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Steel City exhibit chronicles Pueblo steelworkers’ historic strike

 Members of United Steelworkers Local Unions 2102 and 3267 and their allies rallied to put economic pressure on Oregon Steel and one of its financiers, Norwest Bank.
courtesy of History Colorado
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Members of United Steelworkers Local Unions 2102 and 3267 and their allies rallied to put economic pressure on Oregon Steel and one of its financiers, Norwest Bank.

A new exhibit from History Colorado at the El Pueblo History Museum chronicles the historic steelworkers strike that began in the early 1980s.

Over more than two decades, steelworkers and their families fought for labor rights, while the wider community came together to support them.

Zach Werkowitch, lead developer on the exhibit Steel City: 1980-2004, says the early 1980s was a time of tremendous change for the steel industry, with massive layoffs at the Pueblo steel mill, the city's largest employer.

"Between 1980 and 1984 the plant went from seven or eight thousand people to about nine hundred or a thousand people working there," said Werkowitch.

"So by the mid-eighties, the plant here was employing a fraction of what it had been employing five years or 10 years earlier."

Throughout two decades of turbulence, which included changes in ownership of the steel mill, strikers and their allies in the community fought for basic workers’ rights including pension security, higher wages, and safer working conditions.

Werkowitch says the labor activists in Pueblo inspired labor organizers across the country.

"Steelworkers from Pueblo, Joel Buchanan is one, they ended up going all over the country, eventually targeting, not just Oregon Steel, but Wells Fargo, which was the company credit card, to put economic pressure on the company," he said.

"Through numerous conversations and presentations at meetings, and all sorts of grassroots tactics, (they) got other union allies, universities, municipalities to withdraw tens of billions, I think $14 billion or something, from Wells Fargo as economic sanctions against Oregon Steel," said Werkowitch.

In 2004 the Pueblo steelworkers won the largest back-pay settlement in U.S. history.

The Steel City exhibit features photos, recordings and objects from people who worked at the steel mill.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Robert Lindgren