The steelworker’s son was in graduate school when he got the news. His father, who was a retired pipe fitter and millwright, had pain in his back. The doctors found black spots on his kidneys and lungs, and thought it might be cancer.

So the son, Bob Bruno, left New York University and went home to Struthers, Ohio, near beleaguered Youngstown, once home to three major steel mills. He realized he didn’t really know his quiet 64-year-old father, and might not have much time to find out about him. “I got a cassette recorder and tape,” says Bruno, “and pretty much said, ‘Dad, tell me about your life.'”

His father turned out to be fine, but Bruno went on to interview his neighbors, friends, and coworkers–75 in all–who were retired and living in close-knit communities in and around Youngstown. According to his political science studies, socioeconomic class didn’t matter any more in the United States; thanks to the boom years of the 1950s, virtually everyone was middle-class. His interviews showed him otherwise–that the steelworkers’ activities and attitudes were rooted in working-class culture. The retirees had prayed, partied, bowled, picnicked, golfed, and played cards together, helped one another build additions to their homes, coached and cheered their children’s sports teams. They had financial uncertainty in common, as well as a strong sense of community, family, and solidarity. They had stuck together and struck together–Bruno remembers the 1959 United Steelworkers of America strike, when his only Christmas present, a red toy truck, came from the union.

It was the late 80s when he started asking questions, and 1999 when his book, Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown, was published. Now 46, he’s tenured, an associate professor in the Chicago Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois.

There are about 30 union steelworkers left in Youngstown, says Bruno. That’s down from about 23,000 in the late 50s and early 60s. At Youngstown State University, the Center for Working-Class Studies, which was begun in 1996, sponsors biennial conferences and has helped put working-class studies on the academic map. The Youngstown center inspired Bruno and another steelworker’s son-turned-academic, Jack Metzgar of Roosevelt University, to put out a call for a similar center in Chicago, and the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies came into being last year.

Bruno and UIC assistant professor Jamie Owen Daniel, the granddaughter of a copper miner, founded the center with seed money from local unions, support from local universities, and a loose purpose: to make class visible. “We’re learning by doing what our mission is,” says Daniel. What’s clear, she says, is that they’re “trying to get more information and material about class and working people into our teaching and also trying to figure out ways to bring more public attention to the fact that everyone isn’t middle-class.”

What is “working-class”? Members of the center’s steering committee differ on the definition, says Daniel, but agree that it’s important to discuss class. “It’s a difference in one’s relation to one’s labor and the amount of control one exercises over one’s labor, and how that labor is valued in the rest of society.”

This academic year the center has sponsored a lecture at DePaul University on the white working-class vote; the Chicago stop of “Unseen America,” a traveling exhibit of 40 black-and-white photographs of and by New York City workers; and two upcoming events: a reading–“Writing Labor, Writing Class”–and a workshop on popular education and class studies for high school and university instructors and union leaders.

Daniel has organized the reading, which is on Friday, January 25, at 6:30 in Roosevelt University’s Gage Building, 18 S. Michigan, where “Unseen America” is on display. It’s free and open to the public. The more than a dozen participants include Bruno and Metzgar, who will read from their books; two contributors to The Heat: Steelworker Lives and Legends; and Daniel, reading poetry by Bertolt Brecht and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. For more information call the Chicago Labor Education Program office at 312-996-2491.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre Jackson.