as one day when I drove to work, I saw all of the workers protesting outside of the plant.  I drove up to the picket line and when the workers saw me, they waved my through, knowing that I would not be taking any work away from them.  The plant was closed for production and I was one of the few workers still there, as everyone else was a supervisor.  This is when I got to know the meaning of ‘this is the pits’.

The supervisors gave me a shovel, some gloves and a bucket and they told me to clean out these pits that had not been cleaned in over thirty five years.  It was filled with muck and the thing about muck is that the more it is mixed into the atmosphere, the worse it smells.  These pits were filled with the decayed carcasses of rodents and all types of other filth and now I had become a muckraker.  Getting past the fumes was the worst part, but in a way since nobody wanted to go near these pits, so I was mostly left alone.  Eventually I finished up cleaning out these pits and when I asked what I should do next, they told me to go home as my services were no longer required.  That was the end of my career in the steel industry, as the strike lasted a few more months and I had moved on to another thankless job before it ended.

Written for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Tale Weaver – #173 – May 31st – Days Of Old

21 thoughts on “Hi Ho Off To Work I Go

      1. yes, but isn’t it sad how employers take advantage of their employees? If they had told you that cleaning up the muck would be your last task, would you have done it?

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      2. There is two ways of looking at this, the glass being half empty or being half full. I eventually got tired of these meaningless jobs and enrolled in college and had a successful career as an electrical engineer, so I think that the glass was half full.

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  1. Interesting stuff, I’ve just watched the evening news regards Trump’s tariffs on European, British and Canadian steel. The issue as I understand it, is that although we (UK) only export 7% of our steel to the USA there are many other countries who also export similar amounts, this unsold steel then floods the market and thus supply is greater than demand, and the world price drops. I Know very little about the steel industry and so this has shocked me coupled with your post about the condition of the steel mills in the US amongst other things it seems like an insane thing for him to do.
    In short and once agin i’m no expert, I think we’re fucked!

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    1. Moving around from job to job makes a person versatile and I am proud of all the jobs that I had. I look at this post as a masterpiece of writing because I lured my readers into my story inch by inch adding details about the steel industry which is such an appropriate topic concerning these new tariffs and then I gave insights to what it is really like to work in a steel mill. Starting out as a gopher and moving on to different positions till I finally was thrown into the pits. The really sad thing is that my story which I poured my heart into will go highly unappreciated.

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  2. Great story Jim, glad you did get out and find a career. I remember working with my father’s company, they were builders of things like school building etc. One day I was there and they were digging the foundations for a new classroom block. The foundations were deep and the bottoms were belled out. My job was to go down the holes and clean out the rubble in the bottom, shovel it into a bucket and a man on top would pull it up and drop me the empty bucket.
    Thanks for adding your bit to the tale weaver.

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  3. I had a summer job working with a concrete construction company that built office buildings. I hated that job, partly because I was working on higher floors that were still under construction and I was sure that I was going to fall to my death. Somehow I survived. But still, it was better than what you described your steel mill job to be all about.

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    1. My uncle was in the high construction business working on skyscrapers and bridges and I could have worked for his company and made great money, but like you I am afraid of heights or at least anything above five stories.

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