Author Topic: The steel mill -- a local history Part 3  (Read 466 times)

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Tom Rubillo

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The steel mill -- a local history Part 3
« on: March 25, 2022, 07:12:04 PM »
                                                                                                                  The dust hits the fan

    Almost immediately after the steel mill went into full operation, smoke, soot and dust belched out of its furnace.  Heavily polluted water used to cool steel and slag drained into the drainage ditch cutting through the mill and, into the Sampit River.  Rain water falling on other parts of the property not serviced by the ditch drained into the river too.  Flooding on Front Street followed shortly thereafter.  The ditch, it seemed, could not handle the same volume of water as the old creek bed.  A lawsuit by the city followed.  It was settled by payment of $25,000, but without requiring further remediation.  Several "releases" from liability were signed, most of which excused responsibility for future as well as past damage.  This remarkable (and generally unheard of) release from future damage was omitted from one of the releases, a fact that would prove significant years later.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

     According to a family friend, the mayor at that time mused that the city's decision to allow Korf to locate his heavy industry in the center of town had been too hasty and a very big and bad mistake.  But by then, it was too late.  All of Georgetown has lived with the consequences of that decision, both good and bad, ever since.

                                                                                                                The great Communist conspiracy

     As these events were unfolding, representatives of the United Steelworkers of America arrived in town.  Their aim was to organize hourly employees and push for higher wages, increased benefits and better working conditions.  They were not warmly welcomed by either mill management or the local "political elite."

     Korf resisted unionization but did not, of course, have the final say.  Pursuant to federal labor law, an election had to be conducted in which all hourly workers were provided a free and fair opportunity to vote.  During the campaign preceding that vote those favoring the union set up picket lines.  Tempers flared.  There was a great deal of arguing and some violence.  Outside law enforcement was called in.  There was more violence.  Injuries resulted, some quite serious.  Politicians, led by Senator Strom Thurmond, railed against the union and those picketing in favor of it.  Baton swinging law enforcement officers came to be derisively called "Strom Troopers" by some.  They were cheered on by others.

     Korf kept resisting.  The Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the South Christian Leadership Conference came to town to support the workers.  The Sheriff reportedly went to the motel where Abernathy had checked in and said that local law enforcement could not (or would not) guarantee the Reverend's safety.  Occurring within recent memory of the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Abernathy abruptly left town.

     All of these events were widely reported in the national news media.  The Georgetown Times, on the other hand, blacked out all news of what was occurring just down the street.  The New York Times carried the entire story.  There is also a lengthy report from the steelworkers' newspaper hanging on the wall of the local union hall. Those interested in more details can consult those sources.

     In this midst of all this controversy and chaos, the national office of the steelworkers' union contacted its counterpart in West Germany and asked their union brothers to put pressure on Korf to acknowledge the legitimacy of Georgetown local.  The West Germans agreed to help and organized demonstrations in that country.  Senator Thurmond, among others, pointed to this cooperation between the unions as being proof that labor unions were nothing more than a part of the international communist conspiracy aimed at toppling the free enterprise system.  His red baiting did not work.  Neither did his so-called international communist conspiracy.  Georgetown was not taken over by communists.  The free enterprise system remained intact and, in fact, thrived thereafter despite Korf's eventual capitulation and recognition of the United Steelworkers of America as the legitimate bargaining agent for hourly works at the Georgetown mill.  Negotiations followed.  A labor/management agreement was hammed out.  Peace was restored.  Steelworkers went back to work.