clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

WELDER USES ART TO SPARK DIALOGUE

The masterpiece Val Peterson crafted on a slab of scrap steel that now adorns Geneva Steel's administration building got him an audience with the head man to discuss ideas he'd chewed on for 40 years.

The journeyman welder had a thing or two to tell Geneva Chairman and CEO Joe Cannon before retiring.Peterson, 65, Pleasant Grove, had always wanted to create a work of art with the tools he spent a lifetime mastering. Now he had a reason.

"My whole purpose was I wanted to see Joe Cannon," he said.

Peterson stayed after work through January and February cutting, shaping and texturing the 118-by-88-inch plate with his cutting torch and air arc welder. He fashioned the 13/4-inch thick slab into a depiction of the mill's basic oxygen furnace or Q-BOP. A steel frame borders the scene, and the artist's signature, O.V. Peterson, welded in stainless steel completes the picture.

The fluorescent lights set inside the frame brilliantly illuminate the scene at night, making it appear three-dimensional. It's a striking piece of work.

Although Peterson had never attempted art before, he didn't find the endeavor particularly difficult or painstaking.

The same can't be said for his career as steelworker. Peterson spent most of his working life at U.S. Steel and later Geneva Steel in no-man's land. Union members ridiculed him. USX management, he said, tried to use him as a pawn to obtain its objectives.

He didn't want any part of either. All unions and management want to do, he says, is control workers.

"I wanted my agency. A person's sovereignty means everything to him," he said.

Peterson had run-ins with both from the day he refused to take the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters oath of secrecy in 1954 until he drove through the plant's gates for the last time April 7.

Of unions, he said, "Collectivism breeds mediocrity. If you have mediocrity, you don't have quality production. If you don't have quality production, you don't compete. And we're hurting real bad out there."

Management, he said, fails to recognize initiative. "This company will not reward you for doing any more than you have to do," he said. "They don't reward a guy for being a craftsman."

Geneva buys dinner for workers who devise usable innovations.

Peterson was working as a layer outer - the lead planner on a welding crew - when USX tried to combine some jobs as a cost-cutting measure in 1985. Because he had skills in several areas, Peterson often did work that wasn't in his job description. Each time he did, a union worker filed a grievance that stripped him of that task, effectively handcuffing him.

"There was nothing left for me to do except pick my nose. They got down to the point where they said I could only weld this long," he said, holding his thumb and forefinger 2 inches apart.

Meanwhile, both union members and management pressured him to join the union. Union members, he said, wanted to penalize him for doing work beyond his job description. Management wanted to use the union's grievance documents as evidence that combining jobs was feasible.

Life as a right-to-work guy in a union shop opened Peterson up for years of criticism.

"They said I was being a scab. I was working without a union card. That made me a real bad boy," Peterson said with a hearty laugh.

Peterson could tell stories about life in the mill until death do us part. But he doesn't recall them with bitterness. He chuckles frequently at some of the predicaments he found himself in.

"They say humor is tragedy in retrospect," he said. But "it wasn't funny at the time."

All Peterson's thoughts and feelings about unions and management stewed in his head for years until he finally put them on paper, a task hampered by his limited writing skills. The document isn't a list of complaints but a manifesto.

Peterson's 25-page "Principles and Articles for Achieving Excellence in Vocational and Human Resources" lays out the rules he believes companies should live by. Peterson said his plan would "eliminate the dreaded negotiation, strike, contract cycle" and allow individual workers to make their own way in the company.

"I wanted Joe Cannon to be the first one to read it," he said.

On April 6, the day before he retired, Peterson met Cannon for the first time. Geneva held an informal ceremony as a crane set Peterson's multiton steel sculpture in front of Geneva's administration building where it will be a permanent fixture.

Peterson and Cannon met in the CEO's office for 45 minutes that day. Cannon said he liked Peterson's art and some of his ideas. Management discussed commissioning Peterson to do a companion piece. They'd pay him. Peter-son said he'll think about it.

An ironic, anticlimactic ending? Yes. But Peterson probably isn't through.

Asked why he endured years of criticism for his ideas and for the opportunity to share them with Cannon in less than an hour, Peterson said, "Have you heard of tenacity?"