The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
The Heat:
Steelworker Lives & Legends

Jan 20, 2003

This little book was written by sixteen steelworkers. The writers work at the big steel mills in the Gary-East Chicago Indiana area and for Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. They include men and women, most of whom worked 30 years in the mills. A number of the workers are third generation steelworkers.

These short stories tell about the lives of the steelworkers in the mills and in the community. They begin with various workers' first day on the job. One woman's first job was to go underneath gigantic machines and pull large pieces of steel out of rancid axle grease and animal fat that had dropped down from above. Another guy was put to shoveling dust into a wheelbarrow all day long. At the end of the day he said, "I'm just gonna stay here 'til I find a better job." That was 29 years ago.

A number of the stories show the human bonds that form between the workers who labor together doing dangerous work. They have nicknames like Stubby, for a guy five feet five weighing about 250, Frenchie who can speak some French, and Skin for a guy named Harry who is a little bald on top. When Skin's wife has a baby, the other guys on the crew show up at the hospital. A few years later when it turns out the little girl has leukemia and the union-negotiated health care falls way short of what's needed to keep her alive, it's the guys on the crew who raise the money to keep her alive.

Producing steel costs numerous accidents, all too many fatal. When a worker does a double to help out in a big storm, management doesn't offer him any food, and when he comes into their warm office to make a call home, they tell him to go out to the payphone in the cold. He learns to take three days off until the snow is cleared and not to try to come in during a blizzard.

The end of the book records the workers' last day on the job. In some cases it ends in a fatal accident. In others the worker gets off alive, only to die shortly after from the decades of hard labor. And for many others in recent years, the last day resulted because of layoffs and closings of the mills.

This a book gives a warm picture of steelworkers' lives and the solidarity that grows up on the job.