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Pittsburgh's old economy: Bok tells story of Aliquippa Works through steelworkers' eyes

Friday, January 14, 2000

By Len Boselovic, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every month or so they come together, this aging band of brothers who toiled at the Aliquippa Works of Jones & Laughlin Steel.

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The retired mill hands swap stories about the unbearable heat and all-encompassing filth, about the time so-and-so was crushed to death or drowned in a tank of hot tar, and about the United Steelworkers union's struggle for worker rights.

Like colleagues at other mills long gone, these steelworkers boast they worked in "the finest, most modern steel mill in the world." More than a decade after LTV Corp. closed most of the industrial Gothic complex, which stretched for miles along the Ohio River, it takes little to awaken their outrage over being sold down the river by the bankrupt steel producer.

But meetings of the Aliquippa chapter of the USW's Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees aren't as loud as they used to be. Nor are they as well attended.

"It's falling apart because they're all dying," laments chapter President Marion Prajsner, 71.

And as they die, one by one, so does a piece of history. It's not something the living like to think about.

"I think it's good for the kids coming up to know what we went through, what went on down there," says George Ferezan, who worked in the tin mill for 46 years before retiring in 1990.

Dr. Rade Vukmir feels the same.

The son of a J&L rigger who was killed at the Aliquippa Works in 1973, Vukmir has written "The Mill," published by University Press of America. The book is based on the memories of Prajsner, Ferezan and about 50 other steelworkers who worked at the mill, which in its heyday employed more than 15,000. Vukmir, a 39-year-old critical-care physician, asked the steelworkers a standard set of questions, then let them speak their piece.

"I thought it was crucial to preserve their presentation of it," says Vukmir. "We left a lot of the language as it was. There was very little editing of substantive text."

Loose editing saps some of the vitality from Vukmir's effort. The steelworkers' rambling accounts are hard to follow, contain too many extraneous thoughts and words.

But sit down with these men, who spent nearly half their lives in the belly of Big Steel, and you'll appreciate the story they have to tell.

Their language may be crude at times, their thinking politically incorrect. Then again, the story of these men who worked so the next generation would be better off is far removed from today's "Me" generation.

Joe Perriello signed on in the South Mill's machine shop in 1933, earning 30 cents an hour. He had tried to get a job there earlier, but when the foreman asked him where he was from, Perriello answered "Aliquippa."

That wasn't a good answer. He says J&L wasn't hiring locals because they were believed to be union sympathizers. So the next time Perriello applied, he said he was from West Virginia, where he was born.

"I got hired, boom, just like that," says Perriello, 85 and nearly blind. He retired in 1977.

As a 19-year-old in the mill, Perriello remembers being told by a foreman to quit early on Election Day, get cleaned up, vote and go home. When the perplexed teen told a colleague he wasn't old enough to vote, a steelworker told him "Shut up and go! You know how to vote."

Perriello was taken to a precinct other than his own, where he discovered he was a registered Republican.

"That was the primary. The general [elections] were the same thing," Perriello recalls. "Election Day, everybody worked."

Bob Jurasko wonders sometimes how he ever came out alive. Jurasko, 61, worked in the welded tube mill from 1959 until it closed in 1985. He says you had to take death for granted when you walked into the Aliquippa Works. Some men were carried out, like the steelworker who burned to death in front of Jurasko when an hydraulic line burst.

"It was something that I couldn't cope with for a long time," says Jurasko, who works for the Hopewell Joint School Employees Credit Union.

Yes, the money was good, Jurasko says. Local newspapers always published stories about J&L workers getting their vacation pay and what that meant for Franklin Avenue merchants.

"But there were a lot of guys that didn't have two nickels to rub together," he says.

Some of these men, in Perriello's words, "drew three X's" on paydays. They were so indebted to the company store and for company housing that there was nothing left in their paychecks once those payments were made. On their pay stubs, there were Xs where a dollar sign and numbers were supposed to be.

There are many more stories the steelworkers told Vukmir, tales of discrimination against blacks and immigrants, of 10-cent beers at Labor Day celebrations, and of the bitter end, when LTV shut everything but the tin mill and filed for bankruptcy.

Prajsner and his buddies would like future generations to remember those stories. They're grateful to Vukmir for preserving them.

"This book really tells all. It brings it out to our kids at home," Jurasko says.

Dr. Rade Vukmir and retired J&L/LTV steelworkers will discuss "The Mill" tomorrow at 1 p.m. at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. For information, call Ann Fortescue, 412-454-6393.

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