In Dundalk, prosperity just passed them by

Doubt: While others enjoy the economic boom, workers here worry about their next paychecks and fear for families and neighborhoods.

July 24, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

"See these?" Paul Bomhardt says, sweeping a beefy arm around the bar. "These chairs, that wall, the bumpers on some cars. Half the things we use every day has steel in it."

And if it's got steel in it, Bomhardt will proudly tell you, he's probably had a hand in putting it there.

Bomhardt, 26, is a mechanic at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s sprawling Sparrows Point plant. His job: to keep the factory chugging. It's grimy, treacherous work, requiring him to regularly limbo beneath 700-ton cauldrons of liquid zinc and nose up to steel plate whizzing by at 50 feet a second. Men, he says, have lost fingers, toes and, on occasion, their lives doing what he does.

Dangerous as his job may be, here in the heart of tough, working-class Dundalk, Bomhardt is considered one of the blessed.

Even without a college degree, he earns more than 20 dollars an hour - enough to afford a $70,000 house in a safe neighborhood, a nest egg for retirement and to enable his wife to spend her days at home with their two young children.

Once, Baltimore was filled with Paul Bomhardts - guys with good jobs, decent homes and solid futures. But that's changed. As the nation prepares to elect the first president of the new century, many blue-collar workers are trying to find their place in an economy turned topsy-turvy by technology.

Steel is out; silicon is in. Smokestacks that once spewed thick, cottony plumes now line the horizon like grave markers, victims of advances in technology, cheap overseas labor and a rapidly evolving economy. Bethlehem Steel once bustled with 30,000 workers. Now, it employs barely more than 4,000. General Motors, another anchor of the local economy, built cars around the clock for most of its 65 years. Last month, the Broening Highway plant cut down to one shift; rumors buzz that even those jobs might not last.

`The poor get poorer'

As manufacturers and local shops continue to fade, so too has blue-collar confidence. Conversations with residents in the once-bustling community of Dundalk show that many are gloomy about their work prospects, their neighborhoods and their futures. Watching as the rest of the country cruises through the longest economic boom in its history, some here have begun to wonder, "So where's my cut?"

Two of them are Barbara and Henry Jones, who live on a scruffy block in the Dundalk neighborhood of St. Helena.

"It's the same old story: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," says Barbara, 44, as she leans against the doorjamb of her modest $25,000 home.

Her husband, Henry, sandblasts bridges for a living, from the Bay Bridge to some as far away as New York. On his present job, he leaves for work at 5 in the morning and often doesn't return until 7 or 8 o'clock at night.

For all that, she says, he brings home $500 a week, sometimes far less. In winter, when bridge work ceases, Henry often doesn't work at all.

They have a $300 monthly mortgage payment, and care for Barbara's mother, their teen-age son and two grandchildren. Leftover cash, says Barbara, is eaten up by medical bills, which Henry's job doesn't cover. Asked if she feels she's better off today than during the last presidential campaign four years ago, Barbara starts to cry.

Bill Clinton promised to greatly expand the availability of health care and didn't, she says, and that cost her family dearly.

Her daughter recently had to have a diseased kidney removed, which Barbara says could have been avoided if she'd been able to afford medical treatment when her daughter was a child.

Barbara lost all her teeth a few years ago to gum disease. She'd like to get dentures so she wouldn't feel ashamed to go out but can't afford them. "That's a luxury," she says.

The Joneses, both Democrats, feel let down by both parties. They don't understand how the decisions in Washington are made. Why, they wonder, do politicians blow tax money repaving highways every few years when it's broken communities like theirs that truly need to be patched?

"They lie through their teeth just to get into office, then they don't keep their promises once they're there," Barbara says. Her ideal candidate? "If Robin Hood was running, I'd vote for him."

Henry says he probably won't vote at all - because he can't afford to.

"If I'm on a sandblasting job making $150 a day, why would I do jury duty for - whatever it is they pay - $15 a day?" he asks.

It's something you hear often from working-class folks here. For those living paycheck to paycheck, it isn't a matter of political apathy, but survival. Vote, the reasoning goes, and you go into the pool for jury duty. Get picked, and that could mean days, even weeks, off the job.

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