Deborah Rudacille's history of Sparrows Point, told largely
through interviews with retired steelworkers, is called
Roots of Steel.
But according to one of her sources, she could have chosen a
different title. "You should call it 'Roots of Sadness'," an
83-year local resident said, "because nobody's working anymore
and they lost everything they had."
That's not strictly true more than 2,000 people are employed
at the Maryland plant, now owned by Russia's OAO Severstal, and
some of those who cashed out before the wrenching 2001
bankruptcy of longtime owner Bethlehem Steel Corp. avoided the
huge pension and benefit reductions that scarred so many.
Still, this is a book about decline-of Sparrows Point, of
Bethlehem Steel and of the U.S. manufacturing base-and it
doesn't make easy reading. At its peak in 1959, Sparrows Point
claimed the title of the largest steel works in the world,
employing 36,000 people. Wages were good, especially when the
United Steelworkers union won hard-earned rights for workers in
the 1960s and '70s, a struggle that takes up a large part of
Wages still are good for those who survived the cuts of
recent decades until the 2008 recession, the wages of some
hourly workers were above $100,000 a year, according to
"They are making more money than we ever made," retiree
LeRoy McLelland Sr. said. "But there are less people making
it." That might just be the story of the past 25 years in
Rudacille, who is from the neighboring town of Dundalk,
traces the early history of Sparrows Point, from its 1887
foundation by the Pennsylvania Steel Co. on malarial wetlands
south of Baltimore, through its purchase by Bethlehem Steel in
1916 and the war-related booms and depression-era slumps of the
first half of the 20th Century. Residents of the company-built
town of Sparrows Point had their own movie theater, bowling
alley and pool hall, and could catch bushels of crabs in the
unsullied waters around the plant.
It was no paradise for workers, though, some of whom would
put in 24-hour shifts and 100-hour work weeks in hellish
conditions. Drunkenness was rife, both on and off the job, and
the safety record appalling in one six-month period in 1910,
there were 10 deaths.
Even as steel production expanded in the following decades,
those conditions didn't improve significantly. The toll on
steelworkers' health, and the fight for better working
conditions in the post-war era, form the bulk of the book. A
tragic number of the steelworkers died early of mesothelioma,
asbestosis or other work-related diseases.
Unionization resulted in some improvements in working
practices and better pay and benefits, Rudacille says, even
though some Sparrows Point workers were initially hostile to
unionization ("Why should we join a union," one pre-war worker
asked, "when the company always treated us right?").
But it took far longer to change the culture of racial and
sexual discrimination that the book's sources document.
Even though Rudacille is a strong supporter of the benefits
of unionization, she acknowledges that some of its results
contributed to the inefficiencies and high costs that left
Bethlehem and other steel companies unable to compete with
foreign steelmakers in the 1970s and 1980s. The massive layoffs
and loss of benefits that followed are still felt keenly by
retirees, in part because of the huge sense of pride many had
at being part of Sparrows Point in its glory days.
The book contains some errors and omissions Sparrows Point
was never "churning out a million and a half tons of steel a
day," and allegations of bad practices under Severstal's
ownership go unchallenged. It ends on a paean to the election
of President Obama, an event which, as Rudacille notes, was not
welcomed by a number of her sources-in fact, Republican
presidential candidate John McCain carried Dundalk.
But at its best, Roots of Steel isn't political or
preaching-instead, it lets the Sparrows Point steelworkers tell
their own story, a large part of which may never be heard in
America again. In the post-World War II boom, "there was so
much work that when you were looking for a job you could go
anywhere," Willy Cohill, a weighmaster in the plant's wire
mill, said. "If you didn't like this place, you could go next
door. There was always somebody looking to hire you." A
different era indeed.