Steel leaves its hometown steelworkers forge new lives

Decline: The city that steel built in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley faces a future without the industry that has employed generations of workers.

March 01, 1998|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Bob Ebeling owes no small part of his life to The Steel.

The Steel -- short here for Bethlehem Steel Corp. -- gave livelihood to his great-grandfather, Olaf Emil Ebeling. The Swedish immigrant was so grateful that he asked to be buried facing the huge mill's open hearth. He died of pneumonia in 1908. The Steel kept going, providing work for three more generations of Ebelings.

At the end of the month, 90 years after Olaf Ebeling made The Steel his eternal companion, Bob Ebeling will lose his job when the company closes Coke Works -- its last manufacturing operation in its namesake town.

Ebeling, 45, will more than likely move to one of Bethlehem's other plants to finish a career that fell so easily into place for his forebears. A sign posted on his refrigerator tells the story: It is a map of the United States that marks three Bethlehem plants -- Buffalo, N.Y., Sparrows Point, Md., and Burns Harbor, Ind.

Upstairs, fresh from the night shift at S&L Plastics, Brendan Ebeling, Bob's 19-year-old son, slept. "Years ago, I told him 'You better study, because there's not going to be any Bethlehem Steel for you,' " Ebeling said.

The 40-year decline of Bethlehem Steel in this town mirrors what has happened to one of America's bedrock blue-collar jobs. Thousands of workers through most of the century could count on steel to provide money for homes, schools and retirement -- even a 13-week vacation every few years.

For many of today's steel workers, that certainty has been eroded. Rocked by layoffs, they have developed second careers. Threatened by plant closures, they've made concessions to savior buyers. Concerned about building retirement benefits, they've taken the difficult, dangerous and dirty jobs once reserved for new workers. For the same reason, they have moved.

In short, many workers are fighting to keep what once made steel a blue-chip job: stability, good pay and a secure pension.

"The steel worker was the aristocrat," said Ben Fischer, professor of labor studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "He's no longer the aristocrat in terms of status or pay. Now he has a good job, if he has that."

Perhaps no place demonstrates the steel worker's shrinking world better than Bethlehem, Pa., a cradle of the industry with a plant that some fear may be just a few steps ahead of Sparrows Point in its downsizing.

Once a behemoth that employed 31,523 workers in the 1940s, The Steel has shed layer upon layer over the decades -- 4,000 jobs in just the last five years. The "hot end" went down in 1995, then structural products in 1997. Last year, Bethlehem Steel sold BethForge Inc. and Centec Roll Corp., with those workers taking a cut in benefits and wages. After Coke Works is gone, all that will be left of Bethlehem Steel in this city of 72,000 are its 21-story headquarters, a research facility and a small railroad that together employ fewer than 1,000.

The Sparrows Point work force -- which peaked at 30,000 in 1959 -- will fall from 5,300 to about 4,000 over the next three years. The Sparrows Point and Bethlehem plants have taken a back seat to the company's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant.

Jobs good but scarce

To be sure, steelmaking remains one of the nation's best manufacturing jobs. Workers earn $34 an hour in wages and benefits. With overtime, they can make as much as $50,000 a year. In fact, it is the job's attractiveness that makes survivors willing to give up so much to hang on.

Fierce competition -- from imports and low-cost minimills -- and new technology are exerting tremendous pressure on Big Steel. As a result, over the last decade steel workers have decreased from about 163,000 to 119,000; Bethlehem Steel accounts for about 13 percent of all domestic steel employment.

The pressure also extracts a toll on those still on the job.

Last year, 4,500 Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Co. workers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio waged a 10-month strike over the company's proposal to change the pension plan. The workers kept the plan, but gave up 850 jobs.

At Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, the United Steelworkers of America agreed last October to give up 900 jobs to get a new $300 million cold-rolling mill. Then, in December, Bethlehem said it would close the plate mill as part of a merger, eliminating another 400 jobs.

Now, in Bethlehem, it's Coke Works' turn. With no bids submitted by the deadline, the company announced last week that it would shut the 800-worker plant March 31. Unlike his father, grandfathers -- on both sides -- and his great-grandfather, Bob Ebeling is ready. As The Steel divested in Bethlehem, he divested in The Steel.

A veteran of side jobs, Bob Ebeling did something seven years ago that would have surprised Olaf, the rugged Swede who led steel workers on fishing expeditions: He became a nurse.

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