Roots of Steel

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2011-08-23
  • Publisher: Anchor
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When Deborah Rudacille was a child growing up in the working-class town of Dundalk, Maryland, a worker at the local Sparrows Point steel mill made more than enough to comfortably support a family. But in the decades since, the decline of American manufacturing has put tens of thousands out of work and left the people of Dundalk pondering the broken promise of the American dream. In Roots of Steel, Rudacille combines personal narrative, interviews with workers, and extensive research to capture the character and history of this once-prosperous community. She takes us from Sparrows Point's nineteenth-century origins to its height in the twentieth century as one of the largest producers of steel in the world, providing the material that built America's bridges, skyscrapers, and battleships. Throughout, Rudacille dissects the complicated racial, class, and gender politics that played out in the mill and its neighboring towns, and details both the arduous and dangerous work at the plant and the environmental cost of industrial progress to the air and waterways of the Maryland shore. Powerful, candid, and eye-opening, Roots of Steel is a timely reminder, as the American economy seeks to restructure itself, of the people who inevitably have been left behind.


In Dundalk, Independence Day is a sacred celebration—its holy feast beer and hard-shell crabs, and its central ritual the biggest parade in the state. Stars-and-stripes bunting or a flag drapes from every house, and families set out their lawn chairs the night before to secure a spot along the parade route. At nine in the morning, earsplitting sirens from the fire trucks open the parade, followed by the thrumming of drums from marching bands and the steady shuffling of veterans’ groups. Hand-painted banners proclaiming let freedom ring flap above local residents in colonial costumes riding on the floats of civic and church groups.
“Whenever the governor or members of Congress come to Dun­dalk for the parade, they always talk about the American pride,” said John Olszewski Jr., a twenty-six-year-old state delegate, who, like me, grew up in this blue-collar community just outside Baltimore. I once marched in the Independence Day parade myself as a clumsy eleven-year-old majorette prone to dropping her baton, but I still remember my pride and excitement as I high-stepped up and down the leafy streets in my green-and-white uniform, for once a participant rather than an observer.
After the parade, everyone follows the charred aroma of pit beef and the sweet scent of fried dough to nearby Heritage Park, where a three-day festival provides an opportunity to run into old friends, classmates, and neighbors. People who grew up in Dundalk tend to come home for the holiday in the same way that others return for Thanksgiving, Passover, or Christmas. It is, as Olszewski pointed out, “the first day of the year.”
Dundalk’s flamboyant celebration of the Fourth is rooted in its history. A few miles east of the parade route, a band of citizen soldiers fought off British troops headed for Baltimore during the War of 1812. The invaders were repulsed by land and by sea in the battle memorial­ized in our national anthem. In the twentieth century, tens of thou­sands of Americans poured into the community from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas, the Midwest, and Appalachia to work in industries critical to national defense—shipbuilding, steel­making, and aviation—during World War II.
Many of those war workers remained, joining the European immi­grants and Southern migrants drawn to town by the manufacturing jobs that gave Baltimore its iconic image as the hardworking, hard-drinking working-class oasis lovingly parodied by its native son film­maker John Waters. “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style,” Waters once said. “It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move North, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
Waters’s description of the city goes double for the working-class district below its southeastern border, whose residents have long been the butt of local jokes for their extreme accents, hard dirty jobs, and retro tastes in music, fashion, and home décor. Growing up there gave me an enduring appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd that is hard to explain to those with more sophisticated musical tastes, and I loved Pabst Blue Ribbon beer long before urban hipsters wearing trucker hats adopted it as their brew of choice a few years ago. My father always had a six-pack of Pabst in our avocado-green refrigerator in the seventies.
The mullet, stonewashed jeans, and dark wood paneling never went out of style in Dundalk. But it was there that I learned the virtues of hard work, community, and family. My paternal forebears arrived in the 1920s, and my maternal grandparents—first-generation Italian Americans—during World War II. Most of them worked at one time or another at the colossal Sparrows Point steelworks or its shipyards rimming Baltimore harbor, just a few nautical miles from the broad waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Grover Cleveland was president when the Pennsylvania Steel Company broke ground at Sparrows Point in 1887. The works and company town grew slowly, surviving recessions and market down­turns until shortly before the United States entered World War I. Flush with money from arms sales to the warring nations of Europe, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Pennsylvania Steel’s rival, bought the Point in 1916, inheriting its Chesapeake works and company town. From its earliest days Sparrows Point was the most racially diverse steel mill in the country—but in those days diversity meant native-born whites on top, immigrants and blacks on the bottom.
The company long recruited African American men from Vir­ginia, the Carolinas, and farther south. “It provided a great foundation for folks who were making that transition from farmland to big-city life,” said Deidra Bishop, the director of community affairs for East Baltimore for the Johns Hopkins Institutions. Bishop’s grand­father, born in 1905, and various uncles worked at the Point. “For my family it provided a very good life—one that was not fraught with eco­nomic uncertainty. And it provided a circle of friendship for the men as well.”
That was true for white men like my Virginia-born grandfather too. Born in the shadows of the Shenandoah Mountains, he came to Sparrows Point looking for work in 1927, roomed with my great-grandparents, and married their daughter. They had five sons together, and the first three, including my father, were born in “the bungalows”—tiny workers’ cottages on the edge of the company town.
Southern roots were shared by many in the town, yet barely a generation after the Civil War, the sons of rebels and the sons of slaves were toiling together on Sparrows Point, a workingman’s utopia conjured by a former Union major. “Blacks and whites got along good,” in the mills and town, eighty-year-old Lee Douglas Jr., who followed his father and uncles from South Carolina to the Point, told me in 2006. “Only thing was, whites didn’t want anybody promoting to their jobs.”
Work, family, and community were tightly braided together on Sparrows Point, where an employee needed a letter from his foreman to rent a house and where three generations of some families lived sur­rounded by coke ovens, open hearth furnaces, rolling mills, and enor­mous piles of limestone and coal. During the Great Depression, Bethlehem let laid-off workers and their families stay in their company houses and charge groceries at the company store. The United Steel­workers of America—voted into the plant in 1941—also “really helped carry people” during the steel strikes of the fifties and sixties, Ed Gor­man, a retired steelworker and union vice president, told me, by giving rent money to those in danger of losing their homes in nearby Dundalk and Baltimore and groceries to those who couldn’t afford to feed their families. That commitment bred a fierce loyalty to the company and the union.
Year after year, the ovens, furnaces, and finishing mills of the great works on the Chesapeake belched fire and smoke, crafting the ships and armaments that helped win World Wars I and II and churning out the raw steel and finished products that were the backbone of postwar America. In 1959 Sparrows Point claimed the title of the largest steel­works in the world. By then, Bethlehem (known locally as “Bethlem”) employed over forty thousand Maryland residents at its steelworks and shipyards, and the fortunes of thousands of small businesses through­out the state were tied to Sparrows Point.
Steelworkers were among the best paid of all Baltimore’s industrial workers in the postwar boom, and their union wages sent many chil­dren of steel like me to college. But by 1985 the American steel indus­try was on the ropes, and on the Point, as elsewhere, jobs were cut, layoffs were made permanent, and mills were closed. There is still a steelworks on Sparrows Point today, but it employs fewer than three thousand people, compared with the thirty-six thousand who worked on-site at its peak. Employees endured four changes of ownership from 2003 to 2008, as globalization and consolidation reshaped the industry.
Still, those who survived the upheaval were luckier than most. Until the recent recession, the wages of some hourly workers were topping $100,000 a year. “They are making more money than we ever made,” LeRoy McLelland Sr., a Bethlehem retiree, told me in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. “But there are less people making it.”
McLelland labored for forty-two years in the tin mill at Sparrows Point. Like a lot of Bethlehem retirees, he is “bitter, very bitter” about the company’s 2001 bankruptcy and subsequent sale of assets to the private-equity-funded International Steel Group. That deal stripped retirees of health and life insurance, liquidated their company stock, and cut deeply into many pensions, which were taken over by the fed­erally backed Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Shorn of fiscal responsibility for Bethlehem’s retirees, ISG became hugely profitable, netting its investors billions when ISG was folded into the global steel goliath ArcelorMittal two years later. The retirees have neither for­given nor forgotten the Bethlehem and ISG executives and bank­ruptcy judge who sealed the deal.
“We looked forward to retirement as something we would enjoy,” McLelland said, “not worry from month to month about whether the PBGC could afford our pensions, whether Social Security is still gonna be there kicking in a dollar or two, whether Medicare is still going to be available. It’s a daily fear that each and every one of us has.”
It’s a refrain I heard often as I researched this book. Like similar communities around the country, Dundalk has been hard-hit by dein­dustrialization, and its people haven’t totally adjusted to the fact that the manufacturing jobs that were the basis of the community’s pros­perity are gone for good. Older folks mourn the passing of not only prosperity but the strong sense of pride and self-sufficiency that once defined Dundalk.
“We had Lever Brothers, General Motors, Crown Cork and Seal, Eastern Stainless Steel, Sparrows Point, the shipyard. We had all those big companies down here, and people were working,” Judy Martin, a lifelong Dundalk resident, reminisced when I met her at the Inde­pendence Day celebrations in 2006. Judy had tinted one side of her white hair red and the other side blue and had sprinkled it with silver stars in honor of the day. But she wasn’t in a very celebratory mood when we spoke at her home a few days later.
Throughout most of her life, Judy said, she knew all of her neigh­bors. “You used to hang over the fence. You used to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got too much of this. Let’s take it over to Patsy and see if she wants it.’ Or knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, Miz Minnehan, we’re out of ice. Got any?’ We’d all come together to help, to contribute to church baskets. Everybody looked out for everybody else.” Those days are gone, she said. “Now everyone is so afraid of opening doors.”
As the manufacturing jobs that once sustained the community have disappeared and older people have died off, newcomers who don’t share the town’s traditional values of hard work, family, and community service have moved in, and crime has gone up. Still, she won’t leave. “I grew up here. All of my memories are here. I guess I’m just one of those people who sits back and prays and hopes that things won’t get too bad.”
I could see for myself that beneath the red-white-and-blue bravado, my hometown had grown rougher around the edges. “We have a lot of homeless now,” Judy pointed out. “You never saw home­less people here before the nineties. At St. Rita’s and the Methodist church, the soup kitchens are almost standing room only.” Olszewski pointed out that gentrification of neighborhoods on the east side of the city pushed poorer people over the county line to Dundalk, where “housing is very affordable. So you see a proliferation of challenges like Section 8 and concentrations of low-income housing, which tend to attract additional crime activities and also can attract the need for additional social services.”

Hearing about the community’s troubles, I feel a great sadness. Though I haven’t lived there in decades, some part of me has always remained a Dundalk girl. In recent years I’ve realized how much growing up there shaped me. The people I was raised among are extraordinarily generous—you can’t enter someone’s home without being offered food or drink—unpretentious, direct, and brutally honest. They tend to wear their hearts (and opinions) on their sleeves. If they like you, you’ll know it, and if they don’t—well, you won’t be in any doubt about that either. As a child, I was often teased for always having my nose in a book, and formal education isn’t especially prized in Dundalk. But that doesn’t mean that its people aren’t intensely interested in politics and current events or that they aren’t great story­tellers.
The community wasn’t a utopia. Like many teens and young adults, I was often frustrated by the narrowness and insularity of my hometown, summed up in a bumper sticker popular in the 1970s: live, work, shop . . . dundalk. A stubborn self-sufficiency and suspicion of outsiders have always defined the community, for better or worse. Still, when my parents decided to move to a new suburban subdivision when I was in college, my brother and I both protested. Our new neighborhood seemed boring in comparison to Dundalk.
The racial attitudes of some community residents, including members of my own family, also bothered me growing up. My parents didn’t raise my brother and me to be “prejudiced,” as we called it back then, but we had very limited contact with people of other races. “You lived here and they lived there,” as one of my sources phrased it. I can’t remember any real discussions of civil rights as a child, but I do recall getting into violent arguments as a teenager with some of my brother’s friends who had been raised in homes where the word “nigger” was in common use. I’m not saying that I never heard that word in my own extended family, because I did. But it was not used in our house nor in the homes of any of my friends.

Personal prejudice was, I believe, less in evidence than the sys­temic racism that long privileged white men on the job at Sparrows Point. Blacks and whites worked closely together in the mills, and many became friends. But a 1976 Department of Justice ruling alter­ing union seniority rules in steel mills to promote black advancement shocked and angered many whites. “I lost a lot of good white friends when the consent decree came down,” said Eddie Bartee Sr., the first African American president of USW Local 2609.

In 1977, the white steelworker LeRoy McLelland filed a lawsuit joined by about three hundred Sparrows Point employees (about 10 percent of whom were black, he said) to protest the ruling, which he still maintains was not about race but about seniority. “I got really irked that they could bring someone in from another part of the mill to take my seniority in the unit,” he told me, recalling the frustration of those days. The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case after a series of appeals was, he said, “a bitter pill to swallow.”

Time has not so much changed his mind as given him a broader perspective. “If you were really to reach into your heart and look back, you would say to yourself that it was a case where they denied blacks the right to be on the mills on productive jobs other than the jobs no one else wanted,” he said. “What makes it easier to identify is that it is so far back. But when you are sitting right in the middle of things, you don’t see what’s going on.”

Younger steelworkers say that job elimination, not civil rights, defined their years on the Point. “For my father’s generation, the bat­tles were all about race,” said Eddie Bartee Jr., who followed his grandfather, father, and uncles into the mill. “For us, it was about fighting to hold on to our jobs.” Drastically reduced employment at Sparrows Point and the shutdown of the General Motors plant and other local factories have had a devastating effect on the black working class in Baltimore, said former circuit court judge Kenneth L. John­son: “It has been the economic downfall of Baltimore blacks.” Dis­criminatory hiring practices notwithstanding, those old dirty jobs at the Point put food on the table for a lot of black families, as well as white ones. “When those jobs moved away, it had a tremendous impact on the whites, but it had double that impact on blacks,” John­son said. “When there is an economic shift, those at the bottom rung take the greatest hit.”

In little more than a generation, an industrial economy that enabled people without much formal education to create stable fami­lies and communities has become a technocratic one in which most of the nation’s wealth—in the form of both wages and investment—flows inexorably to the best-educated, most affluent Americans. “A lot of workers feel like they’ve been betrayed,” said Bill Barry, who teaches labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore
County (CCBC), Dundalk campus. “They don’t know who betrayed them, but they are trying to personalize it. Some blame the unions, some blame the com­panies, some blame the government.” That frustration has fueled a populist rage stoked by right-wing talk radio hosts and cable news anchors who offer few solutions but a long list of enemies—liberals, immigrants, “elites,” and, the best target of all these days, the presi­dent and members of his administration. 

Barack Obama was criticized when he pointed out during his pres­idential campaign that many people in blue-collar communities are bitter and angry about their losses. But he was only saying what any­one who comes from a place like Dundalk knows full well is true. Over the past thirty years, its residents have watched a hard-won prosperity and security slip away. Though they don’t know for sure who is to blame, they do know what they want: a return to the old days, when the jobs that could support a family were plentiful, streets were safe, and workers could take pride in their contributions to the nation’s wealth and power.

Still, few who make a living catering to populist rage are willing to point out that the economic pain of many formerly prosperous working-class neighborhoods has been worsened by a lack of family and community emphasis on education. “For young kids today, it’s really stacked against them,” Bill Knoerlein, a Dundalk resident and retired steelworker, told me. “The better-paying jobs are based on technological knowledge, but you need basic skills, and a lot of kids coming out of high school aren’t prepared.” In fact, according to the 2000 census, a little more than 30 percent of Dundalk residents 25 and older did not complete high school. Another 20 percent had earned a high school diploma, but only 4.8 percent of Dundalk residents had graduated from community college, and 4.4 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree. A tiny 1.8 percent of Dundalk residents had earned a graduate or professional degree in 2000, the year before the Bethle­hem bankruptcy.
“Decades ago you could leave high school and make more money than people who went to college” at local factories and mills, Olszewski pointed out. That is no longer true, but many still view higher education as a luxury, not a necessity. His parents, who were high school graduates, “instilled in me at a very early age the impor­tance of an education,” he said. “I imagine that part of that was seeing those other options fade away.” Aris Melissaratos, former secretary for the Maryland Department of Economic and Business Development, said that “the Point provided great jobs to a lot of people that never finished high school. But that’s over. Today all of our population needs to focus on finishing high school and getting skills.”
Even blue-collar distribution jobs at the port are automated, Melissaratos said. “So distribution workers will need to be knowledge workers as well—and the knowledge economy will demand much bet­ter education.” He told me that the largest private employer in the state is now Johns Hopkins. With 46,000 employees, the university and its health system and affiliates now provide more jobs in Maryland than Bethlehem did at its peak.
Health care comprises a big chunk of the state’s economy, and at CCBC Bill Barry sees a number of people heading for hospital jobs. “There are a lot of workers here, not necessarily from Sparrows Point, who are coming out of manufacturing and being retrained at age forty-five to be nurses, physical therapists, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s interesting because nursing has traditionally been a woman’s job. But [displaced industrial workers] look at what is the high-paying industry in the Baltimore area and it’s nursing.” Younger students enrolling just after high school are looking for job security, he said. “They are think­ing nursing or dental hygiene or police officer because these are the growth industries. And so instead of going to Sparrows Point they’ll come here to get into a certain line of work.”
Putting on a uniform seems the best alternative to some young high school graduates. “For my class [1997], the military was the new Bethlehem Steel,” Andrew Layman, a thirty-year-old Iraqi war veteran, told me. “Easily ten percent of my graduating class went into the various services. It offers the same thing Beth Steel once offered—a steady paycheck.” Given the community’s strong roots in defense work and proud history of service, this is not surprising. But military service alone will not arrest the community’s downward economic slide. Layman, an air force officer who served as an analyst for the U.S. Army in Baghdad, took a job with a government con­tractor in Saudi Arabia after leaving the service and worked there for two years. “For other vets I imagine that things are tough right now,” he said. “Enlisted guys returning without degrees are probably forced to reenlist with outside firms not hiring.” Officers and enlisted men and women with college degrees are likely faring better, he pointed out. He has taken advantage of the GI Bill to return to school.
Olszewski succinctly summed up the challenges facing Dundalk and communities like it around the country today: “How do we retool and equip people who are still in those working areas as industrial jobs are failing—and what do we do when industry abandons people who gave their entire lives to it?”
There are no easy answers to these questions. But as President Obama noted in his inaugural address, “It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” The struggles and sacrifices of such men and women inspired me to write this book. The community where I was raised has responded to times of enor­mous challenge in the past with courage, fortitude, and resolve. I believe that if they are given the help they need to retool, retrain, and rebuild the community, those qualities will once again carry them through to a new day and provide a fitting tribute to their (and my) roots of steel. 

From the Hardcover edition.

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