'Steel City' No More, Pueblo Reinvents Itself And Its Politics

Mar 2, 2020
Originally published on March 3, 2020 8:30 am

Unlike postcard mountain resort towns, or the booming, high-tech corridor centered around Denver, Pueblo is Colorado's faded industrial relic. A city struggling to redefine its economy, and its politics following decades as a solidly blue-collar Democratic stronghold.

Pueblo is a two-hour drive south from Denver, through prosperous Colorado Springs with its military bases, defense contractors and megachurches. Wide open plains stretch for miles, mountains off in the distance.

And then, popping up out of the horizon, stark vertical lines: Smokestacks from the mill that gave this place its nickname, Steel City.

Today only about 6% of Pueblo's jobs are in manufacturing after a decades-long decline.

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Old timers like Rod Slyhoff remember the day everything changed, back in 1984.

"It's in my mind all the time," said Slyhoff, president and CEO of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

"I believe it was in March, 6,500 pink slips were issued to the [steel mill company] employees," Slyhoff said. "And our economy changed drastically in one day."

President Trump has promised to bring steel back, and made American manufacturing a big focus of his administration.

Rod Slyhoff is the president and CEO of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. He remembers when 6,500 steel mill workers were fired in 1984. The city's economy was drastically changed in one day.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

Just last week, Trump held a rally about 45 minutes up the road in Colorado Springs.

"Remember they said you can't do manufacturing jobs anymore? Really? Tell me about it," he said to cheers from the packed arena. "Unemployment has reached the lowest rate in over one half a century."

Trump's promises sound good to Slyhoff.

"I think his statements to me are very positive for the business and manufacturing community because it shows that we have a president that's interested and knows that industry," Slyhoff said. "It's that attitude that you've got a leader that is really aware of the value of manufacturing, where I think we felt like maybe that hasn't been a priority for previous presidents."

A person walks across a bridge over the Arkansas River in Pueblo. The city is aiming to redefine its economy, and its politics following decades as a solidly blue collar Democratic stronghold.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

And he worries it may not be a priority for the next president, if he or she is a Democrat.

While it's true that unemployment is down and the stock market has been up for the last few years, in Pueblo working people feel like they can't catch a break. This city of 111,750 has only added about 5,000 jobs since 2008, and median income has barely budged since then.

Today the steel mill, now owned by a Russian company. doesn't have the 24-7 stream of workers that it used to.

"Quite a slap in the face"

Chuck Perko, president of the United Steelworkers union Local 3267, unlocks the door to his union hall. Today the steel mill, now owned by a Russian company, doesn't have the 24-7 stream of workers that it used to.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

At the mill's gate stands Chuck Perko, president of United Steelworkers Union Local 3267, which represents some of the workers at this sprawling, 2-mile-wide industrial site. He's wearing a union t-shirt in cold weather and a baseball cap.

A sign at the visitor's center says: "140 years steel strong."

The mill goes back to 1882, Perko said, but it's a fraction of the fiery, smoke-belching heart of the city it once was when steel jobs drew immigrant labor from all over the world.

A union charter inside the United Steelworkers headquarters. Perko says that the steel mill in Pueblo dates back to 1882.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

"It's now 10% of the workforce," Perko said, meaning 90% of the jobs at the mill are now gone.

At his union hall about a mile from the mill, there's an antique Pepsi machine and an out-of-tune piano. He told me some of his union members went to that Trump rally in Colorado Springs.

"People need that little bit of hope," he said, "even if it doesn't take much of a delve to realize that what he's saying is not what he intends to do. The message is good, but it's not gonna be backed up by anything that is going to be good for your job."

He says he was surprised Trump narrowly won this area in 2016.

"I mean, this has been a labor stronghold going back to the 1930s," he said, "when labor came into its own. And so it was quite a slap in the face."

Chuck Perko is the fourth generation in his family to work in the steel mill. He didn't finish college but now he says it's more difficult to find a good blue collar job in Pueblo.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

Perko is the fourth generation of his family to work at the mill. He didn't finish college, but that didn't keep him from getting a good job. Now, he says, you have to be pretty lucky to get a good blue-collar job in Pueblo.

"One of the things that you see written on a lot of the new hardhats is '#millmoney,' because it's still one of the best paying jobs for somebody out there that may not necessarily have a college degree," he said.

Pueblo is 50% Hispanic. The Arkansas River that bisects the town was once the border with Mexico. But the steel mill and nearby coal mines attracted immigrants from all over the world for generations. Perko says his team at the mill has 20 nationalities now, and they take pride in what they do.

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"The steelworkers, when somebody sees someone in that orange jacket walking around, they know there's someone that's providing for their family," he said.

A "steel city" no more

The phrase "steel city" is still all over Pueblo, on restaurants and bars, but that is no longer the reality of the economy here.

People are far more likely to work at the local hospital, or in the relatively new clean energy or legal marijuana industries. (Local governments can bar marijuana grow houses and retail in Colorado. Unlike neighboring Colorado Springs, Pueblo has embraced the sector.) Other big employers are government, retail and food service.

Kevin Roark has bartended at Eilers Place on and off for a decade.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

Perko, the steelworkers union president, sympathizes with people working low-wage service jobs.

"When I hear someone say, that job at McDonalds, they don't deserve to make even $12 an hour because they should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and go do something else — those people work harder than I do," Perko said. "I'll be the first to admit it. They deserve to be paid for their labor."

That sounds like something a Bernie Sanders supporter would say. That's because he is.

Perko used to like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.

"They're all people that either have a blue-collar background or have at least a plan for the working class," he said. "I cannot get behind the parts of the Democratic party that feel like corporate America."

When the steel mill laid off all those workers in the 1980s, a group of churches got together to open a food pantry called the Cooperative Care Center, and it's still open today, offering bags of food, clothes, medicine and toiletries.

Louie Bran worked at the steel plants in Pueblo until he was laid off in the 1980s. He never returned to work there, and instead laid bricks in the city until he retired.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

But the clients aren't laid off steelworkers anymore.

"It's the middle class now that are hurting," said Mona Montoya, the director here for 27 years.

"We've seen people from the police department, the fire department, school teachers, nurses," Montoya said. "You close your eyes and you think of a homeless person - they're families, and that's where it really pains us, to see that kind of deal."

One morning this week, there were a lot of families waiting for help.

Like 68-year-old Nancy Mestas, Pueblo born and raised.

Mestas lives with her disabled adult daughter and two grandkids.

After 20 years working as a librarian, now she's retired and says her family can't afford enough food to get through the month.

"For my daughter they give her a certain amount of food stamps, and she tries to stretch it as much as she can, but sometimes it doesn't go as far as it should," Mestas said.

She believes a president could fix things, but everybody seems too invested in fighting their political opponents.

"Bad mouthing each other instead of taking into consideration what really matters," she said.

Mestas says she hasn't decided who she'll support for president.

"I don't like anybody who's running. I used to be Republican," she said, "but now at this point in time I'm unaffiliated."

A neighborhood near Pueblo's historic steelworks.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

The Cooperative Care Center helped 38,000 people last year. That's about a quarter of the local population.

Not surprising, since a quarter of the people in Pueblo live at or below the federal poverty line.

A lot of the food at the Center distributes is donated by grocery stores. Like the one Don Sena has spent his life stocking the shelves of on the overnight shift.

"I've been in the grocery business over 50 years," he said at a bar near the steel mill where his father used to work. He was pouring a Dos Equis beer into a glass of tomato juice.

Sena is proud he put his daughter through college, and that his son is a drill instructor in the Marines.

He's about to retire. Many would say he's lived the American dream. But Sena isn't feeling too good about it.

"There ain't no jobs in this town any more," he said. "There ain't none. If you have a job, you're lucky."

Working class people are struggling, he says, and rich people are taking advantage of them.

"A place where people make things"

Connor Moore and Matt Gallegos, who grew up in Pueblo, sit at the end of the bar inside Brues Alehouse Brewing Company.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

Struggles are easy to find in Pueblo.

But if you look on the city's walls and in the empty spaces, there's something else.

Artists and small businesses starting to take root.

Ina Bernard, an artist from Germany, welcomes me to Artisan Textile Company, a shop she opened four years ago in an old part of the city. Her shop carries handmade items like mittens and paintings, and offers classes in knitting and card making.

She loves Pueblo.

"It's just a really fun small-town community, lovely location," she said. "The weather is beautiful, lots of sunshine. Also the mountains."

Making artisan textiles may seem like the opposite of manufacturing the commodity Pueblo became known as Steel City for. But to Bernard, the growing artists' community is not a sharp break from the industrial past.

Brues Alehouse Brewing Company in Pueblo. The city is seeing a growing artists' community and small businesses are setting up shop.
Kevin J. Beaty for NPR

"I think Pueblo is very proud to be a steel city town because that's really what helped build it up. That's why people came here," she said. "But I think Pueblo is now kind of looking at maybe growing from that, and definitely being supportive of the creative economy."

Bernard says just like immigrants a century ago, she moved to Pueblo to be in a place where people make things.

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