Abstract: The Politics of Ownership and Work in an Employee-Owned Firm: A Case Study of the Weirton Steel Corporation, 1983-1991

Natascha van der Zwan


The financialization of work—or the growing importance of financial schemes in the workplace through pension funds, 401(k)s, and Employee Stock Ownership Plans—calls for a rethinking of a conception of class that views labor and capital as diametrically opposed. As a result of capital investments made by employees, the boundary between labor and capital has become ambiguous, as working people formally become co-owners of the companies they invest in. In the case of the ESOP, the employee invests in the company for which he also works. Through a case study of the Weirton Steel Corporation, I will investigate how the broadening of corporate ownership has affected the political position of the employee inside the company. Weirton Steel became the largest American employee-owned company in 1984, after its employees bought their plant through an ESOP. Based on an analysis of the discourse used in official company publications from the Irving Bluestone Collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library (Detroit, MI), I argue that the company challenged the distinction between labor and capital by creating a third category of employee-owner. As the Weirton steelworkers became employee-owners, the ESOP was no longer represented as a tool for job maintenance, but as a means for company survival. However, although the Weirton steelworkers took responsibility over the company by becoming