Bitter mood tinges Beth Steel hangout

Anger: After a bankruptcy filing, possible sale and the threat of benefit cuts and layoffs, employees talk of betrayal from a once-revered company.

February 15, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The air at Micky's fills with smoke every day on schedule, as the seats groan under a crush of boots and denim that pours in from the afternoon shift change at Bethlehem Steel. The mill's workers flood the local hangout with drinks and chatter the same way their fathers and grandfathers did for most of the past six decades.

But two things have changed at Micky's, both of them blamed on the slow and disheartening decline of Baltimore's once-mighty mill.

A lot fewer steel workers inhabit the Sparrows Point haunt these days, for one.

And gone is any hint of reverence for Bethlehem Steel.

"The things going on over there have got a lot of people pretty angry right now," said Jim Narutowicz Sr., who inherited Micky's from his parents and is passing it on to his two sons. "It's a heated topic these days," he said. "Just ask."

Narutowicz was right. An innocent query about the mood over at the mill touched off a vicious fusillade of complaints from every corner, as if Micky's were a balloon full of cuss words just waiting for the right moment to burst. The froth and spray settled down only when Narutowicz sidled over to smother the sour mood with his calm and quiet way.

"We don't allow any cursing in here you know," Narutowicz said. Then he smiled. "It's pretty tough to stop it these days, though."

Bethlehem Steel's chairman said this week that the beleaguered company expects to cut as many as 4,000 jobs nationwide when it is absorbed by Cleveland-based competitor International Steel Group Inc., which has agreed to buy the company out of bankruptcy. (ISG described the estimate as speculation.) Bethlehem Steel Co. has 11,000 employees, and more than 3,000 of them work in Baltimore. Local employees figure many of the layoffs will have to come from Sparrows Point.

But the announcement was only the latest indignity for a work force that used to number nearly 50,000 in Baltimore, and which once placed the city among the world leaders of steelmaking and shipbuilding. Last week the company said it wants to stop paying for health benefits and life insurance for retirees.

No longer do the steelworkers in Micky's speak of their industrial employer as if it were a member of the family. Rather, workers whose entire lives were built around Bethlehem Steel's promises say they feel betrayed.

"These guys who dedicated 30 years of their life to Bethlehem Steel aren't anything more than a worn-out tool to the company now," said Gary Pascarell, an ironworker who stopped in after his shift. "The people who grew up here, whose grandfathers and fathers worked here and who thought they'd always have a job, that's who I feel sorry for the most."

Micky's is a roadside convenience store, game room, check-cashing counter and beer joint on North Point Boulevard, two turns away from Bethlehem Steel's front door. On most days at 2 p.m., when the early shift workers start clocking out, the long picnic tables slowly fill with the current generation of workers at the mill.

By 3 p.m. on a recent visit, the seating area teemed with ironworkers, maintenance specialists and assorted laborers. Every one of the poker machines was manned by a Beth Steel retiree. The check-cashing line grew to three or four deep.

Micky's used to do quite a business cashing checks, 90 percent or more of them from the mill. Now it's just a service they provide for regular customers. Only 20 percent of the checks say Bethlehem Steel.

Yogi Elliott grew up nearby and has worked at Bethlehem Steel since he graduated from Sparrows Point High School 30 years ago. He has two daughters, half a mortgage left and a job that he fears will be among the first to fall. Rumors that his maintenance department would be replaced by contract workers have swirled for years, but never at their current rate.

"And one of the worst things is that none of us know what's going to happen. Nobody tells us anything," said Elliott, one foot on a bench as he leaned into a conversation with co-workers. "We're just living day to day."

The talk soon erupted into another coarse tirade from all directions, critical of management, union leadership, corporate investors and anyone else associated with Bethlehem Steel's slow spiral downward. More than one steelworker noted the harsh tone, and how little respect Bethlehem Steel seems to command these days in the side room at Micky's.

After a short lull, it started again.

"The only thing that drove Bethlehem Steel into the ground is the people that run the place," said one 28-year employee.

"You've got a lot of unhappy workers over there right now. It's never been this bad," added another.

"What are there, 3,000 people working there now? Well 2,999 are disgruntled," said yet another.

Then a steelworker sitting down the table from the conversation looked up from his cup and huffed, "I'm sure not the one who isn't."

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