THE STEELWORKER PROJECT
This project really began more than 100 years ago, when steelworkers at Sparrows Point first began to produce steel for the world and created a world of work and community relationships that endured into the 21st century.
In a more concise sense, the project began in 2002, when I finally began to focus on this history, after several years of teaching students from The Point in the labor studies courses and listening to their stories. The project began, ironically, as Bethlehem Steel was about to disappear from the face of the earthlegally speaking. In late 2001, the company hired Robert “Steve” Miller, who had a history of plunging companies into bankruptcy, and who proceeded to do the same with Bethlehem Steel.
It is an often-repeated story about American workers and their bosses in the 20th century. Workers understood that they were participating in a social contract which their unions enforced: for working long, dirty, dangerous and often mind-destroying jobs, they would have union recognition, and all of the benefitshigh wages, guaranteed pensions, substantial time off, seniority and, most importantly, a sense of social mobility for themselves and their children. Over time, the steelworkers at The Point developed what one called “a swagger,” a sense of taking no shitthey were, after all, members of the strongest union in the world’s mightiest empire.
"American" corporationsand this is now a term no longer applicable--began to expand into the global economy in a way that destroyed this contract. This destruction brought anguish and confusion to the workers at Sparrows Point so there is an overwhelming bitterness and a sense of betrayal that runs through all of the interviews. It is, unfortunately, not a unique story, as American workers, isolated from workers in the rest of the world by their prosperity, are being chopped down at such a rapid rate that it is almost “old news.”
From the beginning, I concentrated on interviewing retired steelworkers, especially the older ones, because they lived through great historical periods of the American workers movement: organizing at The Point in the late 1930s, World War II, the 116-day strike in 1959, the civil rights issues and the Consent decree, the counter-culture of workers in the 1970’s, and finally the decline of the industry.
It has been a troublesome pursuit because of time limits. Working at a community college is labor intensive (no pun intended) with no allowance for frivolous research projects. Trying to keep the Labor Studies program afloat, worrying about the future of the workers movement and not so much about its past (though the two are obviously connected) is also time-consumingtime well-spent but time nonetheless.
From the first meeting of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) that I attended in December 2002, I kept accumulating names of workers who were willing to be interviewed. At the same time, I read the obituaries in The Dundalk Eagle every week with apprehension, and found prospective interviewees who had passed on before I could talk with them. Worse yet are retired workers whose memories have gone cloudy or missing altogether: I can’t describe the anguish of talking in the spring of 2006, with the wife of one of these workers, who said that her husband was not well enough to be interviewed “but boy could he tell you a lot. He never forgot anything!”
So in my heart, I never stop beating myself up over these lost opportunities, through my rational mind accepts the 24-hour day. I no longer feel guilty when I contact a worker who signed on two or three years before--in fact, many phone calls begin “Hi, remember when you signed this form. . .”
At the same time, I got lucky. While chugging around Lake Montebello on my bike in the summer of 2003, I passed a man wearing a collector’s item T-shirt that promoted the merger of the Steelworkers, UAW and Machinists Union, a campaign from 2000 that fizzled. I stopped and introduced myself to the retired steelworker, Eddie Bartee, Sr., who began one of the best parts of the project: a great person to interview and to know, and a man who knew many other good prospects. Once I taped him, I knew the project would work. I have been privileged to invite him as a guest speaker at the college and at the Dundalk Historical society, a resource to be shared.
This project lets steelworkers tells their life stories in a unique way: through oral history interviews, photographs, poetry, music and personal memorabilia. The workers donated pieces of their lives at The Point: photos and videos are obvious choices, but I have also received tools, hard hats, shoes, raincoats, the legal pleadings involved in the Consent Decree case of the 1970s, a map of the coke oven which still shows the segregated bathrooms, a transcript of the House Un-American Activities Committee from 1955 when workers from The Point were calledand refusedto testify, the list of fatalities inside The Point. You name it, if it describes life in the mill, I either have it or I want it. One worker gave me four large trunks of materialshe literally never threw anything away in more than 30 years of work at The Point.
These materials have unfortunately not found a permanent home. I hope to create some happy day a Workers Museum in Dundalk so that the artifacts can be displayed but, for the moment, they are stashed in my office, my basement, the basements of friends and at the Special Collections section of The University of Baltimore Library.
The project is a wonderful experience and it is truly a thrill to participate with these workers in creating their own history. Like any civilization, moreover, there is a Diaspora, people literally all around the world who are from “the Sparrows Point family,” and who write to share reminiscences or to ask questions about old social movement or lost relatives. Once the web site went up in December, 2003, I have received a welcome stream of information (correction on several of the photo captions) and requests for further information (about lost family members, for example).
In the spring, 2005, I ran a series of photo shows and speakers called “Bethlehem Steel: Gone but not Forgotten” in Dundalk and attracted active workers, retirees and their families and a nice number of community members. I hoped to take the photo shows around to public schools in the Baltimore County area, but the school system is unfortunately so focused on No Child Left Behind and visions of social mobility that there is slight interest in the work and troubles of a bunch of dirty ol’ steelworkers.
Mostly, they are just grateful that someone thought enough of these steelworkers to remember them and to share their pride in their history. I keep telling them thatunlike a conventional academic exercisethis is project is not mineit belongs to all of the steelworkers and their families, and to the communities they inhabit. An advantage of a collective history project is the shared resources and energies that keep it going. The list of participants on the Acknowledgements page shows the generosity of the friends who joined in trying to tell the story. Because the story does not focus on one manageable issuerace, or gender or a strikethe project always seems overwhelming. With hundreds of thousands of workers and their families still alive to tell their tales, the possibilitiesyou can do the mathare infinite.
The ramifications of the project are extended. One woman, a CWA local president, is the daughter of a steelworker but her parents had separated when she was a young girl and she moved south toward Annapolis with her mother. In 2003, she interviewed her father and she said it was like putting some pieces of her life back together, as he described the years when they were separated.
Once in a while, because workers are so human, the project hits an obstacle. One retired steelworker in Dundalk had been sending in material to me about the loss of his pension and health insurance. When I finally got around to trying to schedule an interview with him, he responded that he was so bitter about what the companies did to him that he did not want to relive the memories of working at The Point. For the rest of the workers, however, even the bitterness cannot erase the decades of shared experiences that they are still eager to relive.
The history is rapidly changing and this project will continue, so long as Bethlehem Steelworkers are willing to sit down with us and share the stories of their lives.
A web-based project, then, is the perfect form for such a project because it can be infinitely expanded and edited. New material will be added to the site as it develops, especially as the impact of the global economy becomes sharper and the lives of the steelworkers go through more changes.
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