Writer speaks in anger for Beth Steel workers when others go silent

February 22, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MARK Reutter's one of our great angry voices. He's moving around town these days talking about his book, Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might. It's about capitalism when its cruelties go unchecked, about management greed and the collapse of labor unions, and thousands of workers who were wounded while politicians went silent. Too bad they didn't seem to share Reutter's anger while there was still time.

The book's an update on a continuing disgrace. Originally written in 1988, when American steelworker jobs had dropped in a decade from 560,000 to 280,000, and the jobs at Sparrows Point were vanishing, the book was updated after the disastrous events of January 2004.

That's when Bethlehem Steel Corp. was formally dissolved, its 131 million shares of stock canceled at zero value. The 95,000 retired employees whose steel-making efforts had helped build the country and provide the firepower through World War II - often paying a harsh physical price for their labors - were stripped of the health-care benefits they had been promised.

"Armed robbery in broad daylight," Reutter was saying the other day. "It's a case study of capitalism gone awry."

The book's part cautionary tale, part cry of anger, and part sympathy letter to workers who turned Sparrows Point into one of the proud icons of American industry. Bethlehem Steel's mill, Reutter writes, "had the greatest metal-making capacity on earth. Out of its furnace fires came the steel for the tail fins of Chevy Bel Airs and Thunderbird convertibles, the tin plate for Campbell's Soup cans, the hulls of ocean tankers and Navy destroyers, the wire and girder plate of suspension bridges, and a thousand and one other products that made our culture of bigness and abundance possible."

But, contrast that with the scene two years ago, at the same Dundalk Avenue union hall where Reutter's scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. tomorrow. All that week of March 2003, thousands of men and women streamed into the hall, beginning to realize the full extent of the raw retirement deal they were being handed.

There were men with oxygen tubes for the asbestosis they'd gotten on the job. Others were in wheelchairs. Some walked with canes from accidents on the job. Others remembered wearing protective clothing every day to shield them from searing-hot ingots. All of them wondered how they would now pay their medical costs.

These were people, Reutter writes, who had spent their work days at Sparrows Point getting "dirt on their faces, burn marks on their legs, grease on their hands; people who chewed Brown's Mule Plug tobacco to keep the dust out of their throats and nailed sections of old tires to their shoes to keep their feet from getting burned on the brick floors."

By 1988, a Bethlehem Steel that had employed about 30,000 people was down to 7,900 and still falling. And a U.S. steel industry that had accounted for two-thirds of global steel production at the end of World War II had now dropped to 15 percent of world production.

Some of it was due to better overseas competition. Some of it was replacement materials that cut into the steel market. All of it meant workers losing ground to wage concessions, consolidations, plant closings. And a $3 billion erasure of medical benefits that workers had imagined were the payoff for long, rugged years on the job.

Though the bankrupt company's assets were sold to the International Steel Group, Reutter writes, "If a company goes out of business and sells its assets to another company, neither is required to pick up the tab for the benefits owed to retired employees."

So there they were, thousands of these retired workers, with nowhere to turn. Their union was sympathetic but powerless. That's part of a trend. This month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the percentage of Americans belonging to labor unions fell last year to the lowest level in more than six decades, and the percentage in unionized private sector jobs fell to the lowest level since the early 1900s.

Where were the politicians while so many Sparrows Point workers were getting hurt? Reutter, a former Sun investigative reporter who is now business and law editor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bitingly calls it "a bipartisan show of silence," citing U.S. Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski for allowing workers to be hurt so badly and saving harsher words for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"The passivity of Ehrlich was especially glaring," Reutter writes. "Before becoming governor ... Ehrlich had represented Sparrows Point and eastern Baltimore County for eight years in the House of Representatives," where - according to Ehrlich's Web site - he "was an active member of the Congressional Steel Caucus, consistently voicing the concerns of workers in Maryland's steel communities."

That self-definition aside, Reutter writes, Ehrlich "lost his voice" and "did not protest the bankruptcy sale or participate in behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the withdrawal of health-care benefits, even though his ability as a Princeton-educated lawyer might have been useful in aiding the veterans and senior steelworkers he had promised to support and serve."

You can hear the anger in Reutter's voice. What a pity so many others were silent when it counted.

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