With vow broken, retirees steel themselves for tough times

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Beth Steel's `legacies' prepare selves for tough times as they lose benefits

March 26, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

BETHLEHEM Steel Corp. made a big promise and didn't keep it. So about 95,000 of its retirees, who for decades worked dirty and dangerous jobs in the company's mills from here to Lehigh, will lose the health and life insurance benefits their union had negotiated and their employer had agreed to provide.

"If you don't die before March 31, don't plan on collecting any death benefits," Carole Zablocki, wife of a retiree, quipped yesterday, throwing a little dark humor into a conversation about what struck me as a historically ironic situation: With the nation at war again, the company that once symbolized the United States' modern defense industry finds itself at long last bankrupt, selling itself to a bargain hunter and terminating its obligations to retired workers.

"They had to dump their legacies," Mrs. Zablocki said, throwing a legal term into her version of the Beth Mess, and again I was struck by the ironic tone. I tried to humanize the concept -- "dumping one's legacies" -- and thought of a man cutting off his connections, shedding ancestors and descendants both as he sets off for a new life.

Something like this happened with Bethlehem Steel.

By "legacies," of course, Mrs. Zablocki means pensions and health benefits for retirees. A union leader would call them contractual obligations. I call them promises.

The federal government assumed Bethlehem's pension obligations, and the company had to jettison the rest -- about $225 million a year -- in order for the deal with Cleveland-based International Steel Group Inc. to go through.

And in this country, ISG was not legally obligated to pick up any of these "legacies."

In fact, this opportunistic company -- they love to pick up assets in bankruptcy court restructurings -- never would have gone for the deal with the "legacies" attached.

So the "legacies" go, and now close to 20,000 Bethlehem retirees in the Baltimore area, some of them hooked up to oxygen tanks or in wheelchairs, have to scramble to find health insurance coverage and a way to pay for it, or fall into the ranks of the 40 million Americans without health insurance.

This is something none of them counted on -- one more stress in the golden years. It was part of the promise the company made, and a steelworker kept faith and made plans based on it. A steelworker set his life's clock by it.

"It was an agreement," said Mrs. Zablocki, wife of 43-year Bethlehem Steel worker Bill Zablocki. "They signed it. We signed it. We're all having a hard time understanding how, in this democracy, [Bethlehem Steel] could just say, `That's it, we're through. You're out and you're out and you're out.'"

Mrs. Zablocki and her husband were married in 1957. They had four children, raised them on Kenyon Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, and sent them to Shrine of the Little Flower School.

Six-foot-five Bill Zablocki, now 70, drove a tractor-trailer down Sparrows Point, and he often pulled double shifts.

His wife mentioned her husband's work record at The Point yesterday as if to underscore the lack of gratitude inherent in the decision to terminate promised benefits.

"My husband worked for Bethlehem Steel for 43 years, and it was 39 years before he missed a day."

And only then because his appendix erupted -- after he'd worked 88 hours in a week.

That's supposed to count for something.

I know: foreign competition, lousy management, a bloated work force for too many years -- all of that contributed to Bethlehem Steel's collapse. There's plenty of blame to go around. It's an old story, and Sparrows Point will make a nice marina some day. We know all that. We've been watching this industrial tragedy play out for years.

You can't refit the Bethlehem Steel story for a happier ending.

But what about promises?

Workers like Bill Zablocki agreed to hard, dirty and dangerous work at Sparrows Point under the conditions specified in numerous contracts, and aspects of these contracts were to be long in effect -- until all the eligible retirees no longer needed them. The benefits were promises.

That such benefits can be summarily terminated, even as that company descends into bankruptcy, seems wrong -- especially for a class of workers who put their health at risk to help secure profits back in the day. There should be some instrument, a way to force companies or their corporate successors to keep these promises, some legal bridge to the past that sustains the "legacies."

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