A father and son, both steelworkers, witness labour's change in Hamilton
'When I finished high school the jobs in Hamilton were literally a dime a dozen': Steve Lechniak
Steve Lechniak didn't think for a moment about whether he'd be able to find work when he graduated from high school in Hamilton in the late 1960s.
"When I finished high school the jobs in Hamilton were literally a dime a dozen," said Lechniak, now 67 and retired.
But the world looks a lot different for his son, Michael, 35.
Michael Lechniak has worked 11 years at Stelco, and those years have been tumultuous ones as the company was bought by U.S. Steel, sent into bankruptcy protection and eventually sold again to Bedrock Industries.
The job market in Hamilton "is quite difficult," Michael Lechniak said. "People have to try really hard to get what they want now."
Two generations of Lechniaks sat down for coffee and a conversation with CBC Hamilton about a changing Hamilton as it pertains to their experience as steelworkers in very different eras. Listen in on their conversation by clicking the video above.
The elder Lechniak serves as an archivist for memories and photographs from days gone by at Stelco, one of Hamilton's biggest employers in steel's heyday here. But that heyday is long gone.
"For my son Michael, I was always afraid – I'm still afraid – job security does not exist in today's world," Steve Lechniak said. "In the manufacturing industry, especially here in Hamilton, companies come and go. They dictate the terms."
From plentiful full-time jobs to precarious employment
A 2015 study found nearly 60 per cent of Hamilton workers are in some version of precarious employment, whether that's temporary or contract jobs, part-time jobs, jobs without benefits beyond a wage or jobs where they're not sure they'll still be employed for at least the next year.
That's the highest proportion across the Toronto-Hamilton region.
Contrast that with the city's industrial heyday, when a whole neighbourhood was razed to make room for bigger parking lots to accommodate all the workers. Workers arrived 45 minutes early for their shifts to park and take a shuttle bus in to the factory.
The wages in the industrial corridor were so lucrative that many of Lechniak's peers who intended to work in steel for a few years and then go on to something else didn't. If you wanted to be, you were in for life.
"The money was too good," he said. "You couldn't quit."
'If you were able-bodied, you were hired'
Stephen Lechniak describes throngs of people taking a resume to Burlington Street, even without finishing high school.
"We had so many industrial companies there that were hiring all the time. Good wages, benefits, pensions, the future looked fantastic," he said.
"If you were able-bodied, you were hired."
But despite having a bit of an in from his dad, it wasn't as easy for the younger Lechniak. He took a slew of post-high-school training: McMaster certificates in accounting and metallurgy, a power engineering certificate from Mohawk College and he's about to take computer programming.
After an "extensive" interview process at Stelco, Michael Lechniak spent five years in steelmaking before that got shut down by U.S. Steel. He did stints in the tractor garage, the cold mill and the roll shop. Now he's in byproducts and wastewater treatment, a job that exposes him to known carcinogens.
"I get paid for what I'm exposed to and how hard I work," Michael Lechniak said. "It's a trade-off, right? It's a trade-off."
'My worry: Is he going to get to 25 years at Stelco?'
That brings up the pension question.
Because of the exposure, Michael Lechniak can qualify as if he's worked 30 years when he reaches 25 years with the company.
"He's halfway there," Steve Lechniak said. "My worry: Is he going to get to 25 years at stelco?"
"That's my wish, that he gets to enjoy the same pension and benefits that I am enjoying today," he said. "And by no means is my benefits guaranteed, either, in today's climate."
In the complex deal that allowed Stelco to exit bankruptcy protection this July, the union representing Hamilton workers and retirees agreed to concessions, losing some of the pension security they counted on in exchange for some more money put toward retiree benefits than was originally contemplated.
The deal also involves the land that isn't being used for steelmaking to be sold and developed in exchange for more money in the fund.
Both Lechniaks say they see the change in their city as a positive thing. Steve Lechniak said James Street is returning to the way it was when his mother would walk to the shops and the farmers market in the 1950s and '60s.
"Hamilton is a vibrant city. I love where it's going," Steve Lechniak said. "It seems to me we're on the right path right now. There could be so many more improvements."
This week and next, we at CBC Hamilton invite you to join us as we explore Hamilton's identity crisis, and what this junction looks like for workers, residents, commuters, newcomers and lifers who call Hamilton home.
Follow along here, and please send us your comments, observations and ideas as our series unfolds. You can find places to comment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and by dropping us an email: Hamilton@cbc.ca.
Video produced and edited by Conrad Collaco