They Acted Like Men and Were Treated Like Men


February 17, 1992|By LEN SHINDEL

Francis Brown, 61, has worked at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point Plant for 36 years. He was one of the leaders of Steel and Shipyard Workers for Equality, which formed in the early 1960s. Later, he was an elected official of the steelworkers' union Local 2610. He is now collecting documents of the black steelworkers' struggle to be placed in the archives of Morgan State University's Soper Library.

Mr. Brown bitterly remembers applying for work at Bethlehem's employment office in 1956. ''I went to a trade school. It seems like they would have wanted to put me in a trade or craft. But they gave me a shovel. When I got on the job, I met men who had gone to Howard University and Morgan. They had shovels, too.''

David Carroll, who retired in 1988, applied for work with a group of black men who had some college education. A few were rejected. As they left the employment office, an older janitor came up and advised them to come back the next day ''but don't dress so neat and tell them that you never graduated from high school.'' They took the advice and were hired.

Bethlehem Steel was a segregated dominion, ripe for the revolt which was born in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Says Mr. Brown: ''Conditions in the departments were separate and unequal. In the toilet facilities, blacks were mostly upstairs, whites downstairs. The people who cleaned the toilets were 99 percent black.''

He recalls his first involvement in the struggle: ''I was talking in the locker room and an employee by the name of Francis Bernard Jones said: 'You have plenty of mouth-but no action. I just sat down at the lunchroom. They will not serve blacks. I'm going back tomorrow. Are you going with me?' I said: 'Yes.'

''Francis Bernard Jones happened to be the steelworker's Rosa Parks! The next day we went to the union hall to talk to the president and one of the other officers. They told us that if we continued that kind of action, they would take no responsibility for our jobs.

''We got really angry. We headed straight down to the Congress of Racial Equality on Gay and Eden St.''

CORE encouraged the formation of Steel and Shipyard Workers for Equality. The group grew as it organized against Bethlehem's unit seniority system. Black workers were hired into the hottest, dirtiest units. Says Mr. Brown: ''If you asked for a transfer to a white unit for a better job or a higher-paying job, the transfer was sent to the employment office and you were put in the posture of quitting your job. If the plant was hiring that day, you had a chance of getting hired.''

The comradeship which was born in mobilizing Bethlehem's workers radiated into Baltimore's African-American community. Black steelworkers founded the Pharaoh's Social Club on Collington Avenue near North Avenue. Pharaoh's became a meeting place, not just for steelworkers, but for other Baltimoreans active in the civil-rights struggle.

Many steelworkers repaid CORE's assistance by joining the organization and supporting its local activities.

The steelworkers began to hold pickets and marches at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington and at Bethlehem Steel's corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania. Aided by attorney Kenneth Johnson (now a Circuit Court judge) and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, steelworkers filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Bethlehem Steel, alleging that the corporation's seniority practices perpetuated discrimination. Some of these complaints were joined by women workers in the plant. Similar complaints were pending in other steel towns.

In 1974 Bethlehem and eight other steel makers agreed in a consent decree to end to unit seniority. Transfer opportunities were enhanced and transferred workers could now promote in units on the basis of plant seniority. The decree offered back pay and provided affirmative action for blacks and women in the skilled crafts.

Intense polarization met the signing of the consent decree. A group of white workers collected money for a lawsuit to return to unit seniority, arguing that a deluge of ''unskilled'' workers would ''destroy the mills.'' Posters for Ku Klux Klan rallies were seen on the walls in some areas.

The average back-pay check under the consent decree was less than $1,000. David Carroll formed the 21 Century Labor Council to encourage black workers to refuse the checks and continue litigation for more back pay and stronger seniority provisions. Some 592 checks amounting to $566,000 went uncashed, though the litigation failed.

In the 1970s, economic crisis enveloped the steel industry as a whole, and entire mills like Bethlehem's pipe mill shut down. The plant-seniority provisions of the consent decree permitted both black and white workers to find new opportunities in other departments. Many of those who had opposed the decree now became its defenders.

Affirmative action in craft jobs did not reach the industry until it was already in its decline. While some black and women workers entered the crafts, the struggle has resumed. Recently grievances were filed by black and women workers calling on Bethlehem to restore apprenticeship programs.

Francis Brown often ponders how the struggle changed things at Bethlehem Steel: ''Years ago, everywhere they went in this plant, blacks were on their knees, hat in their hand. They would stand outside an office until someone asked them to come in. They wouldn't walk in and ask questions. Everybody white was 'Mr.' Now they acted like men and were treated like men.''

A few weeks ago Mr. Brown was approached by one of the early leaders of Steelworkers for Equality. ''He smiled and shook my hand. He said that he was just promoted to assistant roller, next to the top job in the newly modernized hot mill. He wouldn't have that job today if we hadn't fought like we did.''

Len Shindel writes from Baltimore.

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