Steve Ackerman, a Black Millwright in Rural Ohio, Sees Slow Racial Progress

By Jeffrey Bonior
Steve Ackerman (second from right) sits with fellow officials at United Steelworkers Local 169 in Mansfield, Ohio.

“If nothing else comes out of this, they are starting to at least listen now.”

Steve Ackerman is a steelworker that has spent the majority of his young 32-year-old life living in the rural communities surrounding Mansfield, Ohio.

Mansfield is a city of approximately 47,000 residents and is the home of an AK Steel mill, which produces a variety of top-quality stainless-steel products that are utilized in the automotive industry, fuel systems, HVAC applications and household appliances. It is located precisely halfway between Ohio’s manufacturing hubs of Cleveland and Columbus.

As a 6-foot-2, 300-pound Black man, many Ohioans might expect to see Ackerman living a more urban lifestyle, enjoying the modern conveniences that larger cities have to offer a young man.

But Ackerman, who will be celebrating his 10th year anniversary at the Mansfield facility next year, prefers to live the life of the country gentleman. He was born in nearby New Washington, which has less than 1,000 residents, and lives today in a large farmhouse on five acres of land in another rural outpost called Tiro. There are less than 300 residents in Tiro, which is just a five-minute drive from New Washington and about a half-hour commute to his job at the steel mill in Mansfield.

Ackerman was born in Cleveland but did not know his birth parents. He was adopted at birth by a white couple and before long he was a member of a family that included eight children.

“Well, my mom was a nurse and she actually quit nursing when they adopted the last of six kids,” said Ackerman. “They had two children of their own and adopted six more for a total of eight, which included me and another Black brother.

“They used to be foster parents to kids that came from troubled homes and they adopted six of us. Three of them came from troubled homes and had special needs.”

Ackerman’s father was a car mechanic but had to quit working on automobiles when a car fell off a lift, resulting in serious head trauma.

“It slowed him down, but he continued to be a firefighter in New Washington,” said Ackerman. “He was the first Fire Chief in New Washington and he loved it. I can’t even remember how many years he did that work. He passed away in 2017.”

Steve Ackerman on one of his Harleys.

Like his father, Ackerman shares a love of all things automotive. Though he prefers a slower-paced rural life, he is easily spotted cruising down the country roads on one of this three Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

He is grateful for the large farmhouse, trucks and motorcycles he has been able to acquire and considers himself fortunate for the opportunity to live a well-paying, benefit-friendly lifestyle.

“Manufacturing has been great to me and to the Black community,” said Ackerman. “I tell people all the time if it wasn’t for the United Steelworkers and where I work, I wouldn’t make the money I make, I wouldn’t have the benefits I have, I wouldn’t have the house I have, I wouldn’t have the truck I have and I wouldn’t have the Harleys I have. There is a lot to be said about that.

“That’s another thing that got me involved when I was younger. I decided in my head, ‘who is going to protect my interests better than me?’ If you’re relying on somebody else to protect your interests, obviously you really don’t care that much.”

At the AK Steel mill in Mansfield, Ackerman also helps protect the interests of his fellow workers as vice-president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 169. The majority of the 320 production workers he represents are white men, but he was able to gain the respect of the workforce when it came to union representation after he showcased his skill as shop steward and production chairman in the caster department.

For the past eight years Ackerman has worked maintenance at the mill, one of the most coveted jobs in the plant.

“I was only production chairman for eight months and the other guy in charge left. I don’t know if he was fired or what, but people started backing me up little by little and said I need to do it,” said Ackerman. “A new boss came in and we went into negotiations and got a pretty good pay raise, and I think a lot of other people started to respect me because they thought I actually had their back instead of going through the motions. I finally got elected vice president of the local.”

When it comes to representing the production employees, Ackerman understands the importance of unity because the factory is much smaller than behemoths like U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal (which just sold most of its U.S. holdings to Cleveland Cliffs; Cleveland Cliffs bought AK Steel in March for $1.1 billion).

With the production departments dominated by white men, Ackerman had his doubts about a leadership role in USW business.

“A lot of people don’t say racial things to you, but you hear it from other people making comments,” said Ackerman. “This is the middle of Ohio and you know Ohio is Trump country.

“I’ve always felt I’ve had kind of a chip on my shoulder, so I have to work harder than anybody else because if I don’t, everybody says things like ‘he’s lazy.’ So, I guess my whole life I kind of had that chip on my shoulder where I can outwork anybody.”

One of several AK Steel facilities located in Ohio, the Mansfield mill specializes in stainless steel.

“That’s pretty much all we run,” said Ackerman. “Most of what we run is mostly automotive because we pretty much have the exhaust market cornered, and then we also sell a lot to Whirlpool. We make some steel for surgical tools like scalpels and there are a few knife companies that use us but it’s predominantly automotive.

“But one advantage is we can switch gears and run other stuff to keep us going around the clock. We can run electrical steel; we can run carbon so if we get too slow, we can change it up pretty quickly.”

“There’s a lot of people at work, even friends, where I’ve tried to talk to them about it and they hear ‘white privilege,’ and they say, ‘how am I privileged? I’ve got to go to work just like you.’ I tell them to just listen and be thankful, because the second the cop gets out of the car you worry about what’s going to happen because you are Black. Just be thankful you don’t have to deal with all of that.”

Steve Ackerman

The racial inequality and lack of diversity that exits in many American companies has had Mansfield residents curious and questioning the Black Lives Matter movement. Mansfield has a white population of approximately 70 percent, but Ackerman feels attitudes are beginning to change for the better, even if it is only through further education to America’s racial inequities.

“When my parents first adopted me – that was 32 years ago – there was a lot of people that threatened them and messed with them,” said Ackerman. “Someone burned a cross in their yard when they first found out that me and my brother, who is Black, were adopted. As time went on people just got used to it.”

Ackerman graduated from Buckeye Central High School and attended Pioneer Career Technology Center, a vocational school where he learned building and industrial maintenance. This skills training gave him a leg up on many of the other applicants and was a catalyst to help advance his career more rapidly.

“I wanted to worker caster maintenance,” he said. “I am a millwright, and I am a certified welder so I work on different stuff and I can troubleshoot a lot of problems. Having these additional skills helped me advance my career more rapidly.

Ackerman demonstrates with a friend. Below: A meeting with USW colleagues on the job.

“Our shop is so small that we have forced overtime and we need to cover when people are sick or whatever. But they have been trying to work with us.

“I would like to see a bit more diversity. I’m the only Black person as far as union officers go and as far as I know I’m the first ever Black officer here.”

And speaking of officers, Ackerman has had his share of unjustified confrontations with local police.

“I have to worry about how I present myself more to the police more so than the average person, because I’m worried I’m going to intimidate a cop and I don’t know what might happen,” he said. “There’s a lot of people at work, even friends, where I’ve tried to talk to them about it and they hear ‘white privilege,’ and they say, ‘how am I privileged? I’ve got to go to work just like you.’ I tell them to just listen and be thankful because the second the cop gets out of the car you worry about what’s going to happen because you are black. Just be thankful you don’t have to deal with all of that.

“They don’t understand, but I think that’s the one good thing that people are starting to, if nothing else comes out of this, they are starting to at least listen now.”

But Ackerman understands that the Black Lives Matter movement can turn around and backfire because there are just some people that do not have the desire or ability to listen to its deeper message.

“In a lot of cases, I think the Black Lives Movement has drawn a lot of good light to everything. But I also believe a lot of people don’t understand it or agree with it, or just don’t want to understand and agree with it, so now it’s bringing more negative light to it,” said Ackerman. “You have Trump up there saying ‘looters are shooters,’ and you have people that don’t understand that just because some people are looting and burning down buildings that doesn’t mean everybody (protesting) thinks that’s right.”

Editor’s note: This is the latest 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 entries: After Facing Racial Discrimination at His Paper Mill, Alex Perkins Sprung Into Action; No Stranger to Adversity, Syracuse Steelworker Keith Odume is an Advocate for Change; Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist; As a Black Woman in a Factory Dominated by White Men, Monica Mabin Faced Double Discrimination; and Manufacturing Helped Darrell Rideout Build a Good Life, But He Worries About “What My Kids Will Have to Go Through.”