GM Plant Closing Opens Old Wounds for Mill Workers

By Dom Joseph
Jambar Contributor

On March 6, the General Motors Co. assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, closed its doors after 53 years of operation. The closing of the plant left thousands of citizens in the Mahoning Valley unemployed, delivering a heavy blow to the local economy. The closing of the GM Lordstown plant has hurt many, but for some, this is déjà vu.

“Black Monday — it felt exactly like Black Monday,” Neil Buzzacco, a Youngstown resident and former mill worker, said.

In the early to mid-1900s, the Mahoning Valley was known as the “Steel Valley.” The steel industry dominated the area, producing steel tubes and iron products that were essential to the United States military in the world wars.

“My family had both ends covered,” Buzzacco said. “I worked in the mills, while my younger brother fought in the Army. I started working in the Brier Hill mills when I was 14. I did a lot of coal shoveling, making sure the furnaces were always going strong.”

Youngstown Sheet and Tube was the dominant company of the mighty years of the mills, eventually purchasing the assets to the Brier Hill mills that Buzzacco worked in. Youngstown Sheet and Tube held control of mills in Brier Hill, Struthers and Campbell, as well as mills in East Chicago and Indiana Harbor, Indiana.  

“Steel and iron were the most important material during World War II,” Buzzacco said. “We had to work really long hours with very few breaks. Not because of what we were building, but because of how quickly the product was needed.”

The steel industry made Youngstown a well-known city in the United States during and after the world wars. The local economy boomed, and the city began to grow quicker than ever before — then came Black Monday.

On Sept. 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube shut down, leaving over 5,000 unemployed. The closure of the mills brought a sudden collapse to the local economy, devastating the area.

“It broke everyone’s hearts. I couldn’t believe such a thing was possible,” Deborah Hammond, a friend of Buzzacco and Youngstown resident, said. “The mills were so prominent. They were so busy. They were so successful. For them to just close in one day, it didn’t seem real.”

“I was no longer working in the mills when they closed, but believe me, it took me a while to come to terms with them closing,” Buzzacco said. “I put so much sweat, energy and time into those mills, it was hard to get over.”

The legacy of the steel mills live on today. At Stambaugh Stadium, home to the Youngstown State University football team, the whistle that the steel mills used to announce the changing of shifts is used to celebrate the team and the city. Whenever the team scores, takes the field or forces a fourth down, the whistle blows, a solemn reminder of what the city once had.

“It gave me chills the first time I heard it,” Buzzacco said. “I had a flashback to working in the furnace, that whistle was so loud and so prominent. Getting to hear it again was pretty remarkable.”