In a nearly hidden warren of second-floor offices on Eastern Avenue, newly energized steelworkers are focusing big labor's money and manpower in this election on the unseating of Newt Gingrich as House speaker.
With a fury once reserved for the robber barons, these men and women will try to topple Gingrich by defeating stalwarts like Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland's 2nd District. The freshman Republican, the steelworkers say, is an unrepentant supporter of Gingrich and his anti-worker agenda.
Yet, Gingrich is regarded as a blessing as well. By daring to suggest a national right-to-work law, a rollback of worker safety regulations and removal of protections for employee pensions, he has become a potent organizing force for the union.
"He's the best friend we ever had," says Dave Wilson, District 8 director for the United Steelworkers of America. "Until he came along, we were allowing Republicans to take control of our members with their special-interest hot buttons."
As they attempt to deal with Gingrich and Ehrlich, union leaders also are pushing members to grapple with larger, profoundly troubling economic issues: the erosion of job security by international trade agreements, the loss of jobs through corporate downsizing and more than a decade of wage stagnation.
With a reporter from The Sun listening, Wilson and several other steelworkers sat at a conference table last week to talk about the issues and personalities of the 1996 campaign. All around were the paraphernalia of elections: maps identifying pockets of Democratic support in the 2nd District, campaign brochures, a duplicating machine.
Wilson, a soft-spoken Dundalk native, was joined by Joe Duncan, president of Steelworkers Union Local 1245, who wore a dark blue sweat shirt with two Clinton For President buttons pinned to the front; Bettye Ann Ridgely, a crane operator at Bethlehem Steel, union organizer and delegate to this year's Democratic National Convention; Eugene Dorr, legislative and campaign director for District 8 in Maryland; Bill Nugent, a millwright at Sparrows Point who works as Wilson's assistant; and Patricia Dorr, Dorr's wife and a secretary in the district headquarters on Eastern Avenue.
Their conversation followed the trail of recent history of Steelworkers Local 1245. Between 1986 and 1995, the plant served by this local -- now called Avesta Sheffield -- was sold three times.
Were they downsized by the new owners? Duncan was asked.
"Every time," he says.
In 1986, 800 workers were in Duncan's local. Now, after another 30 workers were laid off in recent weeks, the number is about 200.
"That's the trickle-down theory," says Duncan.
"Voodoo," he adds, recalling the assertion that the supply-side economic theories followed by former President Ronald Reagan resembled "voodoo" more than economics.
A welder trained in his native Trinidad, Duncan was recruited by Bethlehem Steel 20 years ago and moved by that company to the United States. Since then, he has worked on structures that help define the skyline of the Baltimore area: the Francis Scott Key Bridge (365 feet above the water), the 37-floor USF&G building and a 1,200-foot Navy communications tower in Annapolis.
How Reagan won
The Reagan economics may have been inscrutable, but there was nothing mysterious in the way he won the hearts of union men and women in the 1980s, the steelworkers say.
"We lost the political support of our members because we said 'Vote Democrat' without a lot of rationale behind it. Our people were told, 'Vote for Republicans and you can have all the guns you want or all the abortion opposition you want.' Republicans reflected concerns they had, and they bolted."
At the same time, union organizers like Wilson and his team were demonized:
"They call us thugs and bosses." His six grandchildren would not agree, he says.
Wilson started at Bethlehem Steel in 1954 as a general laborer, became a union committeeman, a shop steward and president of what was then a 10,000-member local in the finishing plant. He served for 16 years and was then elected president of the district, which includes West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland.
Wilson and his allies now fight along the information superhighway, developing what they call a "Rapid Response" network: 4,000 fax machines are being installed in the homes of union workers like Ridgely, the crane operator. She will get issue papers from the union's Pittsburgh headquarters and pass them out in her plant -- a system that will make the union competitive with the National Rifle Association's member magazine, Wilson hopes.
"We're confident working people will vote in their best interests," says Ridgely who began at The Point as a mechanical helper -- "a wrench carrier," says Nugent, gently needling. "I was a laborer," she says proudly. The union gave her an opportunity to "bid up into various other jobs, finally to crane operator, "a commodity still in demand."