‘City of Steel’ documentary screening sheds light on Pittsburgh’s industrial decline through steelworker narratives

It took Bruce Spiegel nearly seven years to complete his documentary, “City of Steel,” from 2015 until its premiere at the AMC Waterfront 22 in Homestead in 2022. Spiegel joined three former steelworkers for a screening and Q&A at the William Pitt Union on Monday to explore the decline of the Pittsburgh steel industry through the profound narratives of steelworkers. 

Bruce Spiegel, a former Pittsburgh native and the director of the film, set out to uncover the experiences of steelworkers from the Monongahela Valley. He said he drew upon the voice of the average steel mill worker. 

Spiegel’s film portrays the dangerous conditions that steelworkers faced in their workplace — yet steelworkers built a livelihood for themselves within the steel industry. When the effects of globalization hit the Monongahela Valley, the impact was devastating to workers whose livelihoods were dependent on the steel mills. Spiegel said these individual workers were the backbone of the documentary’s narrative. 

“I wanted to make a movie about the steel workers — not about the management of the steel workers, but about the everyday workers that worked in the mill. So that’s what you saw today in ‘City of Steel,’” Spiegel said. 

The documentary not only depicts the rise and fall of the steel industry, but also aims to understand the factors that led to it. Spiegel said he provided a comprehensive account of the social, economic and political forces that played significant roles in the industry’s decline. 

“I interviewed over 40 people to make the film while I was living in New York at the time. It took me about eight or 10 visits to come to New York to interview all these people,” Spiegel said. “And also I knew that the film was not complete unless I explained what happened in the last part of the film with the decline of steel. I knew the decline was happening but there was so much more to the film that I didn’t understand.”

Reflecting on the filmmaking process, Spiegel said each interview led him to connect with more sources. 

“When you make a film like this, you’re unrelenting. You follow every lead,” Spiegel said. 

Spiegel spoke about how people were open and willing to help him fully understand their experiences. 

“I worked on this film and I came in as a novice — I never was in a mill. People were so patient with me, so gracious with me, you know?” Spiegel said. “These people really had so much pride about their work, and they were really happy to have somebody actually explain what was going on in the steel business.” 

For former steelworkers, Pittsburgh has completely changed since the devastating decline of the steel industry. According to the documentary, unemployed steelworkers from Pittsburgh traveled to different parts of the country seeking work. The documentary notes that Pittsburgh’s economic struggles in the 1980s were arguably the biggest setback suffered by any region in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century. With globalization on the rise, 150,000 steelworkers were put out of work. 

When creating “City of Steel,” Spiegel wanted to highlight the industry decline’s impact on the lives of steel workers. Spiegel spoke about the necessity of a fresh perspective on the steel industry, given the abundance of media covering its manufacturing processes and history. 

“I wanted to make sure the telling of the decline of steel was on point with regards to Reagan and all the other people that had to do with the decline of steel. That was the important thing,” Spiegel said. “So it’s the rise of steel and it’s the decline of steel which are the two most important pieces of the movie.”

In his film, Spiegel also placed an emphasis on showcasing the efforts and struggles of minority groups during this period of Pittsburgh history. 

“You have to understand who they were. The film talks about the immigrants that came to the United States from Europe. It talks about the Black people that came up from the United States,” Spiegel said. “These were the people that came together who made steel, and that was the most important part of the story.” 

Mel Packer, a former Teamster, witnessed the collapse of the steel industry. Packer spoke about the Steelworkers Union and how it fell short in representing minority groups.

“The Steelworkers Union never fought for equality except for white workers — white male workers in particular,” Packer said. “It wasn’t until 1974 when there was a consent decree signed by the union and the company, because they were both complicit in racism, that allowed Black and women workers to finally bid on and get into the good-paying jobs at the mill. And of course, just a few years later, the mills shut down.”

Tony Novosel, a former steelworker and part-time Pitt instructor, recounted the unfair conditions minority groups faced working in the mills. 

“For years, Black Americans were kept in the lowest time jobs and, as if there was a bidding for jobs, they usually tried to get a white worker in and didn’t want Black workers on a gig, or didn’t put them in the skilled positions,” Novosel said. 

Novosel worked as a burner from the 1970s until about 1987. This job involved cutting scrap steel, which was then recycled and sent back to the large mills for reprocessing and reuse. This job was essential to Novosel’s livelihood and losing it meant losing a way of life.

“For me, that was a very important loss, in the sense of the loss, as a way of life and a loss of high-paying jobs in which people could send their kids off to college. The ability to work a job in a mill or something was gone,” Novosel said. 

Novosel also talked about the devastating effects the industry’s decline had on the individuals around him, including himself. Steelworkers no longer had the ability to sustain themselves and their families. 

“I know it’s glib, but I had known all my cousins. I grew up with my cousins, how many people nowadays grew up seeing their cousins on a regular basis,” Novosel said. “What happened apart from the loss of income and people losing their homes, as we talked about the sense of community, it basically broke up a way of life. And people meant everybody.”


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