ON THIS DAY: April 6, 1983, President Reagan visits Pittsburgh, urges retraining for steelworkers

PITTSBURGH — President Ronald Reagan received a chilly reception when he touched down in Pittsburgh on April 6, 1983. Thousands of angry protestors gathered outside the Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel (now the Wyndham Grand) and reminded the president of the economic recession by chanting “Reagan’s a jerk, put us back to work!

His visit came as the recession forced the closure of several steel mills, leaving western Pennsylvania as one of the most economically devastated regions in the nation.

The president was here to give a speech at the National Conference on the Dislocated Worker, which was geared to retrain injured steelworkers for new high-tech jobs. Referencing the crowd outside, he joked that he could also be unemployed after the upcoming 1984 election. “I come not only as a speaker, but as a possible victim. I assume there are a number of Democrats who would just love to dislocate me.”

Outside the hotel, approximately 4,000 demonstrators and laid-off steelworkers demanded jobs as unemployment in the city soared to nearly double what it had been before Reagan was elected.

Reagan told the crowd assembled inside that, “You can help those frustrated steelworkers, some of whom are across the street venting their confusion and anger as we meet. And it’s no wonder they’re confused. The economy is getting better, but they don’t see their prospects improving.”

He then read help wanted ads from the Pittsburgh Press for a medical records coder and a systems programmer to outline what the administration believed was a “structural unemployment” problem, saying “the skills needed for the jobs don’t always match the skills of those who need the work. The permanently laid-off steelworker has never had the training even to understand what these want ads mean, let alone to apply for the position.”

Reagan also visited a computer training class at Control Data Corporation on the North Side, a company that targeted industrial workers interested in retraining for jobs in the computer age. Seventy percent of them had been in the steel industry and many remained skeptical of promised job placement services. He told the students there that, “the commitment you’ve made by being part of this program represents all the difference in your lives.”

In response to questions about the rapidly collapsing steel industry, Reagan assured that he would intervene and cited various policies intended to shore up the flailing mills. He also emphasized tax policies and entitlement programs that would assist the plight of dislocated workers, but warned that technological changes could not be easily reversed because it “is not the result of temporary slumps in the economy, as we’ve just been discussing. It’s caused by deep and lasting changes in science, technology, competitiveness, and skills. And you just can’t cure that with a quick-fix solution.”

While his visit in 1983 was the only one President Reagan made after he was elected, he had been to Pittsburgh before. On October 31, 1980, then-candidate Reagan met with labor leaders in the William Penn Hotel, accompanied by Sen. John Heinz and Sen. Richard Schweiker. Afterwards, he gave a speech at a campaign rally at Station Square. Four days later, Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a landslide.