Victor Storino, who goes by “Vic,” was born in Calabria, the toe of Italy. Following his father and sister, he and his brother came to the United States in 1958 to find work on Chicago’s East Side. He moved in with his father, he says, and if he hadn’t, he “would have been deadbeat,” unable to make enough to support himself on the minimum wage. After a short stint at Wisconsin Steel, Vic joined Republic Steel in 1961, where he would work until the plant shut down in 2002. . In that time, he served three terms as president of Local 1033, a chapter of United Steelworkers of America, and learned English in night classes. Since then he’s been heavily involved with the South Chicago chapter of SOAR, the retirees’ branch of United Steelworkers. We speak after the chapter’s monthly meeting, in a back room at Memorial Hall, 117th Street and Avenue O. The hall, once the permanent home of Local 1033, is now a United Methodist Church; the lot across the street, once home to Republic Steel, is now an empty field.
We would like to see the world change more for the people. Justice, that’s what we’re for. Justice. Not for the Koch brothers—they buy justice, and we cannot buy justice. But if the people wake up, you buy justice at the polling place. But people don’t vote. And people that you give a few dollars to, they might vote for you. That’s unfortunate, but that’s how it works.
I do believe that if the people really get involved, understand the government, they will make the legislature do things the right way—not for big business. But…many people, they don’t think about others. They say, “How well am I living? How will it benefit me?” But they don’t think about the guy who is on welfare, who is working for Burger King or McDonald’s, that they don’t get no insurance, that they don’t get no benefits, except the minimum wage. They don’t think about it. The only thing is how much money am I going to save, if I go eat over there. The same thing if they go shop in a store—they don’t care about if it’s American-made or not.
When I first got at the mill, at Wisconsin Steel, I got put into what they call “floating gang.” Floating gang means that you go at the clock house, and look at the schedule, and they tell you where you’re going to work every day. You don’t have a permanent department. You could work one day-turn, one three-to-eleven, one midnight, or you could work two day-turn, two three-to-eleven, or one midnight in a week. Seven to three is a day turn. Three to eleven is afternoon shift. And midnight shift is from eleven to seven in the morning. So you could work all three shifts in one week—and I did that for about four months.
And then they put me in a department called “coke plant.” The coke plant was the worst job I had in my life. First you’re there as a laborer, and then they assign you to a job. And mostly, when you’re a newcomer, the jobs that opened up nobody wanted. They assigned me to be a lidman, where you go and pop the battery—it’s like a sewer lid. Before they pushed the coke out you had to go there and crack them open, see; they have to open up so that the steam and all that dust and flame would go out. And I did that for about three and a half months, but I got sick. You know, I couldn’t eat or sleep.
So I went down to the manager’s office and I told him, “Look,” I said, “if you have something else for me to do,” I said, “otherwise I gotta quit this.” My system couldn’t take it. And he said “Yeah, I’ll see what I can do for you.” So he called me into the office the next day and he said, “Well, I can’t give you the best job but I’ll put you in the yard department. Mostly it’s outside—like cutting the grass, cleaning up, stuff like that. But still, it’s not a good job.”
I worked until they laid me off, in March of 1960. Wisconsin Steel didn’t need that many people anymore, so they cut down on their workforce and I was let go. That’s when I got hired across the street, at Republic Steel.
I started as a laborer, in production. It was a wire mill, producing wires and stuff like that. I learned all the jobs but I didn’t like that. I wasn’t making any money. I got assigned to the most undesirable job: cleanup. Oh, man…your clothes sometimes were so greasy that you couldn’t take them home, you just throw them in a garbage can because of the grease. But I always wanted to do better for myself.
I went to another department, and I worked with them for about four years, where they treat the steel, the timber. You want it hard, soft. They put it in the furnace and they allow it to stay in there so long, so they can give it the strength that you want. But then I didn’t like that either, so I went to the mechanical department, and that’s what I stayed in most of the times. Then I got involved in the union. A lot—a lot—of hard work.
The union negotiates a contract. And the company, the supervisors, just don’t want to abide by those rules. They’re the boss: “I call the shots.”. And in theory that’s true, because he tells you to do a job, and even if it’s not your job, you’ve got to do it and then protest later. Now, if I’m a supervisor and I want to make it harder on you, what am I gonna do? I’ll assign you a job that’s not yours, and you don’t even know how to do the work—but if you don’t wanna get sent home, you do it. And a lot of people get hurt because of that.
That’s when the union comes in: they try to enforce the safety, so that you have to be trained on the job before you were even assigned to one. They can’t just plug you from here and put you over here—no, no, no. And then the boss, if he had to call you, he could say, “I called you, you were not home.” At the time there were no answering machines, see. Or they’ll tell you your wife doesn’t speak English. That’s what my foreman said one time. I said, “What?” “Oh, your wife couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t leave you a message.” I say, “I’m surprised at you. You tell me that you’re a Christian man, right? And if you believe in Christianity you don’t believe in lying.”
Was working at the mill dangerous?
Unless you work in the steel industry, you would not understand what goes on in the steel industry. The rigger shop—the riggers is one of the most dangerous professions in the industry because we used to work with an overhead crane, and you go up there to change a motor but the steel goes underneath you and all the heat comes up. But it was interesting. Every day you do a different type of work, talk to different people. It was nice. I liked it.
You were working at the mill, in the mechanical division, until you retired?
Until I was sixty-one and a half. When the mills started shutting down, departments like the melt shop, the blast furnace—where you put all the iron ore, and then the lava comes out when it’s cooked—they were no longer there, and we did not have the electric furnace anymore. We didn’t have the soaking pits where you make the steel and you put them in the forms, and that becomes the ingot, then you pull out from the ingot and you put them in this pit, where there’s fire, and you cook them in a certain temperature then they go to the roll line and you make the size that you want, and it’s all heat and gas and dust; and at the end we just did one furnace and it wasn’t that much. So it was easier at the end. When I got hired I think there were about 4,000 employees, just union people. In total, between union people and supervisors and nonunion people, the height of employment was 7,700. And then it started going down and down. When we shut down we had 190 people.
When the plant closed, did most people move out of the neighborhood?
Some are still over here, in the neighborhood. Some, they found work at the mill in Indiana. Some are already dead. People move around, they go where they can find a job. You have to make a living. I was at an age where I could take my Social Security. I was almost sixty-two then. My house was paid, and whatever few dollars I get I pay taxes, electricity…but I’ve been involved with activities like this, marches, stuff like that.
I was the last president of the Local 1033, which was organized right after the massacre. [The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which ten Republic steelworkers, striking to protest the mill’s refusal to recognize the union, were shot and killed by police.] I was elected three terms. When they were having the big demonstration over in Wisconsin [in 2011, to protest legislation that would limit collective bargaining and cut funding to public employees], I was there a few times. When they were fighting about Right to Work at the Indiana legislature, I was there about six times.
And you’ve met with legislators in Springfield as well, right?
I went to talk to one, they said, “You’re not my constituency.” “I know. But how do you get paid? My tax dollar, right? I pay tax dollars, so I’m paying you.” You should have seen that guy’s face. [Laughs.] He said directly, “Yeah…you pay me.” Now you listen.
What I’m doing right now I’m doing because I want to do. I was in this morning at eight o’clock. I put it together. I don’t get paid for that. But I do it because I feel like they gave me education, they paid for my education; because when I was working there every time I went out to school they paid me like I would be working—I would get wages, plus they’d pay for my tuition, my transportation, my food. The money came from dues that people pay.
I feel that steelworkers should have somewhere they can go if there is anything that will help. There should be somebody there that helps them find some kind of answer.
One guy called me from Mexico. When the plant shut down he had many years before he retired—he was young—and he went back to Mexico. His friend told him, “Call Victor, if there’s something you can get he will find out for you,” and he called me. I asked the question that I need the information. I think he had twelve years’ service when he left; he was entitled to his pension. Now if I wasn’t here to call he probably would have—well, he would’ve lost out.