Segments in this Video

Black Steel Workers: an Untold Story (00:59)


Ashton Allen and Ray Henderson of US Steel discuss how young Americans are ignorant of the African-American struggle for civil and labor rights. Mill working conditions were dangerous and difficult. (Credits)

Unfair Labor Practices (01:23)

Retired black steel workers share being given the most dangerous and physically difficult jobs in the mill while white workers had the easier ones.

Hard Work (01:05)

Growing up in Pittsburgh, steel work was a natural career choice for the African-American community. The narrator got a well-paying mill job in 1967. James Sharpley studied electrical engineering, but only mill work was available.

Writing African-Americans into Steel History (00:54)

Raymond Henderson was tired of black steel workers being excluded in the media. When a documentary aired showing only white steelworkers he decided to make his own documentary with high school friend Tony Buba.

Origins of African-American Steel Workers (00:54)

Africans have worked with metal since Ancient Egypt. In 1842, a Virginia iron mill employed slaves in highly skilled positions. After the Civil War, slavery was abolished—but blacks were still oppressed in the North and South.

Moving North for Steel Opportunities (00:58)

African-Americans were recruited during the Great Steel Strike of 1919. After the strike, many couldn't afford the trip home and stayed. Southern crop failures and mill labor shortages led to blacks joining the industrial workforce for the first time.

Adjusting to Life in the North (01:13)

Retired steelworker Henderson Thomas recalls his parents living in a tent in 1920s Pittsburg until his father found mill work. Coming from the rural South, industrial towns were a new world. Black communities were segregated from white areas.

Plentiful Employment at a Heavy Price (02:37)

African-Americans migrating to the industrial North found work in the steel mills. However, they were relegated to "man-killing" labor. Retired employees recall experiencing racial discrimination and dangerous conditions.

Forming Black Unions (01:37)

African-Americans began organizing during the 1930s Depression. Steel workers recall their fathers working undercover to keep their jobs.

Steel Workers Unite (01:17)

In 1936, white labor leaders realized they needed the support of African-American workers. The union campaigned for black membership but racial discrimination continued—blacks were kept in dangerous and difficult labor positions.

Employment Discrimination During World War II (01:12)

Black steel workers' unions organized strikes in the 1940s. White women were hired over experienced black workers to fill wartime labor shortages—black women were hired last and segregated.

Army Segregation (01:11)

During World War II, enlisted African-Americans trained with whites but were in segregated fighting units. Retired black steel workers share being put on separate train cars traveling south from Washington, D.C.

Return of "Prewar" Job Discrimination (03:04)

After serving on European combat missions during World War II, black steel workers hoped to gain rights and respect in the mills back home. Retired employees recall their fight for better work positions.

Racial Inequality in the Mill (01:32)

Retired African-American steel workers recall being in all-black departments with white supervisors; sometimes they had to train their own bosses. There was only one black foreman in the entire industry in 1970.

Unequal Union Protection (02:14)

In 1948, the Steel Workers Union created a civil rights department—headed by white men. After a decade, African-American Boyd Wilson was appointed. Non-discrimination clauses didn't result in better representation of blacks.

Perseverance under Discrimination (02:28)

Retired black steel worker Henderson Thomas recalls his fight to move up to a crane maintenance position: after asking every day for a year the management finally gave him a chance—but he had to train himself.

Unspoken Racial Oppression in the Workplace (01:37)

Retired black steel workers share stories of unfair promotion practices. Even after rigorous tests, most African-American employees weren't allowed to move up in the mill.

Organizing Against Institutionalized Racism (01:48)

Inspired by black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and the civil rights movement, African-American steel workers began standing up against the union and the company during the 1960s. Faced with threats by white mobs, they grew militant.

Fighting for Equality Through the Legal System (02:58)

In 1970, two Alabama steel workers sued the company for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act that afforded African-Americans equal opportunity for job promotion. Other lawsuits followed; retirees share how they gathered evidence for their cases.

Legal Victory for Equal Opportunity (02:52)

In 1974 the nine largest U.S. steel companies agreed to end unfair labor practices and pay $30 million in reparations to discrimination victims. A retired steel worker recalls being promoted and gaining respect at work after the case.

Indignity and Injustice (02:56)

African-American steel workers were paid insultingly small reparations for years of job discrimination after the 1974 steel industry settlement. The checks contained a stipulation waiving future rights to sue the company.

Consent Decree Fails to Bring Labor Justice (03:14)

After the 1974 steel industry settlement for equal employment opportunities, companies partnered with the Union to take advantage of legal loopholes keeping African-American workers in low positions.

Reverse Discrimination Lawsuits (01:20)

The 1974 steel industry equal opportunity settlement created an indignant reaction among many white steel workers and union members.

Affirmative Action (01:55)

The steel industry's consent decree stipulated companies had to hire minorities and women. We hear from several African-American women about discrimination at the workplace—they were paid much less than white women for the same job.

Steps Toward Labor Justice (00:56)

Although the steel industry's equal opportunity consent decree wasn't perfect, African-American workers still made gains in the workforce. Several retirees recall breaking production records after promotion.

Equal Opportunity Gains: Bad Timing (02:01)

Ironically, just as African-Americans were making headway in their fight for labor justice and equality, the U.S. steel industry folded.

Bad Union: Better than No Union (01:54)

African-American steel workers share that although the union didn't represent their interests, it gave them job protection during their struggle for equal opportunity.

Consequences of Steel Industry Decline (02:37)

Unionized steel mill jobs helped African-Americans build a middle class life. When the plants closed, reactions ranged from denial to suicide.

Shrinking Economy to Blame? (01:21)

After the steel mill closed, filmmaker Raymond Henderson had to go back to school to find work. One expert believes unemployment issues depend on class more than race—but black communities are disproportionately affected.

Maintaining Progress Towards Labor Justice (01:47)

As African-American steel workers struggle with unemployment, union activists call for organizing to keep equal opportunity gains.

Black Male Role Models (02:43)

African-American steel workers have overcome enormous challenges in their fight for equal opportunity. Their story provides inspiration for new generations in the struggle for racial and economic justice.

Credits: Struggles in Steel (01:06)

Credits: Struggles in Steel

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Struggles in Steel

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



Angry debates around affirmative action too often ignore the policy’s historical roots: how prior to government intervention African-Americans were largely confined to the most backbreaking, dangerous, and low-paid work. This program documents the shameful history of discrimination against black workers and one heroic campaign that resulted in job equality. Interviews with retired black steelworkers and others retrace a century of African-American industrial history, from early struggles to hard-won triumphs to contemporary challenges when mills began shutting down. (58 minutes)

Length: 57 minutes

Item#: BVL49765

Copyright date: ©1996

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

“An outstanding job!...Provides a vitally important historical foundation for the current debates about race and affirmative action.”  —Prof. 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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