The current angry debates around affirmative action too often ignore their historical roots: how prior to government intervention African Americans were confined to the most back-breaking, dangerous and low paid work. Struggles in Steel documents the shameful history of discrimination against black workers and one heroic campaign where they won equality on the job.
The film is the result of a unique collaboration. Black steelworker Ray Henderson was angered by the lack of coverage of African American workers on the news so he contacted his old high school buddy, noted independent filmmaker Tony Buba, and suggested they collaborate to set the record straight.
Together they interviewed more than 70 retired black steelworkers who tell heart-rending tales of struggles with the company, the union and white co-workers to break out of the black job ghetto. With Henderson as guide, they retrace a century of black industrial history - the use of blacks as strikebreakers against the all-white union during the 1892 Homestead Strike, the Great Migration of fieldworkers to the North in World War I, the racial divisions between workers during the Great Steel Strike of 1919 and the ultimate success of the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s.
When black vets returned to the mills after WWII, they found they were still locked into the worst jobs with no rights to bid on better-paying, higher-skilled work such as supervisor, millwright or even painter. The steelworkers recount how, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they secretly documented instances of discrimination and in 1974 finally won an agreement (or Consent Decree) compelling the company and the union to set hiring and promotion goals for women and minorities.
But their hard-won prosperity would be brief. In a few short years the mills began shutting down and hope swung to despair. The film ends with black industrial workers again standing on the outside of the economy, waiting for new remedies to decades of discrimination.
"An outstanding job!...Provides a vitally important historical foundation for the current debates about race and affirmative action." - Bruce Nelson, Dartmouth College "Heartbreaking and enlightening...A shameful story full of sound and fury." - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Intelligent and informative...The filmmakers cull revealing and often deeply moving commentaries from interviews with more than 70 steelworkers...An effective teaching tool." - Variety
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