“I’m an ingot buggy operator in a billet department. I got bumped out on Christmas Day. Boy! That was some Christmas!” Harry, a tall, slim Negro, smiled wryly and shifted his position on the car fender against which he was leaning. It was an unseasonably hot day toward the end of April. Since early morning the sun had warmed the concrete outside the Gary State Employment Office. Over on Broadway, Gary’s main street, people from the world of business and commerce perspired in their winter clothing when they emerged from the air-conditioned stores and offices. But Harry and most of the others passing in and out of the building where they came for their unemployment compensation checks, dressed in the year-round cheap shirts and twill or denim trousers of the millhand, had simply left their jackets at home and rolled up their sleeves.

“I got two kids in school,” Harry continued; there was no humor, in spite of the smile, in his thin face with its high cheekbones and hooked nose. “They come first. Almost all the unemployment benefits have gone for food and their clothes, ’ceptin’ what’s needed for payin’ my house loan. I got a GI loan last year before I could see what was goin’ to happen. I got to pay seventy-five bucks a month on that, and we just can’t cut there. I’ve been getting sixty-two seventy-five a week with the supplement benefit. It’s just always a tight squeeze day after day and week after week.”

Although out of work for almost four months, he had not gone too far afield in search of new employment. Where else in the area was there to go? “I got some friends in Chicago,” he explained, motioning vaguely toward the northwest, “and it sounds as if things is bad there, too. It just doesn’t seem like it’d be worth trying some other place. But something sure needs to be done.”

That attitude was widespread among the workers with whom we spoke. They had ceased to be hopeful; a “pick-up” had been promised for February, for March, for April—yet May had come and employment was still dropping. But no one was very angry, or so it seemed. With close to 15 per cent of the city’s work force unemployed, with a third of those still working in the mills on short time—three days, four days a week—no one was agitating, there were no intemperate speeches or emotional outbursts against “the system.” Most of the unemployed steel workers had been “skinning by” on their newly supplemented unemployment compensation, some of them also drawing upon savings of several hundred dollars, others picking up odd jobs here and there. Under the surface there might be fear, anxiety, tension, even hatred; but the surface remained calm.

Except for the long lines which fill the State Employment Office each day, there are few obvious signs of anything amiss in Gary. There are no soup kitchens, no squads of dirty and disreputable looking depression drifters wandering up from the railroad yards. The stores seem moderately busy, though it is hard to tell how many people are “just looking,” and sometimes a big department store will display an almost uncanny emptiness during what should be a busy time.

If there is one pervasive symptom of the economic situation, it is the almost compulsive way in which people keep referring to the depression of the 30’s. Whether they are trying to prove that things are not so bad, or to predict that things will get much worse, people in Gary, whatever their work or station, seem called upon to talk about “those days.” A sandy-haired fellow, complete with duck-cut and levis, displayed both his youth and his relatively recent rural provenance by asking a group of idlers with whom he stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, “What’s this here ‘depreshun’ these old coots keep talkin’ about? Are we goin’ to have another’n?” One of the “old coots,” a man about fifty-five or sixty and built for survival, replied sharply: “I’ll tell ya what we’re atalkin’ about! You’re too much of a tadpole, kid, to remember. We didn’t have nuttin’ in those days, nuttin’, nuttin’ to eat. Nuttin’. That’s the way it always is in a depression. Never really got out of it. Never really did.”

Meanwhile, only a few hours before and a few blocks away, there had taken place the opening of Gary’s latest pride and joy, a huge new carport. A small crowd gathered to watch the mayor cut the tape, to hear a high school band play, to cheer and occasionally heckle the local politicians as they were introduced, to receive the free miniature orchids distributed by the Downtown Merchants Association in honor of the occasion. The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Jorgen Anderson, spoke of progress and “the magnificent edifice here constructed.” Mayor Mandich and City Controller Chacharis reminded the small audience witnessing the ceremony and the large one listening on the local radio that this was just part of their administration’s plans for “a greater Gary.” No one said a word about recession, unemployment, or the plight of the mill-hands, without whose continued purchases in downtown stores a new parking area would hardly be necessary.

So far the optimists, who generally belong to the middle and upper classes, have set the tone of the response to the recession in Gary. But fear boils just under the surface, and there are those who wonder how long the mood-engineers can succeed if the still awaited upturn doesn’t soon arrive. In any case, some things have already happened to the citizens of this steel community which may leave it a somewhat different place even when furnaces now silent and dark again blast smoke and flame into the skies along the lake front.



A friend of Harry’s, also tall but much heftier, with just the beginning of a paunch, joined the conversation outside the employment office: “You know, you get used to living according to your salary. Now we ain’t starving or anything like that, but it’s sure hard. It means no recreation at all. You can’t go out. There’s nothing to do. I’d like to spend some time improving the house, but I can’t buy materials. You sure have to be mentally sound at a time like this. It’d be awful easy to crack up. If it keeps on much longer some of us are going to have a hard time to keep from going to pieces.”

He propped himself against a parking meter and continued in the soft monotone that apparently was his habitual speech. “It seems that there isn’t hardly anything that doesn’t cost money. At first I spent a lot of time watching TV, but now you hate to turn it on ’cause you’re trying to cut down on electricity. Maybe I can get something on construction this summer, but there’ll be a hundred guys for every job. I’ll soon be out fishing, too, and every fish I catch or vegetable I raise in my garden is off the food bill.”

To which Harry added, with obvious bitterness, “And if we don’t get back soon all your eatin’ may be outa your garden and the river!”

Here among these mill-hands one encounters the reality of the recession. It of course dominates the lives of those who have been laid off or put on short time, but concern for the future makes the recession a pervasive, though not always conscious, element in the lives of those who continue to work five days a week. Gossip reports that men with over ten years’ seniority have been laid off. One short, balding man, waiting in a car for friends to move through the “thirty-three a week line,” feared that he would soon be joining them. “I’ve worked at the open hearth for eleven years,” he told us.

Because those with the least seniority are laid off first, the most recent arrivals to Gary—Negroes, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, “hillbillies”—and the youngest members of the work force generally, have so far borne the brunt of the cutbacks. Some who settled in the area within the past year or two have gone back home—to Kentucky, to Mississippi, even to Mexico—to weather the economic storm with their families, often farm folk to whom they had been sending money. One group of five from the same town in Tennessee take turns driving each other back to Gary once a week to pick up their unemployment compensation.

Most of those laid off have no such ingenious arrangements. One man from Kentucky, who had been out for five months, told us: “I came here because the mines where I worked closed down. Relatives, friends, and the like in Gary asked me to come here where jobs were regular. So here I am—no job, a hundred dollars a month for rent, and then there’s the gas bills, groceries. Kids in school—I can’t even pay for book rentals. I’m supposed to do all this on a lousy thirty-three bucks a week! My ‘sub’ is all messed up. I’ve not been able to see through that. I’m just falling back all the time, every week.”

The Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Program, which most workers simply call “sub,” was negotiated by the United Steel-workers as part of its last contract with the industry. It is one of the best ever hammered out by organized labor. Although extremely complicated in some of its procedures, it provides in essence for an integrated program of compensation for the unemployed worker in which payments from company-financed funds, along with the regular thirty-three dollars a week for twenty weeks from the state, give him the equivalent of 65 per cent of his “after-taxes, straight-time weekly wage.” Such an amount makes “subsistence” a feasible idea for the worker who has been laid off.

However, the Indiana General Assembly, in an exuberantly anti-labor mood, not only passed a “right-to-work” bill but also legislated against the establishment of this integrated program. It did so with the consent of Governor Harold Handley, who had attracted many labor votes as a Republican “who understands the needs of organized labor.” After the decision of the legislators, the union and the steel companies agreed by negotiation and through arbitration to “phase” the payments so that the worker could draw state compensation of thirty-three dollars a week for three weeks in a month, and then collect all he had coming from “sub” on the fourth, skipping his state payment that week. While diminishing the monthly payment by thirty-three dollars, this served to “stretch out” the state unemployment compensation payments. But then Indiana’s Attorney General, Ed Steers, Jr., who is part of the powerful right-wing Republican group in Indiana, ruled that this procedure was not legal. Cases have been appealed to the review board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, and will probably go to court. It will be an interesting if unusual spectacle to see the United States Steel Company and the United Steel-workers of America filing briefs on the same side of a case.



Many in Gary doubt that the style of optimism which the city’s leaders have deemed it appropriate to adopt can be sustained if the spendable income of the unemployed takes a sharp drop. For an increasing number of millhands, state unemployment compensation itself is running out. The township relief load has skyrocketed; in six months the amount paid out doubled and the number of families receiving such aid more than quadrupled. Even Inland Steel, a remarkably strong and flexible firm located in nearby Indiana Harbor but drawing some of its employees from Gary, had finally begun large-scale layoffs just before we talked with the people in Gary. American Bridge, which turns out structural materials, was still running strong, but it stood alone in the steel industry as a justification for optimism. For the rest, there were only the vaguest sorts of predictions of an upturn “early this fall.”

Nor will the end of the school year lend any great encouragement to the sanguine attitude that the city leaders wish to encourage. The working class youth of the Gary area have become accustomed to walking out of high school and into a job at the mills. They could look forward to expensive dates, cars of their own, and—if they wanted them—relatively early marriages. Although some local educators saw the mills as a lure which pulled many capable youths away from college, for substantial numbers the summertime job in the plant represented the difference between going on for more education or giving up the idea as “just a dream.” A few alarmists see an upsurge in “juvenile delinquency” as a probable result of the sudden increment of young idle hands in the community. But no one worries about this too much since the summer season’s pleasures—swimming, loafing, fishing, dating—should keep the youth busy, though the addition of the high school graduates to the ranks of the already bored young men who have been laid off may have an explosive potential.

This youngest contingent in the swelling ranks of the Gary unemployed may be suffering some shock, as well as getting some vague visceral insight into the “depression psychosis” of their parents, but they are not the hardest hit. “The ones I feel sorriest for,” a long-time union officer told us, “are the fellows with just a few years’ seniority. They’re sick. You get the young married ones who purchased houses and cars and a lot of the things to make life more bearable. I don’t think you could rightfully say that many of them went overboard. Why should they lose anything because of a man-made blunder?”

One of these, a stocky carrot-top appropriately called Red, had worked at the Big Mill for nearly four years—in the same department as his father. He can recall from childhood the almost worshipful image his parents had of Franklin Roosevelt just before American involvement in World War II. Red, with a wife and one child, was laid off in December. “We have to pay sixty-five bucks a month rent for a little flat that ain’t worth it, but if the ‘sub’ stops I’ll be out on the street.” For him, too, the greatest strain so far has been the lack of anything to do, on top of the tensions of financial insecurity. “I don’t even have a house to work on,” he explained, “so I haven’t been doing a damn thing. To tell you the truth, I just loaf. I’ve been coming downtown to loaf because it got kind of bad at home for me to be laying around there all the time. That’s all life has been for me the past months—just time on my hands.”

Which is harder on a marriage—a long strike or the recession—is a moot point in Gary. Sometimes the womenfolk grow angry with the men for staving out on a long strike, and during a strike there is no unemployment compensation. On the other hand, neither is there the inevitable comparison with those still at work in the mills, nor the fear that idleness could last on and on and on. During a strike there is at least the feeling that something may be gained from the loss of work and pay. Now there are no rallies, no symbols to give meaning to the situation, no speeches to explain what it’s all about. All the slogans that you hear in Gary are of the “You Auto Buy Now!” variety. The tension and temperature mount together as Gary moves toward the beginning, in midsummer, of its second six months of recession.



On the same street as the State Employment Office, within a few blocks of it, are many of Gary’s automobile dealers. Although repossessions have increased, most of the unemployed workers who can’t meet their full payments are being “carried,” in the same way as during a strike—some of them for the interest alone. Dealers speak enthusiastically about the response to their “You Auto Buy” campaign, and there is no doubt that sales have increased. However, no one is offering any figures comparing sales with, say, the same months last year, or giving the facts on profits and employment in the local auto sales business. Indeed, no one in a position to do so has made any effort to develop a reliable portrait of Gary’s situation, without regard for the effect of the truth on local feelings and attitudes. Even the smaller businessmen seem to be following the lead of U.S. Steel in—as one of them put it—“sitting tight on information and not saying anything out loud.” A local newspaperman, more concerned with news than the public’s psyche, complained that not even his paper had obtained a “real, sober, and objective statistical job on what is happening in the Gary and Calumet regions.”

One reliable source indicated that delinquencies on loans for such items as automobiles, personal expenditures, and the like are up almost 100 per cent over last year, and delinquencies on mortgages are up over 25 per cent. Yet among the business and professional classes of Gary, except for those hardest hit by the decline in millhands’ purchasing power (such as those who own the “workingmen’s stores” south of the Wabash tracks) the recession has lacked personal involvement and meaning. As much as the workers tend to recollect the Great Depression, the businessmen anticipate a Great Future. The most enthusiastic example of this came from Robert R. Statham, manager of the governmental affairs and tax research department of the Chamber of Commerce: “Gary will work this out. It always has. It is the most important section of America. It is the hub of the nation. Because of this it has a great future. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway projects will be of great benefit to us all. Our population is increasing. Our business and our commercial activities are up. Gary will move up.”



From the relatively plush offices of the Chamber on the mezzanine of the Gary Hotel one looks out, mentally, upon a very different world than that viewed from the sidewalk outside the State Employment Office. Montgomery Ward broke ground last February for a new store building in the city. Humiston, Keeling and Company of Chicago only recently began a $1,500,000 project and investment on twenty acres of land at the southern end of the city. Many of the better retail outlets report surprisingly firm volume of sales, though this has been more true of soft goods such as clothing and foodstuffs than durables like furniture and household appliances.

Another businessman looked a block up the street from the Gary Hotel to the Gary National Bank for his economic weather-vane. “We’re in good shape!” he declared with the energetic and decisive air for which he is well known. “The Bank is in good shape. Nobody is about to make a run on that institution. It is solid and substantial. I’m sure they’re doing okay over at First Federal, too. Things have to get a lot, lot tougher before we lose confidence in the general business community of Gary!”

Indeed, many depositors, both employed millworkers and members of the business and salaried groups, have been increasing their savings deposits in spite of the “You Auto Buy” campaigns. Leslie Singer, a bright young economist at Indiana University’s Gary Center, asked a random sample of potential consumers what they would do with money “saved through tax cuts,” if such materialize. While forty cents of each dollar, on the average, would go for debt repayments, almost twenty-seven cents would be consigned to bank accounts or savings bonds. (Some would be held for later spending, and somewhat less than half of the twenty cents apportioned, on the average, for immediate spending would go for more and better food.)

There is some irony in this conservative, savings-oriented reaction of residents of the Gary area, especially among those who are mill workers. Many of the business and commercial leaders have traditionally had the stereotype of the worker as shiftless and improvident, catered to by a union which was willing to undermine individual initiative by freeing members from any incentive to save for the rainy days of illness and old age. But today the worker who eyes the stormy skies of the economy and decides to hang on to what he has got in the bank, and to “stash away” even more just in case Gary’s economic weather grows even worse, is undermining recovery. Nobody in Gary commercial circles preaches any longer that a “penny saved is a penny earned.”

Until very recently many of these businessmen, most of whom are diehard Republicans, associated the idea of “spending your way to prosperity” with FDR, the New Deal, and Lord Keynes. Today, as recession optimists, they preach the psychology and economy of consumership: dollars must move fast and be used many times during a business day even if they have to be given away, or leased away, or shot away, or loaned away, or dumped away—but best of all they should be spent away. A Gary banker put it quite succinctly when he remarked, “Ben Franklin is dead.” In the long run, this change in business ideology, if it persists, may be one of the most significant consequences of the recession.

Nevertheless, there is a minority of Gary business and commercial people who have doubts about the efficacy of what the manager of one large retail enterprise called “a kind of psychological pump-priming in the face of some depressing circumstances.” Tall, athletic, genial, with a personality that fairly bristles with ruggedness, he is not very pleased to find his Chamber of Commerce colleagues sounding, to him, like the man who once declaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” A young financier rejected outright all claims that the optimistic mood was based upon or had produced anything tangible. “Business?” he snorted. “It’s lousy! As a matter of fact, it stinks!” Even if his estimates approximate reality—that retail trade is down as much as 20 per cent along Broadway and in some stores “off Broadway” as much as 30 per cent—broadcasting such a view is considered poor taste at best, and at worst a sabotaging of the hopeful mood which is seen as the magic catalyst for producing recovery.



It was from several labor leaders, curiously enough, that we heard the sort of hard-headed “realism” that has usually been associated with businessmen. A union agent for one of the building trades crafts reminded us that the shortage of labor which had marked the Gary employment market until a year ago had forced many contractors to “go along with trouble-makers and nuisances” and to hold on to “men who had never learned their craft well and who weren’t really serious about their jobs.” Since seniority does not necessarily govern lay-offs in many of the trades, marginal and less desirable workers were now “getting their comeuppance.” Nor have some of the labor leaders liked the way in which Gary has been a magnet for migrants from Tennessee and Kentucky and states farther south. They claim that too many of these men look for easy pickings on the job market and easy relief during lulls in employment. Certain labor officials have even warned social welfare agencies, in the accents of old-fashioned capitalism, that they are pampering the ne’er-do-well and maintaining a floating population of undesirables by continuing to expand their services. These labor leaders are glad to see some of the more recent settlers in Gary head back home.

The impact of the recession in Gary on the AFL has been rather milder than on the CIO. The building trades, especially, look forward to a fairly good summer in spite of some decline in home-building. The salaried people and many of the business people are expected to go ahead, after perhaps some delay for worrying, with their construction plans. “After all,” one union leader pointed out, “a lot of these millhands use friends and relatives and their own time more than our people when it comes to building a house. Besides,” he added, “it’s not like it was back in the depression when I walked all the way into town from Glen Park to save a nickel or two. Now we have social security, supplemental unemployment benefits, state compensation funds, welfare and insurance programs. If these programs can keep millworkers and other workers buying, the building trades will do okay.” He never mentioned mood or psychology.

But the concern of the AFL leaders for the plight of the millhands seems most often that of the largely detached observer who is involved only indirectly. They do not have the feeling of the Steelworker leaders of having been “torpedoed” by the state legislature. On the other hand, the AFL group feels especially threatened by some of the potentialities of the “right-to-work” legislation. For both groups the recession, the punitive attitude of the state legislature, and the McClelland committee’s investigation of corruption in the unions have all somehow merged into a pattern of general hostility toward organized labor. Gary’s Teamsters are, understandably, especially sensitive and complain about the Senate committee “playing with stacked cards,” neglecting to investigate corruption on the side of management.



Almost in spite of themselves, certainly more because of the actions of Congress and the State Assembly and the economic situation than because of their own wishes and actions, the AFL and the CIO in Gary have been drawn a little closer together. Just as they share resentment against the local Chamber of Commerce for endorsing the “right-to-work” legislation, so they consider it hypocritical, if not ridiculous, for local merchants to ask workers to spend more in a time of declining employment. The recession consequences, direct and indirect, may be providing some of the leverage needed for achieving greater labor unity at the community level.

There is little doubt about the use organized labor will make of the recession during the forthcoming election campaigns. In private, some leaders suggest that the layoffs have had a “good educational effect on the rank and file.” More than one recalled to us how he had long predicted that it would take “another depression” to “shake old Ike off his pedestal.” In Gary today it is almost impossible to start an argument among millhands by attacking the President. No one will take his side. There is a widespread belief that the recession was deliberately created. The most charitable version is that “it got out of hand—it wasn’t supposed to be nearly so bad.”

But most of the labor leaders of Gary seem almost as far removed from the reality of the recession that we encountered on the sidewalk outside the employment office as the businessmen and merchants of Broadway. They, too, often seem to view it narrowly, from the standpoint of their organizational and political interests. Their concern is not so much for the unemployed individuals as for the consequences of unemployment for the union and its programs.

Perhaps this is inevitable at a time when “nobody’s starvin’,” as one unemployed steelworker remarked sarcastically. The unemployed and partly employed may suffer deeply from their anxieties and from the manifold psychological consequences of not having a job, but such effects lack the visibility of physical deprivation. No one can measure what has been lost from the future of both individuals and the community. As Red put it, “I wouldn’t say that this has destroyed my future in any way. Not so far. Of course, my bank account is all gone and so are any big plans I had for this year or next.”

For Red or Harry the problems of getting by each succeeding week preclude much concern over “next year.” “Being without work,” Harry told us when we were ready to leave, “gives a man too much time to think and hope. It’s gotten so I hope too damn little and think too damn much!” We all laughed, then shook hands and said our goodbyes. When we glanced back from the corner, Harry was still leaning against the fender of the car.



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