One of the most remarkable new documentary films I have seen recently is Chris Boebel and Christine Walley’s “Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story” (2016). This fascinating tale of broken dreams and promises concerns the industrial transformation families faced when the steel mills on the Southeast Side of Chicago closed in the early 1980s.
This extremely moving personal tale, directed by Boebel, focuses on Ms. Walley’s father, Chuck. It was shot in a period of ten years, using numerous photographs, found footage and newsreels, family videos and personal photos, and dozens of interviews with East Siders, all accompanied by Ms. Walley’s impassioned voice-over narration.
The film’s title refers to the diminutive and ignominious exit sign on Chicago’s Skyway—literally the Southeast side’s turn off reads, “Exit Zero.” Early in the film, our narrator tells the audience “The old steel mill neighborhoods of Southeast Chicago are about as far away from downtown as you can get in the city. Most people don’t even know this area exists. Even the highway exit ramp here is numbered zero…”
This film so vividly provides an intimate portrait of the devastating loss of lifestyle and its impact strikes me so strongly on a personal basis because I grew up in this area, a block and a half from the Walley household. Our youngest sisters were close friends growing up. As an MIT anthropologist, Christine Walley fully realizes how the loss of those steel mill jobs had such an undeniable, devastating impact on these people’s lives, and most especially her dad and family.
Since the age of 23, Chuck Walley worked at Wisconsin Steel Works, a 265-acre mill, located on 106th and Torrence Avenue just off the Calumet River in the neighborhood of South Dearing. He was the third generation of Walley men to work in the mills.
Wisconsin Steel was owned by International Harvester for 75 years. In 1977, they sold it to Envirodyne, a California firm with no steelmaking experience. Within three years on March 28, 1980, the plant went bankrupt and 3,400 workers lost their jobs. The other area mills, including Republic Steel on the East Side and US Steel South Works in the South Chicago neighborhood, closed in succession within several more years. On several occasions, Chuck Walley is shown just looking out on the cold, toxic vacant lot of what used to be the vibrant steel mill where he labored diligently.
The film’s narrator tells us this “deindustrialization we talk about like a force we can’t do anything about, like a hurricane that destroys everything in its path.” Chuck blames the banks who loaned the mill money to maintain itself. Furthermore, the workers were somehow under a misconception that the mills were like families. Various messages they received from promotional films called them “an industrial family.”
But Walley’s message clearly is that the steel mills are businesses—not families. Walley asks why the Wisconsin Steel Mill closed and wondered—what changed? Was it foreign competition or the workers asking for too much?
Five complicated steps are noted:
1- Harvester stopped maintaining the mill and the quality of steel had dropped, as noted by Chuck’s interviews.
2-Harvester sold the mill when it declined to Envirodyne for $65 million, who had actually borrowed the money from Wisconsin Steel.
3-Basically, the parent company International Harvester lent the money for Envirodyne to purchase it from them.
4-Thus, International Harvester was the seller, lender, and became the major customer of the mill, additionally, they agreed to buy a good percentage of the steel produced. When other IH workers went on an extended strike soon after, they stopped buying steel and foreclosed on the Chicago based Wisconsin Steel mill.
5-Most critically, Harvester stopped making contributions to the Wisconsin Steelworkers’ pension fund, and in fact, owed $62 million to that fund. Dissolving the plant allowed them to eliminate that debt. The workers lost their jobs, pensions and couldn’t even retrieve personal property from the closed plant.
Afterward, Chuck Walley was somewhat ironically one of the luckier ones—he found part-time work as a truck driver and janitor, while many of the terminated workers fell into depression, drank or just died.
The second part of the film deals with the local history of the steelworkers’ union and the rights won for workers, with fascinating newsreel footage of the famed Memorial Day massacre at Republic Steel, where ten striking workers were killed by police. Chuck’s wife Arlene, Chuck’s declining health, Christine’s own health issues and how the tonic pollutants continue to affect the local population are also emphasized with intense passion.
“Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story” has been shown on Chicago’s Public Broadcasting station WTTW and hopefully this outstanding film will be seen by many others in the near future.