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Milltown Days

For Abel to win the nomination at Fontana, the public relations pivot of the McDonald administration, would be a definite psychological victory.
John Herling[80]

After the turbulent, sometimes violent, transitions of the 1940s, Fontana settled down into the routines of a young milltown. The Korean War boom enlarged the Kaiser workforce by almost 50 per cent and stimulated a new immigration from the East that reinforced the social weight of traditional steelworker families. The company devoted new resources to organizing the leisure time of its employees, while the union took a more active role in the community. The complex craft subcultures of the plant intersected with ethnic self-organization to generate competing cliques and differential pathways for mobility. At the same time, the familiar sociology of plant-community interaction was overlaid by lifestyles peculiar to Fontana's Millerian heritage and its location on the borders of metropolitan Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert. Although locals continued to joke that Fontana was just Aliquippa with sunshine, it was evolving into a sui generis working-class community.

This is not to deny that there was a lot of Aliquippa (or Johnstown or East Pittsburgh) in Fontana. Mon Valley immigrants ended up as the dominant force in United Steel Workers Local 2869. Dino Papavero, for instance, who was president of the local in the early 1970s, moved out from Aliquippa in 1946 because his father was worried about a postwar slump at Jones and Laughlin. It was widely believed amongst Pennsylvania steel-workers that Kaiser, in booming California, was recession-proof. John Piazza—Papavero's vice-president and current leader of the Fontana School Board—first came to San Bernardino County (from Johnstown, PA) as one of Patton's "tank jockeys" training for the Sahara in the Mojave. While


hitchhiking Route 66 to the Hollywood USO he was intrigued by a billboard boasting of the opening of Kaiser Steel. After the war, he found himself trapped in an apparently hopeless cycle of layoffs and rehiring at Bethlehem which seemed to preclude any advancement up the seniority ladder. Together with other Johnstowners, he headed out to Fontana—ini-tially living in one of the converted chicken coops—because Kaiser advertised itself as a frontier of opportunity for younger workers.[81]

These young Mon Valley immigrants quickly discovered that mobility within the plant or union in Fontana, as in Aliquippa or Johnstown, depended upon the mobilization of ethnic and work-group loyalties. The oldest and most visible of local ethnicities were the Slovenes. Their community core—a group of Ohio coal miners who had amassed small savings—had come to Fontana in the 1920s as chicken ranchers, establishing a prosperous branch of the Slovene National Benevolent Society, a large meeting hall and retirement home. Some of their children worked in the mill. Although only informally organized, the "Roadrunners" from West Virginia and the Okies constituted distinctive subcultures within both the plant and the community. But it was the local Sons of Italy chapter—attracting streetwise and ambitious young steelworkers like Papavero and Piazza—that ultimately generated a whole cadre of union leaders during the 1960s and 1970s.

Although the Southern California District of the USW in the 1950s and early 1960s, under Director Charles Smith and his henchman Billy Brunton, was a loyalist stronghold of international president Donald McDonald, Local 2869 with its Mon Valley transplants became a hotbed of discontent. Many Kaiser workers resented Smith's and Brunton's proconsular powers and ability to bargain over their heads in a situation where Local 2869 was far and away the largest unit in the District. In 1957 the rank and file dramatically registered their dissent by electing Tom Flaherty, local spokesman for the national anti-McDonald movement (the Dues Protest Committee), as president of 2869. After several wildcat strikes, the Kaiser management demanded that McDonald intervene to force the local "to discharge its contractual obligations." Obligingly the international imposed an "administratorship" on 2869 and deposed Flaherty and his followers.[82]

Although "law and order" were now officially restored within Fontana by the international's police action, the opposition was simply driven underground. By 1963-64 the older dues protesters (led by Joe and Minnie Luksich) had been joined by younger workers embittered by the wage inequalities generated by the new "fruits of progress" plan. To rub salt in


rank-and-file wounds, the Committee of Nine who administered the plan virtually ignored Local 2869 and Fontana, preferring to conduct their deliberations in the more congenial setting of a Palm Springs resort. As a re-suit, "the situation deteriorated so badly in the summer of 1964 that the members picketed the union hall. Their signs read: 'USWA Unfair to Organized Labor' and 'Equal Pay for Equal Work.'" At this point, Ronald Bitoni, former chairman of the plant grievance committee, began to unify the different opposition factions around the national insurgency of I. W. Abel, a dissident official supported by Walter Reuther. In his history of the successful Abel campaign, John Herling described Fontana as both the "gem of McDonald's achievement in labor-management cooperation" and the Achilles heel of his power in the West. On election day, 9 February 1965, tens of thousands of pro-Abel steelworkers in the oppositional heartland of the Ohio and Monogahela valleys nervously watched to see how Fontana, two thousand miles away, would vote. Abel's commanding 2,782 to 1,965 victory within Local 2869 announced the end of the ancien régime .[83] But at the same time it warned of profound rank-and-file discontent with the "textbook" gains-sharing model. Within a few years many Kaiser unionists would be as alienated from the "reformist" administration of Abel as they had been from the absolutism of McDonald.

While Local 2869 was fighting to increase local control over the gains-sharing plan, the relationship between the company and the town was evolving in a very curious way. Despite the stereotype of being a Kaiser "company town," Fontana was no such thing. When Fontana incorporated in 1952, the mill was left outside the city limits in its own, low-tax "county island." Not contributing directly to the town's budget, Kaiser lacked the despotic fiscal clout that Eastern steelmakers conventionally exercised over their captive local governments. Nor did a majority of Kaiser management ever live in the Fontana area. Unlike Bethlehem or Johns-town, no corporate suburb or country-club district projected the social and political power of management into the community. Managers, instead, commuted from genteel redtile towns like Redlands, Riverside, and Ontario. The dominating presence in Fontana was, rather, the huge union hall on Sierra. Local merchants and professionals were left in relatively unmediated dependence upon the goodwill of their blue-collar customers and neighbors. Although never directly controlled by labor, Fontana government, as a result, tended to remain on the friendly side of the union.

Yet while eschewing direct control, the Company still played a ubiquitous role in communal life. The location of the mill, far from big city lights, stimulated the organization of leisure time around the workplace.


Kaiser's 1950s-60s personnel director, Vernon Peake, managed one of the most extensive corporate recreation programs west of the Mississippi. The internal structure of plant society was vividly reproduced in the composition of Kaiser's six bowling leagues during the kegling craze of the 1950s. While Hot Metal battled Cold Roll in the no-nonsense Steelers League, white-collar Bulb Snatchers traded spares with Pencil Pushers in the Fontana League, and Slick Chicks edged Pinettes in the Girls' (sic ) League. Like other steel towns, Fontana prided itself on Friday night "smokers," and there were usually half a dozen pros and scores of amateurs training in the mill's boxing club. "Roadrunners" and Okies were especially active in the plant's various hunting and gun clubs, while others joined the popular fishing club.[84]

But blue-collar Fontana also enjoyed recreations that were usually management prerogatives in the more rigid caste order of Eastern steel towns. Golf was popular in some production departments, and leading union activists were frequently seen on the fairways. Other steelworkers took up tennis, joined the toastmasters, became rockhounds, rehearsed with the excellent local drama society, or even moonlighted as stuntmen in Hollywood. Others raced stockcars, dragsters, and motorcycles, or simply spent weekends plowing up the Mojave in their dune buggies.[85] Whatever the avocation, the point was that Fontana tended to see itself differently—as more egalitarian and openminded (at least for white workers)—than the steel cultures left behind in the valleys of the Ohio.

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