The rise and fall of life and steel at `the Point'

Bethlehem Steel: Competition sapped the industry, bankruptcy brought down the company, and now the remaining workers fear for their future.

December 22, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In 1918, just back from World War I, Ernest Bartee traveled from West Virginia's backwaters to Sparrows Point in Baltimore County and joined another army - the men with strong backs and distant dreams who made America's steel. He worked there 30 years.

His son, Eddie Bartee Sr., would work for the Bethlehem Steel Co., too, for 42 years and retire with a comfortable pension.

His grandson, Eddie Bartee Jr., is ready to log his 29th year there as a steelworker and union official.

At the once-powerful industrial giant that spans more than the 20th century, the Bartees were there 80 of those years.

Surviving as a steelworker meant working in dirty, noisy and dangerous places and, in many cases, through the sting of discrimination. And to last for the duration - that 30-year promised land where a steelworker could collect a handsome pension - they will tell you, ironically, that working at Sparrows Point was a labor of love and immense pride.

But at a plant where the night skies used to glow orange from the heaving, sparking furnaces, the once-mighty steel titan is on its knees. Soon, it could be sold, closed or merged with another company.

And unlike his grandfather and father, the youngest Bartee discovered last week one of his worst fears coming true: He will narrowly miss making his pension eligibility.

He can't believe, like so many others, that the sprawling mill along the Patapsco River, long having worn the local sobriquet "the Point," could be gone forever.

Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2001. Last week, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. announced that it will take over Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s pension obligation, which is underfunded by $4.3 billion.

In the world of high finance and corporate strategy, there is little sympathy among industry analysts and economists for Beth Steel, which lost $270 million in the first nine months of this year and whose stock sells for little more than a dime per share.

At corporate headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., Chief Executive Officer Robert S. Miller Jr. said he is concerned that the federal pension agency's action will make a potential deal less attractive to Cleveland-based International Steel Group Inc., which could merge with or purchase outright Bethlehem Steel's holdings at Sparrows Point and Burns Harbor, Ind.

Expensive legacy

In addition to the $4.3 billion in pension payments, the Sparrows Point plant has another staggering legacy - $3 billion in health care obligations to retirees and surviving spouses, including 14,600 who live in the Baltimore area. ISG is negotiating to purchase Bethlehem's assets, with a Jan. 6 deadline for a deal.

That - combined with news of Christmas week furloughs and expected job cuts - leaves former and current Beth Steel workers wondering whether a way of life so familiar to generations of families like the Bartees will end. Will the retirees and surviving spouses keep their pensions as they know them? Their health care? How many of the 3,300 workers still at the Point will keep their jobs?

"I'm the last family offspring to work here. Three generations put their sweat and blood into this mill," said the youngest Bartee, 48. "We hope something good can emerge, but the steel industry in America is dying.

"I've seen entire mills shut down here, tens of thousands lose their jobs. Now I'm on the precipice. I thought Beth Steel would be here forever."

Family success story

His father, Eddie Bartee Sr., 68, is a tall, dignified man with a full head of snow-white hair. He has a deep, resonant voice, and, as he sits in the dining room of his Northwood rowhouse, it wouldn't be a stretch for a visitor to imagine jazz great Joe Williams sitting there, talking about making steel.

His family is close, goal-oriented and successful. Next month he and his wife, Christine, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Only two of their six children - Ernest, who worked making tin plates but drowned when he was 24, and Eddie Jr. - made a career at Sparrows Point.

"I am afraid we've seen the last of that tradition, a tradition that allowed families to rise into the middle class," Eddie Bartee Sr. said. "Those days are gone."

Generations of families like the Bartees traded grueling and dangerous work for good pay and financial security - the old guys in the mills called it "blood money." Now they see the curtain dropping on an institution - their institution.

Strong unionists, they hold a deep cultural distrust of the company and big government and wonder what will happen to them, their families and the steelworks they curse, yet love.

"I'm scared to death," said Don Kelner, who put in more than four decades at Sparrows Point and served 16 years as president of the Local 2610, United Steelworkers of America. "All of us worked hard to secure a good life for our families. ... Now it's one big question mark."

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