Laboring under a shadow of fears that will not rest Anxiety: Once considered the backbone of U.S. productivity, workers wonder whether they can withstand the changes ahead.

August 05, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the belly of the sweltering quarry, an endless procession of dump trucks hisses and clanks. They are loaded with sand and lurch off toward construction sites throughout Maryland.

And Anthony Bell, plant manager, makes the process -- digging and dredging more than 300 thousand tons of sand a year -- go.

Quarry work is backbreaking and tedious, through wilting summers and bone-chilling winters. Yet Bell has been there his entire adult life. He speaks proudly of his blue-collar roots, like his father who toiled for more than three decades in a Procter & Gamble factory before it closed.

But Anthony Bell, 40, father of four, is afraid and angry. These are tumultuous times in middle America as workers -- once considered the backbone of U.S. productivity -- watch technological breakthroughs, overseas competition and corporate restructuring point to their eventual extinction. He is living the requiem for the blue-collar worker.

As the tractor replaced the farm horse and electricity turned coal cellars obsolete, America is witnessing its third industrial revolution. People who comprise the diminishing rolls of the working class -- and as the gap between society's elite and underclass widens -- proud people like Bell speak painfully of the trend and their disaffection with their government.

"My reward is doing a good job but man is being replaced by machine, folks like me are being phased out," Bell said at the Redland-Genstar quarry in eastern Baltimore County, a region hit hard by plant closings, unemployment and rising crime.

"All the years you work, Social Security and Medicare might be gone," Bell said. "The government and courts have taken control of our lives. My family and I might not have a future."

The stretch of U.S. 40 from east Baltimore through Harford County called Pulaski Highway, named in honor of the father of the U.S. Cavalry, was once populated by blue-collar families who found steady work, healthy wages and comfortable pensions in the nearby steel mills, automobile plant, airplane factory, Army base and construction and building trades.

Nowhere was the banner of the working class carried higher than in Rosedale, a community of more than 100,000 residents that before the 1970s housed almost exclusively the workers of Bethlehem Steel, Western Electric, General Motors and Martin-Marietta.

In those days of American manufacturing, unions were strong, a national purpose ran through the electorate, it was country right or wrong.

"Was there a better time in the history of the nation?" asked William Burgess, who came home after serving as a B-29 gunner in World War II to work for, and retire from, Martin.

But overseas competition and the push for greater productivity and higher profits through automation and corporate downsizing rendered its toll, creating a gathering industrial graveyard.

Today, only 6,000 workers remain at Beth Steel's Sparrows Point plant where 35,000 were once employed. General Motors has cut thousands of jobs over the last two decades. Martin's is now Lockheed Martin Corp. and a few thousand workers remain, compared to the wartime high of 57,000 employees. Western Electric shut down in 1984.

Along Pulaski Highway today, in Rosedale and other communities and workplaces along U.S. 40, pride is still evident but is being joined by fear and loathing. Fear of losing their jobs; loathing a distant, seemingly unresponsive government in Washington.

"I like my job and make a comfortable living for my family," Bell said at the quarry, an operation not far from Genstar's field

headquarters on U.S. 40 in White Marsh.

"But like anyplace else in the country, I could drive to work tomorrow and find the gate to the quarry locked and the place sold," said Bell. "I'd be history."

'Blue-collar despair'

For workers like Bell, a deep cynicism has replaced national allegiance for a class of workers who fought the nation's wars, forged its steel, built its automobiles and dug its ditches before -- the decline of jobs started in the 1960s.

Approaching the final presidential election of the 20th century, many along the U.S. 40 corridor say they will not vote, refusing to support a government they feel has abandoned them.

"Nobody seems to be speaking to them from Washington, that's what is causing the blue-collar despair," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee of the Study of the American Electorate who has analyzed voter trends for 20 years.

Voters with an annual income of $15,000 or less showed a 21 percent drop in voter participation between the 1990 and 1994 presidential elections, Gans said.

"Why vote? All of them down in Washington could care less about us," said Anna Boeshore, 60, an early-shift waitress who hustles tables in the Double T Diner, a popular restaurant and gathering spot.

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