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On or About Labor Day September 1, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I was born and raised in a company town. I suspect that most don’t know what that means. In this case, it means that the town was surveyed, laid out, built, and run by the company, in this case, a steel mill. The steel mill extended several miles along the Ohio River, until it was torn down in the 1990s. I lived outside of the town, where my parents built their own home (and I mean largely with their own hands).

The town still exists, after a fashion, but is a shell of its former gritty but vibrant self.

The town was built in the early 1900s, and by the time I was born, 50 or so years later, most of the houses and businesses had reverted to private ownership. Still, my family shopped in the company store into my preteen years, which at six stories remained the tallest building in town. Neighborhoods were laid out as “plans” – Plan 6, Plan 7, Plan 12. I never knew what that meant until I understood the meaning of the company town. They were company-planned and built neighborhoods, with no character other than that designation.

I grew up in a union household. Pete was a steelworker, and Ann was a housewife. My mother learned to drive the same time I did. There was always food to eat, and I was never wanting for basics, but there were never extras. As I grew older, the balance of power shifted to the workers, and my father’s pay increased enough for my parents to send me to college, with the help of grants and the occasional loan.

But that ultimately meant that the jobs were uncompetitive, and more economical steel mills were built elsewhere. And I don’t necessarily mean lower cost areas; today, the US produces more steel than it did in the 1970s, with fewer than half as many workers. Technology changes everything.

In high school, the average career track was fairly simple. Men graduated (or not) and sought middle-class jobs in the mill. Women looked for husbands who worked in the mill. It sounded sexist even then, but ultimately didn’t work out for any of them.

Dad, incidentally, died when it was no longer feasible not to see a doctor. He went to a doctor for the first time in 40 years, when he could no longer stand the pain of the cancer. Today, I have a colonoscopy once every few years. I will die someday, but it will not be of that form of, well, stupidity.

This is nothing other than noting where I came from. I like to think that I’m not political. But I do accept that things change. Labor has changed, and we need to recognize and adapt too.

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