The Workers of Weirton Steel: Putting Catholic Social Teaching into Practice
A MODEL OF ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY
Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman was amazed to learn that all his life he had spoken prose. Similarly, workers at Weirton Steel, the nation’s largest employee-owned firm, might be surprised to learn that they are applying Catholic social teachings.
Weirton Steel, located in Weirton, West Virginia, a town of 25,000 located near the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders, is a company founded by John Weir in 1909. Its founding sparked the development of the town and continued to provide an economic base for the entire area even after its purchase by National Steel in 1929. Like many steel complexes, Weirton Steel faced a period of uncertainty because of aging facilities and declining profits, common afflictions of the U.S. steel industry. During the 1970s Weirton residents witnessed mill closings in nearby Pittsburgh, as well as more serious economic dislocation in Youngstown, Ohio, once a booming steel city, but one that had been hit by a series of mill closings. That phenomenon hit home in 1982, when National Steel officials deemed the situation in Weirton sufficiently severe to offer Weirton Steel’s 7,800 employees a choice: purchase and operate the facility yourselves or watch helplessly as National Steel closed down most of its Weirton operations and left all but 1,200 workers jobless. After much deliberation, Weirton Steel employees decided to accept an 18 percent pay cut and make other concessions, and to buy a steel company.
Since 1984, company employees, now 8,400, have owned the steel complex under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and have operated the facility profitably. At a time when steel mills have been closing around the nation, Weirton Steel has accumulated 12 consecutive profitable quarters, hired back some of its laid-off employees, and given its employees profit-sharing checks. Management and labor at Weirton Steel, as well as other observers, attribute this drastic reversal to the successful implementation of the ESOP. As Walter Bish, President of the Independent Steelworkers Union, phrased it, “What we thought of as something we had to do to save our jobs turned out to be a golden opportunity.”
This venture by Weirton Steel workers happened to coincide with the period in which the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was working on its pastoral letter on the economy, “Economic Justice for All,” which was intended to apply Catholic social teaching to the U.S. economy. When I interviewed Weirton Steel employees in 1984, when the fledgling ESOP was first testing its wings, and earlier this year, when the program had soared to its most recent heights, I found that neither labor nor management employees were very familiar with Catholic social teaching. Some employees in 1984, for example, remembered that newspaper advertisements sponsored by local Catholic parishes during the campaign for the ESOP had mentioned the affirmation of employee ownership by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, but they had not read the encyclical. This year those I talked with seemed only vaguely familiar with the U.S. bishops’ call for what might be termed “economic democracy” in their pastoral, though they agreed with it and saw its applicability to their situation.
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