Beth Steel's filing depresses area

What are prospects of finding another job? asks worker, 53

Shutdown, layoffs feared

October 16, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

With all the financial problems facing Bethlehem Steel, workers at the Sparrows Point plant figured the company inevitably would buckle under the strain.

But the news that Bethlehem was joining the 25 other steel companies that have filed for bankruptcy since 1998 still didn't seem quite real, they said yesterday.

"It's not a surprise, but it's very depressing," said John Cirri, a material handler and president of Local 2609, United Steelworkers of America. "It shows that Bethlehem is not immune to the crisis of the steel industry.

"We have about 13,000 workers throughout the company that are going to have to sit down with their families and think about whether they have a future in steel."

As workers left the Sparrows Point facility in Baltimore County yesterday or sat eating bagels at the local union hall, they worried about job security and whether their pay would be cut. Many have never worked anywhere else.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy calls for restructuring of the company's finances, which most likely will mean renegotiating labor contracts. Union officials have already begun meeting with Bethlehem's top officials.

As he stood outside the union hall, Mark Johnson, 44, worried that his 21-year career with Bethlehem won't shield him from the cuts he expects to see throughout the company.

"I believe that the company will come back to workers and ask for concessions," he said.

Robert S. "Steve" Miller Jr., Bethlehem's chairman and chief executive, told managers and union leaders about the bankruptcy filing during a teleconference yesterday morning.

Throughout the rest of the day, company officials began distributing letters about the proceedings and showing a tape of the teleconference to other workers. They'll continue that over the next couple of days.

Workers described the mood at the plant as solemn. Many had heard the news on radio or television before they arrived for their 7 a.m. shifts. A news story about the bankruptcy, printed from the Internet, began circulating in the plant.

The rumors were abundant. People talked of widespread layoffs or that the plant would be shut down. Retirees worried that the company would cut their health benefits. Health care costs the company $280 million to $300 million a year.

Others heard they would have to give up vacation time and take a $2-an-hour pay cut.

Union representatives took calls from worried members all day.

"We're trying to remain positive," said Al Barmer, vice president of Steelworkers Local 2610. "Just because they're talking about Chapter 11 doesn't mean we're going out of business."

No decision yet

Company officials said no decision on the plant's future has been made.

Job cuts have "happened in other cases," said Van Reiner, president of Bethlehem's Sparrows Plant division. "Right now, what we're telling everyone is that they should still come to work, they'll still get their benefits packages and paychecks, and if you're retired you'll still get your pension."

The reassurances haven't been enough to calm many workers, who say they have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy and children to raise. The fact that 27,000 steelworkers have lost jobs since 1998, many during bankruptcy proceedings, adds to the insecurity.

Ray Harris has worked at Sparrows Point for 28 years and said he knows nothing else. If he loses his job as a technician, Harris wonders if he'll be able to make his $800 monthly mortgage payment. Fortunately, he said, his children are 19 and 25 and living on their own.

"I might have to live with them," Harris said half-heartedly, after he finished work yesterday. "If I lost my job, and I'm 53 years old, what are the prospects of me finding another one?"

She was disbelieving

Clutching a cup of coffee as she left work, Debbie Long was disbelieving about the announcement. She has a 14-year-old daughter to take care of and can't afford to take a pay cut, or worse, to lose her job.

"I've always known Bethlehem Steel as such a strong company," Long said. "I've made my living here for 28 years. I've supported myself with this job almost my whole life."

Younger workers were less concerned about how bankruptcy could affect their future with Bethlehem. Joe Diveley, 18, and Kevin Ralston, 18, have worked at the company in production three and four months respectively.

"We don't have families and stuff to take care of," Diveley said. "We're young enough where we could find another job."

Foreign competitors blamed

Many of the workers blame the company's current woes on foreign competition.

They want the federal government to step in and impose tougher restrictions on the dumping of imported steel. They'd also like to see Congress help the steel companies with rising health care costs.

"Bethlehem and the rest of the steel industry will not survive without government help," Cirri said.

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