- U.S. Steel and Gary, West Virginia: Corporate Paternalism in Appalachia
U.S. Steel Corporation’s early-twentieth-century drive to ensure access to high-carbon, low-sulfur coal created the town of Gary, West Virginia, a collective name for Gary itself and twelve or more satellite communities each linked to a U.S. Steel-owned mine in Gary Hollow. In his study, Ronald Garay, a Louisiana State University emeritus professor of mass communications and third-generation Gary native, seeks to tell two stories. In the first, he focuses on how decisions made by U.S. Steel executives affected Gary, and, in the second broader story, how government regulation, global competition, environmental concerns, technological change, and the diminished relevance of organized labor undermined the early-twentieth-century model of industrialization that prompted the creation of towns like Gary and “left [End Page 99] persons in America’s coalfields reeling” (xxi).
Garay argues that, from 1902 to 1950, business conditions “nurtured and sustained” the relationship between Gary and U.S. Steel (xx). Through its subsidiary, the United States Coal and Coke Company, U.S. Steel oversaw everything from Gary mining operations and police protection to the importation of eastern European and African American labor, and the planning and construction of civic, commercial, and residential structures. U.S. Steel continued to invest in Gary Hollow until 1950, and until the 1960s remained one of the nation’s largest coal producers. However, strikes in Gary in 1943 foreshadowed a changing relationship between Gary and U.S. Steel. After 1950, according to Garay, foreign competition, mini mills, labor agitation, and environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act forced U.S. Steel to reorganize and diversify because of the declining profitability of the steel industry in the United States. In 1969 U.S. Steel divested itself of municipal responsibility for Gary, a town already suffering from fluctuating employment, and over the subsequent decades reduced and finally ceased mining activity in Gary Hollow.
While admitting that other authors have already told the story of King Coal’s demise, Garay contends that the Gary, West Virginia, story offers the promise of a unique vista into a century-long negotiation between the people of Gary and their corporate benefactor. More importantly, Garay asserts that he seeks to understand “how and why that relationship came to an end” (xxii). In what often reads like a study of corporate decision-making rather than corporate paternalism, Garay argues convincingly that Gary’s fortunes were tied to those of U.S. Steel, and that factors affecting both coal and steel production led to executive decisions that resulted in Gary’s demise. However, he fails to produce an equally compelling argument that the relationship between U.S. Steel and the residents of Gary differed significantly from relationships between workers and owners in coal towns elsewhere. While Garay employs an impressive array of primary sources, he fails to use them impressively, accepting U.S. Steel documents and newspaper reports without due skepticism and brushing aside intriguing evidence that would seem to counter his rather uncritical portrait of life in Gary. Indeed, except for his personal reminiscences, his treatment of life in Gary remains shallow, impersonal, and unfulfilling. Too often and too readily, Garay accepts the premise that a lack of social upheaval, complaints, or mass protests in Gary signified Gary residents’ acceptance of conditions and corporate decisions. He leaves unexplored topics like labor unrest in Gary or the social and cultural assumptions behind executive decisions [End Page 100] that shaped the everyday lives of Gary residents. As a result, Garay’s story remains incomplete, his conclusions narrow, and his actors, both U.S. Steel executives and Gary residents, little more than passive observers of forces beyond their control.