To the editors:
David Moberg's review of Rusted Dreams [April 10] calls attention to strengths and weaknesses of Bensman and Lynch's study of steel and South Chicago.
I worked at U.S. Steel South Works and was active in its Unemployed Committee. My neighbor, Frank Lumpkin, is leader of the Wisconsin Steelworkers Save Our Jobs Committee, and I have actively followed their efforts. My perspective, as a participant in these struggles, is that I feel the book does a number of disservices.
By focusing on South Chicago's mostly white areas, Bensman and Lynch avoid discussion of these issues as they were experienced in the black community. It is simply assumed that, unlike Vrdolyak's east side, black working-class communities have no institutions that have sought to deal with the crisis; or, that there are not black families that have worked in the steel mills for generations.
In other words, if you are white, you are "working-class" in a way that blacks somehow are not. This tunnel vision sharply skews the actual unfolding of events.
Secondly, Bensman and Lynch give short shrift to the fight-back efforts of the workers themselves. Considerable attention is given to east-side charitable and social-service organizations -- many all white. The amazing efforts of Local 65's efforts are mainly lost. Bensman couldn't even get the head of the Unemployed Committee right. It was a black steelworker, Hosea Ivy, with many years' service. Ike Mezo, who performed yeoman service as head of the Food Committee, is mistakenly identified as head of the committee.
Local 65's committee was, for the most part, black and Hispanic. Some of the leaders and activists were known communists. This information, while widely known, appears to justify excising these people and their actions from the record.
Third, the Wisconsin Steelworkers and the Local 65 Unemployed Committees put forth a number of ideas for the preservation of the steel industry. High on the list is nationalization of steel. Little is said about the ideas that the workers themselves, over a long process, developed. Obviously, these ideas could not compete in profundity with a Rutgers professor.
Fourth, I lived most of my life in Appalachia. I saw a lot of people like Bensman and Lynch come in to "uplift" us poor hillbillies. They took a lot of notes, garnered a lot of government grants, went back north where they wrote books and got tenure. We got food stamps.
There is a lot of good information in Rusted Dreams. But as a realistic picture of the lives of Chicago steelworkers, it does not ring true.