Supreme Court nominee's father earned wide respect as Sparrows Point manager

July 27, 2005|By Jay Hancock

IN ADDITION to Roman Catholicism, Harvard College and stints in two Republican administrations, the forces shaping Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. include a remarkable father who tried harder than most executives to save the declining American steel industry and is fondly remembered in Baltimore decades after he worked here.

"He is the son of a company man," read the first words of a New York Times profile last week on Judge Roberts, but John G. "Jack" Roberts Sr. was no gray corporate conformist.

He used to ask lower-level workers for their opinions after taking over as general manager of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point mill in 1983. He invited union leaders on corporate retreats. He got labor bosses to say nice things about management - on the record!

"He was a straight shooter. He was down to earth. He was different," remembers Donal Irvine, who was president of United Steelworkers Local 2610 at the time. Working with Roberts, he said, "we did change the way management and labor worked together."

Previous bosses at Sparrows Point, one of Bethlehem's premier mills, had been stiff, autocratic and oblivious to the benefits of courting employees, company veterans say.

Roberts by contrast "was highly regarded on both sides of the spectrum - both by his white-collar colleagues and by his United Steelworkers of America colleagues," says Bruce Davis, a former Bethlehem legal executive who has kept in touch with Roberts. "Jack was one who vigorously resisted the characterization of `Us versus Them.' "

Once an electrical engineer in Bethlehem's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant, Roberts would sometimes astonish Sparrows Point employees by dropping in on union halls just to chat, The Sun reported six months after he arrived.

"Roberts, I think, was much more of an intellectual" than his predecessors at Sparrows Point, says Mark Reutter, author of Making Steel, a history of the mill. "Not quite the old-line, rough-and-tumble steel man."

Old-line, rough-and-tumble was not quite what Bethlehem needed in 1983. Hurt by imports, a sputtering economy, aging equipment and insane union work rules, the company had embarked on the long road that led to bankruptcy and dissolution in the early 2000s. What's left of Sparrows Point - it has 2,500 workers today versus 9,000 when Roberts left - is owned by Mittal Steel Co. of the Netherlands.

But Roberts, who lives in Ellicott City and declined through his wife, Rosemary, to be interviewed, showed more signs than his peers of recognizing the danger and responding. He had worked at Bethlehem since 1951, rising through the company's famous "Looper" training program and running the Bethlehem, Pa., plant before coming to Sparrows Point, in eastern Baltimore County.

On arriving in Maryland, he helped organize a company-wide union-management retreat to implement Japanese-style "quality circles," and he negotiated the easing of union rules such as ones that prohibited millwrights from unplugging defective motors when electricians were busy elsewhere.

And he listened. Workers had long urged management to protect electric motors from water spray that made them short-circuit and cause down time, only to be ignored, Irvine said.

Under Roberts, executives installed the motor covers and "saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," Irvine said. "For the first time I think the workers in the mill felt that they was taking part in how the plant was really being run."

And then he was gone. Roberts announced his retirement in 1985, at age 57. The Steelworkers' Irvine thought Roberts was forced out for perhaps being too unconventional. But, "I think he had reached the stage where he did not see the opportunity for further advancement," Davis says, "and he had this long-standing itch to be his own boss."

Later Roberts worked for Copperweld Steel of Warren, Ohio, becoming president and then accepting a buyout package in 1989 that reportedly angered union members there. After Copperweld, he volunteered to advise a steel mill in Poland.

In the 1990s, Roberts joined a bid to buy Bethlehem's structural steel mill in Bethlehem, Pa., just before the company shut it down for good. Backed by investor Thomas Tisch, a partnership called Noble Ventures enlisted Roberts as operational talent and offered to save 430 out of 600 jobs, getting promises of state aid.

Roberts won "a pretty substantial wage reduction" from the unions, recalled H.P. Goldfield, a Noble investor.

"We were going to give them a piece of the upside of the business," if the industry recovered, said Goldfield. "Where the price of steel is today, the plant would have made a lot of money for everybody, including the workers."

But Bethlehem CEO Curtis "Hank" Barnette rejected the deal, saying it wasn't in the interest of shareholders. Goldfield says Barnette couldn't stand the thought that Roberts and Noble might succeed where Bethlehem had failed. I was unable to reach Barnette at listings in Florida and Pennsylvania.

In the end, Roberts, 77, whom Goldfield called "honest," "smart," "hardworking" and "one of the most respected and respectful people I know," got hurt in Bethlehem's crash.

Thousands of his former colleagues were affected, although what he lost as a portion of his income was probably smaller than that of other retirees.

Thus has the slow demise of the U.S. steel business touched the family of John G. Roberts Jr., who by all signs will be adjudicating at the highest level into the 2030s.

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