[Marxism] the post-industrial world of Chicago steel

Dennis Brasky dmozart1756 at gmail.com
Thu Nov 16 20:57:50 MST 2017

Rows of modest brick bungalows still line the streets in Walley’s old
neighborhood, Chicago’s East Side, and her mother and her sister Susie
still live there. But just outside this residential core lie vast,
chemically contaminated brownfields that extend for miles—former mill
sites, most of which remain undeveloped. As you approach these barren
stretches of land, all signs of human life drop away, save for the cars
passing by. Here and there, slabs of concrete peek through the weeds like
bare patches of scalp. “This was the entrance to the main gate,” Walley
says as we drive past the old Wisconsin Steel site. All I can see of the
once-mighty industrial behemoth is a chain-link fence blocking access to an
overgrown driveway.

To get at the roots of the trauma her community endured, Walley has spent
hundreds of hours digging into the corporate decisions surrounding mill
closures and the laws that allowed such closures to proceed with ease. She
argues that the industrial unraveling that happened in communities like
Southeast Chicago and Detroit, Michigan, was not an inevitable result of
globalization. Certainly, American industry faced more competition from
overseas as the 20th century progressed, and it continues to face such
competition today. But in the end, she thinks, regulations that favored the
interests of businesses over those of workers were what cemented the U.S.
industrial collapse. “One of the narratives that’s really problematic is,
‘This is just progress to the new kind of economy,’” Walley says.

Beginning in the 1970s, the political pendulum swung toward laxer
regulation of corporate activities—a trend that accelerated during the
Reagan era. Hands-off federal laws allowed companies to merge and acquire
new companies with little interference, and companies were permitted to
operate more fully while in the throes of bankruptcy. Laws like these aided
many investors’ strategies of buying up older U.S. manufacturing
enterprises, neglecting pension funds, milking profits, and allowing the
enterprises to go bankrupt—which is just what happened at Wisconsin Steel,
where Chuck Walley once worked. To this day, workers are left with limited
recourse against such corporate schemes, and in many cases, labor unions
have had difficulty securing additional benefits or job retraining for
workers who have been laid off.

In Canada, she points out, policies were in place in the 1970s and 80s that
encouraged companies to modernize and funnel profits back into mill upkeep.
As a result, not a single Canadian steel mill closed at a time when
increasingly neglected and obsolete American mills were falling like dominoes.
Germany, too, has managed to maintain a robust industrial economy despite
fierce global competition.


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