For forging tough careers, reward is tough retirement

March 27, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMETIMES America breaks our hearts.

Sometimes you have Dundalk Avenue, where maybe a thousand men and women streamed into the United Steelworkers of America union hall yesterday morning, wondering what in the world happened to the sweet retirement years they thought they had been promised.

Here was Stanley Dondalski, 73, who worked at Bethlehem Steel for 39 years and carried a small oxygen tank with tubes that ran up to his nostrils. "Asbestosis," he shrugged. In retrospect, it was always one of the risks of the job. But now Dondalski, like the others anxiously jamming their way into the union hall, wondered how he will pay his medical costs.

Here was Jesse Godwin, 84, who spent 43 years in the company's tin mill machine shop. He walked with two canes. Years ago a pile of steel turned over and landed on Godwin. His ruined legs are only part of it. He's had congestive heart failure, lung failure, diabetes. Who pays those health costs now?

And here was Edward Clark, 84, who spent 40 years wearing protective clothing every day to shield him from searing-hot ingots. His son helped him along the sidewalk yesterday. "Married to the same woman since 1941," he said proudly. But how do they support themselves now?

Sometimes America breaks your heart.

Monday, a Manhattan U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s plan to end health care and life insurance benefits for 95,000 retirees at the end of the month as the company prepares for new ownership. About 20,000 of the retirees live around Baltimore.

They've been arriving by the thousands all week on Dundalk Avenue, to listen to union officials try to calm their fears and tell them what political connections they're trying to make, and how such a mess happened after all those years when steel workers were told, yes, the jobs are rough, and the years take a grinding physical toll, but the retirement benefits will leave you in lovely shape.

In America, corporate executives get the golden parachutes and workers get the shaft.

Yesterday morning, there were retirees who couldn't wedge their way into the packed union hall. They sat on little metal chairs and stood along the walls. They heard Jim Centner, director of the Steel Workers Organization of Active Retirees, tell them, "We know you're angry, frustrated and scared. All those years, you worked in harsh conditions, and you've suffered from those exposures."

Then they heard a Washington union research technician, Carey Bernell, ask, "How many of you are 65 or older?" About half the hands in the room went up. "How many are 55 to 65?" Almost as many hands.

The age distinction is important. Those 65 and older will lose insurance and health benefits but hold on to their pensions. Those not yet 65 will lose pension benefits.

Then Bernell asked, "How many of you are veterans?" Hundreds of hands went up, maybe 80 percent of the room. A woman called out, "This is terrorism in our own country." And you began to think about billions spent to send soldiers into Iraq while these old veterans wonder about the cost of prescription drugs.

They are the people who fought the nation's previous wars and thought they'd be protected later. It was part of the deal, wasn't it? Some of them worked in the steel mills during World War II, providing the vast firepower that ultimately overwhelmed the enemy. Plenty of them saw combat. And they went to Korea and Vietnam, and when they came back sometimes they were the second or third generation in their families to work the steel mills.

The jobs took a lot out of them physically, and the retirement years were held out like a bouquet.

"You tell me how this happens," Jim Huber said yesterday. He's an electrician and union benefits representative. "We're spending all this money around the world, and we've got people right here who don't have a health plan now. I've spent 35 years with the company. All those years we bargained with them. OK, you don't get all the money you want. But they tell you, `You're going to be fine when you retire.' What is it, a 35-year misunderstanding?"

Sitting near Huber was Kaye Windhorst, 65, whose husband died three years ago after 42 years in the Beth Steel furnace room. What happens to her medical costs now? There was Gilbert Brown, 67, who had 37 years in the tin mill and drove here from Connecticut to find out what he has left.

"The golden years," he said angrily. "What golden years? I go to the senior center now and see people sharing pills to save prescription money."

And there was William Kordis, 78, with 35 years in the plate mill. "My wife is gone now," he said. "Cancer. Thank God I had insurance for her. But it's insurance I don't have anymore. You know, you try to do the right thing for the company every day. And you come to find out it's 35 years shot to hell."

Kordis glanced toward a big plaque outside the union hall. It read, "In memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice -- casualties of industrial accidents at the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel." There are 108 names on the plaque.

America should do better for its survivors.

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