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Occupational Therapy

Can Occupy movement succeed where steelworkers failed?

There's one thing Pittsburgh can be thankful for in this grim holiday season: The local chapter of the Occupy Wall Street movement may be among the most peaceable in the country -- and perhaps the most law-abiding protest in the city's history.

Yes, there have been a half-dozen arrests since the encampment was erected on Mellon Green in mid-October. And yes, some Bank of New York Mellon employees grouse about the tents that have sprung up on their once-verdant parklet. But things could be worse. Consider the last time Mellon became the focus of a protracted activist campaign, in the early 1980s. 

In 1983, Mellon foreclosed on a legendary local firm, Homestead's Mesta Machine Company, and workers sought to punish the bank for the layoff of 12,000 workers. One tactic, known as "Smellin' Mellon," involved placing dead fish inside the safe-deposit boxes at Mellon bank branches. Employees had to open each of the boxes to locate the source of the stench. 

Such actions, wrongheaded as they were, arguably caused far less disruption than the actions of Pittsburgh's corporate elite. Those steelworkers were the canaries in the coal mine: The United States has become one of the least-industrialized of the world's "advanced" economies. Since 2001, the American Prospect has reported, the U.S. lost more than 42,000 factories, including one-third of those that employ more than 1,000 workers. 

Back in the 1980s, though, few Pittsburghers thought about occupying anything: They just found other cities to live in. Many of those who remained found jobs working for Pittsburgh's new economic behemoths: financial institutions and giant nonprofits in health care and education. We flatter ourselves, and the media flatters us, as an economic success story. But that shift helped lay the groundwork for the protests taking place today. 

An economy based on "eds and meds" works as long as there are enough old people who need medical treatment -- and enough young people willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But more than one in five college graduates under the age of 25 is currently jobless, and even those who have jobs are struggling. A Rutgers University study found that in 2010, earnings among recent college grads had dropped by 10 percent from the paychecks garnered by grads just three years before. 

A freshly minted college grad is in some ways worse off than a laid-off 24-year-old steelworker back in 1983: The steelworker, at least, probably hadn't racked up $20,000 in student-loan debt in order to find a decent job. 

When wrenching economic change takes hold, the easy out is to blame the victims. Back in the 1980s, it was fashionable to deride steelworkers as greedy. Today, meanwhile, conservatives blame college grads for choosing an insufficiently job-friendly major. 

But consider this: According to a recent Wall Street Journal look at unemployment by major, unemployment rates are also high among those who majored in computer security and management (9.5 percent), international business (8.5 percent) and materials engineering (7.7 percent). Journalism grads, those noted parasites, merely have a 7 percent unemployment rate -- no worse than those carrying degrees in computer engineering. 

Unless those degrees start paying for themselves again, college grads won't be the only people feeling the pain. After all, it's not as if the students were the only people in Pittsburgh who've made a big gamble on the value of education.

Willingly or unwillingly, Pittsburgh placed a bet in the 1980s -- at a time before many Occupy protesters were even born. We surrendered our manufacturing base to an economy that saw emerging competitors abroad, and the rise of financial interests at home. We did so in the hope that we could recast ourselves as highly educated "knowledge workers." But the same economic forces, it seems, threaten those jobs too. 

Will Occupy Pittsburgh have any better luck taking on those economic forces than the steelworkers once did?  Its goals are broader -- steelworkers didn't want to revamp the entire economy, just maintain their place within it -- but its means are more modest. If the occupiers do hold on, it may be for a simple reason: Unlike the steelworkers of 30 years ago, there may simply be nowhere else for them to go.