No Stranger to Adversity, Syracuse Steelworker Keith Odume is an Advocate for Change

By Jeffrey Bonior
Keith Odume, center, saw how racial inequalities in his hometown of Syracuse carried over into the workplace. Now a local leader in the United Steelworkers, Odume is aiming to make a difference. “The face of the union is not the old white man anymore… more minorities are likely to join the union, so your leadership has to reflect the members you represent,” he said. | Photos courtesy Keith Odume

“Everyday is a fight for humanity… you just have to do the right thing,” Odume said.

Keith Odume faced incredible odds growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. {media_1}

He was born in Jersey City, N.J. to an alcoholic mother, who was in the process migrating north to join family in the manufacturing hub of Syracuse. That was where his mother, like thousands of other Black workers from the South, hoped to escape the hardships and poverty of living in South Carolina.

Odume never knew his father. Not long after arriving in Syracuse, his mother struggled with personal demons and Odume was made a ward of the state. He spent much of his youth living in foster homes.

Despite the obstacles, Odume managed to become the first member of his biological family to graduate high school. But no family members were at his graduation. He took the city bus to get there.

In his early 20s, he was working for Marriott International as a cook when the company decided to get out of the food service business. That was just fine with Odume. His heart was not in it.

“I was getting in a little trouble here and there and was out on the streets too much,” Odume said. “I didn’t have much guidance, but I always had a good head on my shoulders. I always was a smart kid.”

Odume caught a break when his biological sister’s father, Joe Roberts, reached out to him.

Roberts “saw that I would work but didn’t like where I was headed, so he put in a word for me at the Syracuse steel company Crucible Industries. He worked there for over 45 years and he got me in there. Crucible gave me a shot.”

You could say working at Crucible Industries was a life saver for Odume.

On June 14, Odume celebrated his 20th year working at Crucible, where he not only excelled doing the grueling work but became a leader and activist in the union movement. Now Odume is trying to make the best life possible for minority workers in a city that once was hailed for its manufacturing might.

“Syracuse used to be something to brag about, but it is different now,” Odume said. “Syracuse was a manufacturing center and a lot of Black people migrated here from the South because of jobs. I think they probably migrated for less racism, but when they got here, there was more prevalent racism.

“But Black people came mainly for the jobs. We had Carrier, Budweiser, Crouse-Hinds and Chrysler. Chrysler had about 5,000 employees and Carrier had at least 2,000 to 3,000 people working here at one time.

“Chrysler was one of the biggest employers around with good wages. When Chrysler sold out to Magna, a Canadian company, that left a big sector of the Black community unemployed.”

In the 1950s, there was a vibrant Black community in the city’s 15th Ward because of the plethora of good-paying jobs that were available. But when the major manufacturing companies moved out of Syracuse, many Black people were displaced from their homes and local Black businesses closed. Economic development in the city diminished.

“When people think of Syracuse, they think of Syracuse University, but Syracuse University hasn’t done anything to bridge the gap between the Black community and the well-off community,” Odume said. “If you come to the city, you will see the Carrier Dome (Syracuse University’s athletic stadium) overlooking the landscape of the southside. It reminds me of the king’s castle and the peasants that live underneath.

“There are no social programs or even some type of reaching out. There is high poverty, high crime, decrepit houses and no economic development.”

Racial inequality was rampant in Syracuse when Odume began working at Crucible in 2000, he recalled. But Odume was determined to not let the color of his skin hold him back. {media_2}

“When I first came in here it was different,” Odume said. “It wasn’t welcoming, I will tell you that. There was a lot of prejudice.”

Odume, like most new hires, started his Crucible career in production. He worked as a swing frame grinder, one of the most exhausting jobs in the mill.

“At that time I weighed 165 pounds, and that swing frame was so archaic and brutal, it was like handle bars with a grinder on it, and you would grind billets that were 15 to 25 feet long,” Odume said. “Those handlebars were so heavy, by the time I got done off of a 12-hour shift, my hands were hurting, my back was hurting and I didn’t even know it was legal to schedule 12-hour shifts at that time.

“I remember going to a human resources guy, the foreman there, and I told them it was illegal and they told me if don’t like it I could go back to the streets where I came from.”

Odume would not be discouraged and adapted to the rigors of life working in the mill. He eventually worked his way up to the bar finishing department, where he still works today as a straightening and milling machine operator along with his duties as a United Steelworkers elected officer, activist and organizer.

“We used to have these safety meetings every Monday, but they turned out to be bashing meetings,” Odume said. “So, one time I stood up, little old me, and asked why they were always telling us what we could do better and what we don’t do instead of praising us for things we’ve done correctly. Well, the foreman told me to shut up in front of everybody and no one said anything, not even my grievance man. I kept talking and then I got escorted out of the mill.”

But Odume, no stranger to adversity, would not be deterred.

“At that point I wanted to get involved, because I felt so low and embarrassed, and no one stood up because everyone was scared,” he said. “I told myself I won’t let that happen to me again and to no one else.

“I’ve seen people talk out at the meetings where they didn’t get escorted out, so I said, ‘why me?’ Did I feel it was a racial bias? Yes. But I didn’t have any evidence because no one stood up for me.”

It was at that moment that Odume decided he would become an activist to protect the rights of his fellow steelworkers.

Odume became a shop steward, and then successfully won an election to become the grievance man at United Steelworkers Local 1277. He then was counseled by the first Black president of his local, who encouraged Odume to get involved in the USW Leadership Scholarship Program. He completed all levels of the program and became heavily involved in political action, volunteering and has helped organize USW locals in many Eastern and Southern states.

Odume also received his so-called PhD in union training when he became one of 10 graduates out of a field of 200 applicants of the Lynn Williams Labor Studies program, which is named after the former president of the union. As a Black man, Odume became the first District 4 steelworker to graduate the Lynn Williams program.

“When I first came in here it was different. It wasn’t welcoming, I will tell you that. There was a lot of prejudice.” Keith Odume

Odume had witnessed the racial inequalities in the city of Syracuse and saw how it carried over into the workplace at Crucible Industries. Having been named political activist of the year and volunteer activist of the year in USW District 4, Odume has tried to make a difference in the representation of his steelworker colleagues.

When Odume began working at the Crucible Industries mill in 2000, there were approximately 1,100 employees. Today there are just 175 at the historic mill, which was responsible for the invention of the Arc Furnace and the impetus for the formation of the giant Pittsburgh steel companies nearly 100 years ago.

“I am going to constantly advocate for change because the face of the union is not the old white man anymore,” Odume said. “It’s diversity. You have women that no longer stay at home and many are the breadwinners in the family now. Yet, at Crucible, we have one woman, a black woman, working production at the mill.

“Your manufacturing sector is depleting, and more minorities are likely to join the union, so your leadership has to reflect the members you represent whether you accept that or not. If you take a look at union density now, it’s not like how it was because that traditional thinking does not work. Period.

“It’s not more than me at my house. If I want to join a social club, I’m not going to join a social club with all white guys. I want some people that look like me. I want a club that has some women in there. I want it to be diversified. That is the way of the world now and until this unfortunate incident happened in Minnesota, I think you had that momentum. I just hope the momentum doesn’t stall out, and we go back to the same shenanigans and face talk.”

Odume is committed to fighting for his fellow steelworkers and is cognizant of the middle-class lifestyle that manufacturing has afforded him and his family. At the age of 45, he is a married father of four children. He owns a house in the Salt Springs Road section of Syracuse, where white union officials at the large corporations once resided. {media_3}

“I hate to see people in my community struggling whether they are Black or white,” Odume said. “Unfortunately, the poverty and struggles hit the Black community first. People shouldn’t have to choose between paying their health insurance or getting something to eat or make a decision to pay the mortgage or rent.

“I’ve worked hard to make a decent living for my family at Crucible, but those good jobs are not here in Syracuse anymore. No one should be working for under 10 bucks an hour in this country. It’s bullshit, and it’s not right.

“Everyone is focusing on the divide because this one person is putting it out there like that, but I say let’s focus on other things. Because at the end of the day, there is no color in poor. At the end of the day, there is no color in struggle. Let’s focus on that.”

Odume draws a deep breath and let’s out a sigh that is indicative of how personal racial inequality has become. He understands the window of opportunity for change is now, and despite his frustrations, he knows he must be involved.

“Everyday is a fight for humanity and you can’t let this stuff beat up on you,” he said. “You just have to do the right thing. It’s a sickness. A lot of people say they’ve got common sense, but common sense can be hard.

“I came from nothing, man, and I should be a person that most hates the system, but still I just push and I’ve got people that respect me and I respect them and I don’t see color. That’s the bottom line. It’s humanity man.

“We need a new way of thinking.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series of interviews with Black factory workers about racism in the United States and their experiences in the manufacturing industry. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please email [email protected].

See the previous entry: Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist.