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Author Deborah Rudacille’s Roots of Steel chronicles the decline . . . of Sparrows Point, of Bethlehem Steel and of American manufacturing


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 the book.

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 Rudacille.

"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 America.

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.

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