40 years after Black Monday, workers recall meltdown of local steel industry

Tribune Chronicle file photo / R. Michael Semple Youngstown Sheet & Tube Campbell Works, circa 1981

“It was as if someone had reached in and turned a table over, knocking everything down and exposing the darkness, the emptiness of the other side.”

Those are the words of 62-year-old Bob Grilli as he remembered Sept. 19, 1977, the day known as Black Monday and commonly referred to as the beginning of the end of the Mahoning Valley’s steel-making industry.

“And all you could do was watch it fall,” Grilli said.

Initially, it didn’t bother Grilli much when he received his walking papers from Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. The Austintown man was just 22 and had his whole life ahead.

But it didn’t take long for the crushing reality to overcome him and thousands of other area steel workers.

“I was naive, I guess,” Grilli said. “When you’re young, things don’t always hit you the same.”

Tuesday will mark the 40th year since Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. issued massive layoff notices for Campbell Works, followed by similar announcements at Youngstown Sheet & Tube’s Brier Hill Works. U.S. Steel’s district operations and Republic Steel Corp. in Youngstown ultimately followed suit.

Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs as the steel manufacturing sector continued to crumble in McDonald, Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers.

For families like Grilli’s, Black Monday punctuated a long-established culture of steel making.

Breaking tradition

Grilli had worked for Youngstown Sheet & Tube four years before it closed. During most of that time he was part of the labor gang, doing different jobs each day based on what needed done.

“They were the jobs the other workers, the older guys with more seniority, didn’t want to bid on,” he said. “There were 20 to 25 of us each day and the foreman would come in and tell us where we were going. Wherever they needed you that day, that’s the job you worked. I liked it down there. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

Grilli, because of his lack of seniority, was among the first wave to be laid off. It took him nearly two years to find another job.

“I knew I’d get unemployment, so I thought it would be OK,” he said. “But there were guys with families, homes, car payments, all you could do was feel bad for them. I still remember one guy talking about it, and I thought he was going to start crying right then and there. There were thousands of us and that doesn’t count the supply jobs, the truck drivers, all the other workers who were hurt by it.”

There were too many workers for the local unemployment office to handle. Paperwork was mailed to those laid off on a regular basis that Grilli and the others filled it out and returned it.

“We couldn’t all go stand in line,” Grilli said. “There were too many of us.”

Grilli, like many sons, followed his father into the steel mill. His dad had enough time in to retire. His uncle had enough time to continue working a few more years as operations wound down before he retired.

For Grilli’s family, the impact of Black Friday is one that still lingers.

Rippling effect

Bob Grilli’s brother, John Grilli, had found a new job working for a trucking company that hauled slag out of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s Campbell Works when the ball dropped.

After driving truck only two months he was laid off almost immediately.

“Work pretty much stopped,” he explained. “They didn’t need us to haul from there anymore.”

For him, it was disappointing. He had gotten married the previous year, just bought a house and a new car.

“It was a different era back then,” he said. “I just went out and got another job. But I was young enough to do that. But the guys at the mill, especially those who were older, who got caught short of a pension, they weren’t old enough to retire. But they were in an age bracket that was less than desirable to be hired by someone else. They got hurt the worst in my opinion. They knew they would never find a job comparable to what they had.Working in the mill was good for them, especially if they didn’t have the skills to go somewhere else. But I could drive truck. I was semiskilled so I had options. For many of them and their families it was devastating. There was such a feeling of loss anywhere you went, a heaviness. People felt hopeless. I don’t think the community as a whole has been able to completely let go of that.”

Surviving the meltdown

Ron Granato recalls the immediate change that took place Black Monday.

“It used to be when you told people you were working in Warren, or anywhere in the Mahoning Valley, they would say you were so lucky,” he said. “The economy was booming, restaurants were full, people were happy. Jobs were plentiful. Many people around here, up to that point, had only known the good times.”

Granato, who recently retired at age of 73, said he saw the “good, bad and the ugly” of the steel industry.

A New Castle, Pa., native, Granato was straight out of college when he started his career in the finance department at Babcock & Wilcox, known as B&W, in Beaver Falls, Pa.

He quickly moved to Specialty Pipe & Tube in Mineral Ridge in 1969, where he worked 48 years and was eventually named vice president.

“At the time the area was booming, jobs were plentiful, wages were good and the unions were strong,” he said. “It was a time workers could afford to make a living, buy a home, send their kids to college. That’s what disappeared, that quality of life. To watch it was heartbreaking. To see so many people you knew, your friends, hurt by it. When it went away, it went fast.”

Granato said his employer had already diversified and was in a position better than most to handle the bust that came in the 1970s.

“It caught a lot of people off guard. They weren’t prepared,” he said.

But Specialty Pipe & Tube was a small company established in 1964 with workers like Granato who wore several hats. The company was solvent and able to expand its customer base.

“I learned a lot. We worked hard, we did a lot, in every area of the business. I think because we were so small we were able to weather the storm. We, our company, came out of it stronger,” he said.

But the next decade saw the drain of the 1980s as people moved away and the population steadily declined. Even so, workers continued hoping their jobs would return.

“It took about 10 years, I’d say, for people to fully realize and accept those jobs weren’t coming back,” Granato said. “I said goodbye to a lot of friends and people I knew who left the area. Many people watched their kids leave because the opportunities just weren’t there anymore.”

Granato said he doesn’t know where he would have been had he stayed at B&W. With the decline of the steel industry B&W’s Beaver Falls complex was phased out and closed in the 1980s, leaving thousands out of work there as well.