In the early 20th century, Northwest Indiana became a hub of heavy industry, from Hammond's meat packing plants to the west, to Michigan City's massive Pullman rail car facility to the east.
Industrialists John D. Rockerfeller and Andrew Carnegie lined the Region's lakefront with an oil refinery and steel mills.
Thousands of workers flooded in from Europe, Mexico and the Deep South to once-desolate marshland along the lake that was being transformed by hulking factories. They toiled in grueling conditions, with steelworkers clocking in 12-hour days. The work could be deadly. Nine men died at the Inland Steel Mill in East Chicago in 1910, according to United Steelworkers Local 1010's memorial wall.
Labor unrest spread across the country as workers clamored for safer conditions, more pay and shorter workdays. But the steelmakers that shaped Northwest Indiana resisted unionization for as long as they could, for instance, recruiting antagonistic groups like Serbian and Croatian immigrants who would be less likely to cooperate enough to form a union.
“Northwest Indiana labor history was, of course, greatly influenced by national labor history, so passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which legalized union organizing and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the 40 hour week, have to be mentioned,” retired steelworker and labor historian Mike Olszanski said.
“Establishment of the CIO (Committee on Industrial Organization, later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) along with the SWOC (Steelworkers Organizing Committee) in 1936 got union organizing rolling in the Region, as well as nationally.”
Better days ahead
The most galvanizing event in Northwest Indiana labor history was likely the Memorial Day Massacre in Hegewisch during the Little Steel strike when steelworkers from Chicago and Northwest Indiana went on strike at smaller steel companies, including Inland Steel, Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube.
“The Republic Steel Massacre on Memorial Day, 1937, in which 10 steelworkers were killed by Chicago police, has to be the salient event of 20th century labor history in the Region,” Olszanski said. “The Inland Steel Local 1010 lost four members in that police riot: Alfred Causey, Earl Handley, Kenneth Reed and Sam Popovich.”
Over the next few years, all the major steel mills across Northwest Indiana became unionized. They helped lift Northwest Indiana blue-collar workers up into the middle class, bringing prosperity to the state's second-largest metro area and allowing future generations to head off to college.
“Unions have undoubtedly raised wages and improved working conditions for workers — union and non-union — in Northwest Indiana,” Olszanski said.
“But for many of us, it is respect and security on the job that have been most keenly felt. A union contract means that conditions of employment are spelled out in a legal document, not subject to the whims of management. Safety rules are codified as part of the contract, not simply determined by management.”
Unions endured a long struggle and violence including police shooting fleeing workers in the back before finally getting recognition, said James Lane, Indiana University Northwest professor of history emeritus. But during the New Deal era and World War II, steelmakers became more receptive to unions, because they feared losing out on lucrative government contracts.
“The attitude of management changed,” Lane said. “They started looking at dealing with the unions. The unions got more recognition, contracts and representation of employees at the mills.”
After World War II, the unions negotiated better pay and more benefits at a time when the economy was thriving.
“The economy was transforming from a war economy to a consumer economy, and everything was going in the right direction for the workers,” he said. “Companies were friendly while negotiating, because it was going well economically for industry.”
Down times return
Good times soured in 1959, when steelworkers went on a record-long 116-day strike over a management demand to reduce hours and change the number of workers assigned to a task.
President Dwight Eisenhower eventually intervened, and steel analyst Charles Bradford said the strike ended up having long-lasting and unforeseen repercussions on the U.S. steel industry, since it introduced foreign imports to the market for the first time.
Imports have captured more than a quarter of the domestic market share today, leading to ongoing contraction of the industry. Fewer jobs also are attributed to increased automation where steelworkers are more likely to monitor consoles than bust their backs doing the rigorous tasks of yore, such as shoveling coke into a blast furnace.
Northwest Indiana steel mills employed more than 66,000 workers in 1979, according to Times archives, but now have less than a third of that headcount.
In the 1970s, imports, especially from Japan, started to take a major toll on domestic steelmakers, Lane said. Northwest Indiana became the biggest steel-producing region in the country as many of the mills around Pittsburgh closed.
“The union was heading into tough times,” Lane said. “The impact of imports was severe, and technology started to really affect the employment level.”
Adapting to change
Despite the challenges, unions secured more environmental and workplace safety safeguards during that period, local steelworker Terry Steagall said.
“There used to be an iron ore haze over the mills,” he said. “But there was a big fight during the 1970s and 1980s for more baghouse control, and the health and safety of union workers.”
By 1986, unions attained more economic gains through contract negotiations, including better wages, pensions and job security, Lane said.
The steel industry went through ups and downs until 2001, when the steel crisis forced more than 30 companies into bankruptcy. Wall Street pushed for the elimination of legacy costs such as pensions and insurance benefits for retirees.
A wave of consolidation followed, and the big mills in Northwest Indiana ended up under the control of U.S. Steel or the newly formed global conglomerate, ArcelorMittal.
Since then, unions largely have been fighting to preserve the wages and benefits they already have, including the most recent round of contract negotiations, Lane said. They've also taken on a larger role in politics, lobbying against trade deals and for more tariffs on imports.
“The unions are still fighting,” Lane said. “They defend benefits for the workers, and fight for the environment, health and safety, and trade.”
Unions have struggled with declining ranks as more of the work in steel mills and other factories becomes automated. They've also weathered political attacks such as the Right to Work law Indiana lawmakers passed in 2012, which the USW branded as, “Right to Work for less.”
Indiana's right-to-work law gives employees the option of opting out of dues for union-provided representation and grievance services.
“In the future, our unions must grow — or die,” Olszanski said.
“Today’s union leadership must — and I believe does — relate to workers on the job in a more democratic, bottom-up fashion than has sometimes been the case in the past. Rank-and-file involvement in decision-making must continue to increase, as the labor movement rebuilds — in Northwest Indiana, the nation and the world.”