May 6, 2004
It is Wednesday, May 6th, 2004, and I'm interviewing my long-time friend and mentor Chuck Swearingen for the Steelworker Project.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Chuck,
Well, I'm 52 years old. I
was born here in
1951 in the old
still in the city. Basically I grew up
in Dundalk and spent my entire life here in
Went to Warewood Elementary and Holabird Junior High
School and graduated from
Right after that I went to work at Sparrows Point. Was
in an ironworker apprenticeship for four years.
Graduated from that, became a journeyman ironworker.
That was in 1973, and a little bit later on, I guess
1979 I took a welding test, became a journeyman welder
down at Sparrows Point. Spent a lot of time in a lot
of different departments as a welder.
Around 1988 I started getting active in the
union, maybe '87, and held my first elected position
around that time as the plant's welding coordinator for
Local 2610. Went to a grievance committeeman from that
and spent nine years as a grievance committeeman and
several years as the union partnership coordinator.
Well, what was it like? You are
a Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel family in a way. What
was -- talk about your father and --
Well, my father and mother
, came here after World War II
because work was here. He worked for a short time at
GM. Then he applied and got a job as a member of the
Sparrows Point Police force, and I can remember back in
the '59 strike that he was down there during the '59
strike as a policeman, because of course all the
workers were on strike and all the foremen were locked
in and it was 114 days, something like that.
I was eight years old at the time, so I do
remember some of that, and I remember that each time
the union got a raise, my father would get at least 25
cents more than whatever the union workers got. So
they always kept the salary guys a step ahead, and then
by the time I guess it was early '80s before things
really started hurting Sparrows Point, the Sparrows
Point Policeman were probably the highest paid police
in the state.
What was the relation between the
Sparrows Point Police force and the Bethlehem Steel
Well, they were a company
police force, but they were commissioned by the
Governor, so they were the same as the State policeman,
but their jurisdiction was the Sparrows Point. So they
were a full fledged police force with arresting powers
and could issue tickets and everything, but they were
paid for by Bethlehem Steel Corporation, so it was kind
of like a quasi-public private police force.
So your dad's paycheck was
Was Bethlehem Steel, yes.
And all the benefits?
And all the benefits and
vacations and retirement and all that.
What was it like growing up in
in the '50s?
It was a pretty good place
for a kid. There was a lot of kids. There was always
pickup baseball games at the elementary school. There
was organized sports at that time, it was mostly
baseball. Today it's soccer, but we always played
organized baseball in the springtime, and then all
summer long there with -- the school had a playground
set up so there was stuff for the kids to do during the
summer, and as you got older, you got into different
We would go around to other schools and have
volleyball games against the other summer program kids,
and it was a volunteer thing mostly. The people who
worked it I'm sure got some kind of money for it, but I
really wasn't concerned about that in those days.
Was that a pretty stable
Oh, yeah. The majority of
the people worked at either Sparrows Point Bethlehem
Steel, Western Electric or GM. Everybody's parents
worked at one of those three places. There was
business people around and everything, but you were
used to all the kids' fathers working shift work, and
it was pretty basic one, two, three, Western Electric,
GM and Bethlehem Steel, and those were the providers
, and everyone had a pretty good secure
family upbringing, the typical 1950, '60s kind of
I had three other siblings in the family, so
there was four of us, so we made out okay. I was the
second oldest, I had an older brother and a younger
brother and a younger sister.
When did you start thinking about
going to work at the Point? Was it something that your
father wanted you to do, or did you just decide on your own? own?
Well, out of high school I
worked at Sparrows Point Country Club, which was owned
by Bethlehem Steel for the summer cutting grass, two
bucks an hour, and at the end of the summer I went to
, really didn't know what I
wanted to do, and kind of like floundering and not
really doing my studies and all that, drifting, and a
friend of mine and I decided -- we are talking and said
well, why don't we go down to the Point and get a job,
basically that's what we planned on doing.
So between the semester breaks from Christmas
through January we went down, the two of us, and took
the battery of tests for just getting a job, and they
said hey, you guys did well. Would you be interested
in an apprenticeship? We said sure, and we had to come
back two days later, take the apprenticeship test. We
did well on that, and both of us -- there was only a
few apprenticeships opened at the time, and we both
chose ironworkers and didn't even know what an
ironworker was at that time, and the guy explained it
that's just a carpenter that works in steel. So that
sounds good to me. I didn't know what I was getting
into, but it worked out well.
So what was it like your first
day down there? Do you remember?
That was great. When we
were interviewed after we passed our tests, the
apprenticeship coordinator Ralph Pennington took the
two of us into the plant and showed us where we would
be working at and basically we drove in.
At that time everybody walked, only
supervisors had car passes. So our first day we had no
clue where we were going, what we were supposed to do.
We drove up to the police check point, and the guy
waved us in, so I just drove on in the plant, and here
I'm driving in -- there's big huge trucks and huge
driving around and big heavy pieces of equipment and we
were scared to death, and we got lost, so we drove back
out, parked on the parking lot and walked in and was
able to find our way, and you weren't supposed to be
able to do that just drive in like that. They were
supposed to stop you, so that was pretty funny really.
Then once you got in, what was
Well, we were both 18 years
old. We walked around our department, which we had a
fabricating shop, and we had all these older guys
making all these strange comments to young guys and
scaring us, but then actually everybody was really nice
Like what kind of comments?
One of them put his arm
around me and said, "Whoa, I like this big one." So
they were just kidding, joking around, and they were
very helpful through the whole time of our
apprenticeship. They were willing to teach in part
their wisdom on how to do jobs.
In our apprenticeship, we sat in the
classroom part of the time and learned stuff through
the books, but these guys would teach you the tricks of
the trade and really how to do the job right. So you
would take your book learning and apply it to the
way -- because these guys weren't apprentices, they
just learned on the way up the old fashion way, and you
would mix the two together and you would come out with
some pretty good results.
So what did an ironworker do?
Well, unlike what a Local 16
guy would do, it was basically new steel. We did some
new steel, but most of our work was repair work in the
steel mill, considering that the steel mill was a
hundred years old and
had their own ways of
doing things, so their philosophy was build it like
it's going to last a hundred years. They got away from
that philosophy later on, but that's how we were
taught, overbuild things a lot of times, and a lot of
our problems was the nature of the steel business it's
just hard on any equipment, and then if there's a
burnout in one of the furnaces, that liquid steel would
just do devastating things to the structural steel and
we would have to go in there and rebuild that stuff and
repair it, and there was constantly plenty of work to
do, there's no doubt about that.
Were you on the rotating shifts?
We worked I would say
75 percent of the time daylight shift, but we did cover
the plant 24/7 because the plant worked that way. Some
of the major outings type work is where the mill would
shut down, that's when we would work the night work and
the weekends a lot just to go in and get the mill back
up and running and back into production, and there was
always a weekend crew down there. Basically they would
find busy work for you, but if something broke down
there was a crew there. They could afford to do it at
that time. Later on things kind of -- you would keep
skeleton crews around and you wouldn't work weekends.
If something broke down, you would call me at home.
Those early days there was always weekend work. So if
you missed a day during the week, you could make up a
day on the weekend so you didn't really lose any pay.
Was that an incentive for you to
take days off in the middle of week?
Well, it could have been,
but since I was a young married guy, I didn't miss much
When did you get married?
A year after I started. I
started in January 1970 and was married February 1971.
So if I recall I think my take-home pay at that time
was around $120 a week and when you are paying a
hundred bucks a week for an apartment and you are
paying off a hospital bill for a baby and all that
other stuff, wasn't a whole lot of money left over so I
didn't miss much time.
How did your wife feel about
being “a Bethlehem Steel widow”? You know the ones that
talk about their husband is never home on Christmas
Day, or did the ironworkers have a little better say on
The way -- the fair-haired
boys got the holidays, and I wasn't one of the
fair-haired boys, so if I worked the holiday, it was
either through desperation or it was such a bad job
that I got scheduled for it. I never did like playing
those games the fair-haired boys played. I won't get
into graphic things.
Go ahead, tell us.
That's part of the reason
why I started getting involved in the union, I just
didn't like the way people were treated and I started
speaking up, and then people started encouraging me to
become more active and taking a more proactive approach
to things. I couldn't keep my mouth shut I guess.
How did your parents feel about
having you working down there?
My father was -- he thought
it was great. My older brother worked at the shipyard,
which was Bethlehem Steel at that time, so we were all
three down there, and my younger brother and sister
were so much younger, it was like almost two families,
and I used to run into my father once in awhile at the
gates and all, and it was a nice seeing him, so he and
I were always pretty tight anyway, so it was kind of
like a natural step, me going to
opposed to GM or Western Electric, it was all part of
Did you just figure you were
going to stay there?
Oh, absolutely. In those
days you figure you are going to work for a company and
get a retirement and that's it, that's what you did.
There was a time in the mid '70s when I thought about
leaving and going to
, but there's no work
, so I pretty much figured I'm stuck
here for the duration, but other than that, that was
only like a fleet weak thing, but you stayed with a
company, especially with the prospect of getting a
30-year pension, and I was figuring on working there
until I was 60, so that would have been a 40-year
pension, and every contract things got a little better,
a little better and a little better, so pensions were
getting better all the time.
When you first started there it
was in 1974, experimental negotiating agreement which
was designed to eliminate strikes and --
That went on for several
With extra vacation. Did the
guys talk to you about the '59 strike at all?
Once in awhile they would
talk about it and they would talk about the hard times
they had during the '59 strike, but most of the guys I
worked with went out and found other work. So it
wasn't like -- the guys in the mills had actually run
the mills. There is no other jobs that do that. If
you are a craftsman, if you are a welder or an
ironworker, pipefitter or carpenter, you can find work,
so those guys would do their picket line duty, but then
they had other jobs and they muddled along. There was
very few of them that actually suffered loss of
earnings because of that. So I think the little bit I
talked to them about that that's what I recall.
At that time there were just the
beginnings of the whole issue about the civil rights at
the plant. Do you remember any of that in the '70s?
Well, that had pretty much
been taken care of by the time I started working there.
The biggest thing was the consent decree, which was a
Federal Court ruling that basically said the company
and the union discriminated against blacks and
Hispanics, so there was a little bit of ill feeling
because of the monies that was paid out from that, but
it was only right, it was true.
The locker room I first started changing in
had two floors. The guys told me -- it wasn't like
that when I was there, but the guys told me the first
floor was for blacks only, and the second floor was for
whites only, and for up until the late '60s it was that
way, and the bathrooms were segregated.
The stories that the guys told me, it was
pretty well segregated, everything down there, locker
rooms and bathrooms and all that, and even the
departments, because one of the first blacks in the
department I think was -- apprentices was in 1968, and
he's a great guy. Him and I are still friends to this
day, but it's amazing that they wouldn't let blacks
into the apprenticeship programs and into the crafts.
So that all changed just shortly before I started
working there, so it was pretty well integrated.
Did the guys hang out together on
the basis of race or did they kind of mix and match?
I can't say that they hung
out separately from each other, especially us in the
apprenticeships because just coming out of school
desegregation and all, I didn't even think twice about
being friends with anybody, because that's how we were
I can remember back in high school when they
down, and all those kids
came up into
and that's when I
first started high school, I had friends -- we mixed
pretty well actually. I didn't see a whole lot of
Of course when you are kids you look at
things a little bit different than adults would, and if
you had those prejudices before that -- and that's
another thing, my parents were never prejudice and
never instilled any kind of thinking like that on us,
so it was just natural just to be friends with people.
Tell us then about a typical day
as an ironworker down there.
Well, early on -- and we had
to walk everywhere, so you would clock in at the clock
At what time?
We would have to -- it's
like a fifteen, ten to fifteen-minute walk between
trans, so you would try to get in a half hour earlier,
walk in and you would walk approximately a mile to the
locker room, all kind of weather, and you change your
clothes, and in the locker room there was a bulletin
board, it would post where your job was at for that
day. You might be on the same job for weeks, you might
be on different jobs every day. So you would have to
check that board to see where your job was at, and then
from that point, that bulletin board, you would have to
go to your job. Your job might be another mile away on
the other side of that plant, and you had to be on that
job at starting time, so you had to give yourself
plenty of time.
Now there were times if it was raining real
bad, the company, the department would send a truck.
Now the truck would be like a flatbed truck with side
rails on it, open, no seats. You would climb up on the
back of the truck, and of course the roads weren't too
good, and you would be bouncing all over the place back
there standing on the back of the truck in the rain,
but that was better than walking sometimes, so they
weren't real concerned about safety getting you to the
Now once you got to the job, it was just
typically you get your tools out, you find out what you
need to do. Usually material was there, sometimes you
had to go find the material. You just do your regular
fabrication job, and in those days you had time cards.
So the foreman would come around, collect cards and he
may have one job, he may have ten jobs, so at the end
of the day he would come back and hand you the cards.
If he liked you, you would be the first crew that he
would come back to and give the timecards to. By the
time they got to the last crew, it could be five
minutes before quitting time. Now you've got a mile to
walk back to your locker room, change clothes, wash up,
a mile to walk back through the dusty dirty plant clean
and punch out. So you could be there kind of late
Was that ever an issue for the
union at the time?
No, that was kind of an
Miners sometimes went to this
portal to portal stuff, you got paid from the time you
walked into the mine, went down.
Well, later on as a union
representative, one of the first things I did was
negotiate a fifteen-minute wash-up time, so the guys
were able -- they had fifteen-minutes leeway. If they
washed up, they could leave fifteen minutes early
technically, so that was something -- one of my
concerns later on when I became a union rep.
Well, what got you interested in
Well, let me back up. I was
an A rate ironworker, gang leader, I wasn't really
satisfied with some of the way things were going in the
department I worked with. Basically I was always
overlooked for overtime. Every time they would make a
rule, I wasn't eligible for the overtime. So the next
time I was eligible for the overtime, the rule changed.
For example what rule?
You were an incumbent to the
job, so if you were working the job, the job becomes an
overtime, I'm working there, I'm incumbent, I should
get the overtime. Well, that was the rule last week.
The rule this week is oh, no, the fair-haired guy is
low on overtime, you've got to catch him up. Wait a
minute, I didn't get any overtime, and that's the way
it worked, so I just got frustrated with a few things.
You are trying to raise a family. Some guys
are making thousands of dollars a year more than you.
It's not fair, so I transferred out. I became a
welder, and as a welder, I got to work all over
Sparrows Point. I got to work in all the mechanical
departments, all the other crafts. I got to know
everybody, got the little bit of knowledge from all
these other groups, and the last department I worked in
was electric construction as a welder, and I had my own
truck with a welding rig on it, so I was kind of free
to move around and talk to a lot of people, that's how
I became active, and the union guys, I would tell them
this is going on in this area and that's going on in
that area, was passing around the communications, and
guys started encouraging me to become the welding
coordinator, which was an elected position, and that
was a springboard.
Were there guys at the time in
those early years who you looked up to as union
officers or active people?
Well, we had a zone
committeeman, grievance committeeman, we call them both
the same, that was in charge of our group, Jerry
Benrecke, and everybody respected him, yes.
He was a tough guy. He
didn't put up with any of the company bull crap. He
was very strong willed, very knowledgeable, very smart
guy, and he was very effective in getting some things
I think what happened to Jerry over a period
of time he was in that position for fifteen years,
which was five terms, he got burned out. In fact, when
I ran for grievance committeeman, I ran against him and
beat him, but it was just to the point where it burns
you out, so he was that --
Did he stay in the mill?
He went back to the mill and
worked one year and retired. He had 31 years of
Did that hurt your friendship?
I haven't seen him since
then, but at the time he wouldn't even speak to me.
One of the things I always
noticed about your locals is politics is like a blood
sport. I know you were never -- but some of these guys
carry grudges for years.
Well, he brought the
situation on himself, and it was just that time and the
What was it like then becoming
the committeeman or the zone man?
I was scared to death. I
was eating Tums, but it was a lot of responsibility at
first, and it's one thing being on the side like a shop
steward, just filing grievances. It's another thing to
push it through the system and argue them and come up
with a good argument and have to write contentions up
and go through all the arbitration, getting it ready.
We didn't arbitrate, but we had to get it
ready for arbitration and help the staff guy, and it
was just like a ton was just put on my shoulders, and I
wasn't really comfortable for probably the first year,
first year and a half until I started feeling
What year did you get elected?
It was 1990 or '91,
something like that.
So you were there for 20 years?
Oh, yeah. I had 20 years in
the plant before I became a full-time union rep.
Were you a steward before that?
Well, the welding
coordinator is basically the same thing, it was just
The welders down there were one department in
1968, they were spread all over the place, but they
were given a union rep., kind of trade them off for
breaking the department up back then, so it was a
created position in '68, and I took it over in '87 or
something like that. I don't even remember any more.
So you went a long time, children
were growing up while you were down there working?
Yeah. My son was born in
'80, so he was basically ten years old when that
happened, my daughter was 19, so she was ready to move
out of the house, and actually my wife encouraged me to
get involved. She thought it would get me out of the
mill, little knowing that it was like a 24-hour a day,
seven day a week job at the time.
Was that a motivation for people
in some cases to run for office?
I think so. I think so.
They didn't really have the -- didn't want to do the
job fully. They just wanted to be able to get out of
the mill, and you could see the way that they handled
their grievances and the problems in their department,
they didn't -- they would hide more than get involved,
and I saw a lot of that.
Because there was also some
problems in the late '80s, '90s over financial
problems, double billing, billing the local?
Well, I had kind of a trial
by fire around '92 or '93 when we had some problems
with people double dipping and triple dipping. In one
instance, the officers at the union hall had all came
to a head during contract negotiations in '93, and our
president was removed and many of the zone
committeemen, and I became secretary of the grievance
committee because there was no one else, and Bernie
Brenscaggs became chairman of the grievance committee.
As chairman, he had to go to
, and we went up
to the 11th hour, actually went past the 11th hour in
contract negotiations, and it was my responsibility to
get the local ready for a possible strike, and it got
really complicated. I was dealing with
County Police, because we had to set up for picket
lines, and they were going to set up a police post down
there in case we got out of hand.
I had to go out and negotiate an agreement
with the company to allow people who crossed the picket
lines for an orderly shutdown of the furnaces, and you
can't just shut them down cold, because we do want jobs
back after the strike is over with, and during that
night of the strike I was in constant contact with
Bernie Brenscaggs in
, and between him
calling me and telling me the progress of the
, and then I would call down
at the Point and was talking to one of the guys in
labor relations, who in turn talked to the general
manager, that transfer of communication allowed us to
keep our blast furnace running, and we did settle the
contract before we went on strike; therefore, everybody
went back to work the next day as opposed to Burns
Harbor whose furnaces were shut down and it took two
weeks to bring them back up, and you had
all those guys on the street for two weeks at Burns
Harbor, where Sparrows Point stayed working, and not
too many people know that happened, so I was able to
keep the plant working. I'm proud of that.
Well, good. So then you
continued as an active member of the union in the '90s?
Well, my first reelection I
was unopposed, so that was a slam dunk, it was kind of
boring actually. You always need some opposition to
keep you on your toes. The second I was -- that was my
My third term when I was opposed and I won
reelection to the third term, and then towards the end
of my third term I was appointed as union partnership
coordinator, which was a full-time position in the
plant, and spent two years doing that before I went
back into the gang, which was my first love. I just
like doing that.
Well, tell us then about the
partnership, because I know it's a controversial --
always was a controversial issue down there.
immediately that you were a company suck ass because
you were a partnership. That's not what partnership
meant. We got a lot of good things out of the
The safety program down there was a direct
result of the partnership program, and that was a huge
success. There used to be two, three, four people a
year killed down there, and it went to two, three years
with one death. Now that's pretty significant in a
steel mill where it's inherently just a bad place, and
people didn't realize the level of participation that
they were doing was partnership.
The other side was it was the company was
constantly trying to tell us we've got to reduce
numbers, we've got to reduce numbers, we've got to
reduce costs, and then every time we would point the
finger back at them, oh, no, we can't afford to take
these people out.
So there was constant battles there all the
time, but the bottom line was the whole industry was
reorganizing, and we had some people that just -- they
thought it was still the '60s and '70s and just
bottomless pockets for the company, and we saw what the
results were at
, they finally went out of
Well, how did the partnership
It was a dream of
Williams, who was international president at the time,
and actually the partnership goes back to World War I
if you want to look at the history of things, and it
was a cooperation with the unions and the government
and the company for the war effort. After World War I,
they failed -- I think the railroads were the only ones
that kept it going at that time. Go through the
Depression, which everything went poof, and then the
unions really started getting active in the middle '30s
and late '30s. World War II brought it to another
head, you want to help the war effort, we'll
participate. The companies did participate with the
Lewis was the only one that went out on
strike with the coalminers back then, proved a point
though, and after World War II the companies got their
cocky attitude back again, and there was pretty strong
battles for the steelworkers in the late '40s.
Taft-Hartley came in in '48, which kind of hurt the
union effort a little bit, but then when the AFL-CIO
emerged, again you could see the unions were really
strong and they were really powerful. The '59 strike
really proved it, and basically after '59, whenever the
steelworkers asked for it, the companies was giving
them, and there was at that time the steelworkers at
all the steel companies negotiated together, and then
it was the early the '70s or '80s, I forget, when
Steel said no, we're going out on our own. So then the
steelworkers started this pattern-based bargaining.
They would target one steel company, make that the
pattern for the rest of the steel industry, and most of
the time it was U.S. Steel that they targeted, and they
didn't want -- the steelworkers did not want the
employees to be an economic factor against each
different steel company. You could do different things
locally, but then in the national contract they wanted
them almost identical, so the steel companies had to do
their own economic things and it wouldn't involve the
workers, which is a good idea.
Steel had the history
of being one of the most anti-unions of the steel
companies, one of the most difficult to organize. Were
the relationships better by the time you got hired?
No, it was pretty tough. In
those days I was just coming out of the '60s, so I had
long hair, hippie-type guy, and there was some
discrimination there, but nothing like any of the
blacks would have faced there in their working history,
so that was trivial in that respect, but you could see
the way they treated you as an apprentice.
They would grade you every quarter, and part
of the grade was appearance. Now what does that have
to do with your ability to do a job? But that was part
of the grade, and I always got a bad grade on
appearance. But I was always -- my grades were always
in the '70s, they kept me passing.
But the company was tough and the
union officers were tough?
Well, the union officers
were tough, but the language, as you go back and look
at the language in the contracts, and some of it is
border plate, it's been the same forever, but the union
didn't have a whole lot to fight with there, and if you
look and study the history of the steelworkers, they
had to fight tooth and nail and arbitrate everything,
and really the definition of the contract came through
the arbitrations, and to understand the contract you've
got to read the arbitration decisions.
And when I said there was a lot of the zone
committeeman that didn't do their job, they didn't do
that, they didn't understand the reasons behind why we
could get away with some of the things we could get
away with or fight the company the way we could fight
them. If you read the arbitration decisions and you
threw them back into the labor relations faces, you
could prevail with them, but just to use the basic
language in the contract didn't always work, so you had
to understand why. And that's some of the things in
there why were they written the way they were.
An example, in a grievance procedure it says
that the foreman will fill out the complaint. Why
would you want the foreman to fill out your grievance?
Because people were illiterate and the shop stewards
could speak, but they couldn't write. So the foremen
were mostly literate people, so they would write the
grievances, and I can remember being in a first
procedure with a shop steward and a foreman, he's
writing the grievance out and he is writing it down,
and I'm saying no, that's not what I want you to say
would have to specifically dictate the words to him
because the way the words read they can win the case.
Now how many times did that happen over the years?
Well, did you see a change then
over time as new workers got hired and became active in
I can say that with my
generation that came in we had a different attitude
towards management, where -- I can say this. We had a
specific coffee break time. If the foreman would come
on the job, and I have seen this happen and it wasn't
coffee break time, the guys would throw their coffee
and sandwiches away. This was the early '70s, and with
our generation he came in and if we were delayed
because of the mill operating and we couldn't work and
the foreman showed up on the job, he would start
yelling at us, we would start yelling back, "What do
you want us to do?" We can't do anything, so we're
going to drink our coffee now, do our coffee break now.
When we can work, we can work, leave me alone. The old
guys wouldn't do that. They were scared to death. So
we kind of blew them off and we got a bad wrap.
When you worked there and started
working there, were there people who had been there
before the union?
Oh, yeah. I worked with
guys that never joined the union.
But they got all the
benefits, still had to file grievances for them and all
that and they got -- the only thing they couldn't do is
And why didn't they join?
They didn't want to pay the
dues, but I think it was up until around 1954 you had
the choice to join or not join the union. After '54,
somewhere around that time it changed, and I don't
really know why, what ruling came down.
Obviously the union just
negotiated the change.
Well, it is in the contract
that you have to be a member of the union to be an
employee, so if you are found not standing -- what is
Member in good standing.
Member in good standing,
then you could actually be fired.
Did the old guys have stories
about the nonunion days; do you remember?
The guys would talk about --
I'm trying to think. Some of the guys worked there in
the '30s and '40s, but most of them came out of the war
and started working there, and there was already a
union there. Some of the old timers, they just talk
about most -- when we did iron work, 99 percent of what
we did was fabricating and welding. They came out of
the school where you still drilled rivets. We learned
how to drive rivets in our apprenticeship, but I
probably had maybe five jobs in my career where we had
to drive rivets. Those guys, they couldn't hear, their
hands were all busted up. If they used any pneumatic
tools, their hands would swell up because the
capillaries in their hands were that messed up, and it
was tough work, especially if you are inside of
something and you've got a guy driving a rivet gun on
the other side, and there's no hearing protection or
anything like that. So those guys' bodies were pretty
well beat up.
Let's go back then to the
partnership. What was it like working as the
partnership coordinator for the union?
It was kind of like a
balancing act because I tried to keep the union reps.,
the grievance committeemen and all informed of what's
going on in the company, the iron mill, what was going
on in the industry, because
was going down
and down and down more and more, and we're talking
bankruptcy and getting worse off as we go along. I'm
trying to keep these guys informed of what's going on.
A lot of them just had blinders on and didn't believe
Now on the other side, the company is just
constantly beating on us to change, change, change, but
they don't want to change, so you are trying to play a
balancing act, you are trying to tell the guys the
reality of what's happening on the union side, and they
think you are talking in favor of the company when you
are just trying to tell them what's really happening,
and then when you get to the company you've got to
fight them tooth and nail because they constantly --
the company constantly tried to use me to influence the
union guys, which was not my job. And any time any
member of the front office management would want me to
do something, I would say I would have to clear this
through the staff rep. first, I'm not doing anything
without authorization, and I would call my staff rep.,
Frank Rossi, and he and I would talk, and we might
modify things, we might just flat out say no, but I
wasn't having the company use me as their go-between
with the union. I was a union guy, bottom line, even
though some people didn't read it that way.
Well, what caused you to get out?
Group politics. A group
came in at the union hall, and they were more concerned
with being reelected the day after the election than
they were with servicing the people, and I just got fed
up, I couldn't stand it anymore, it's not what I was
about, and they just made life hell for me, so I got
out, I went back to the mill, I became a working
coordinator and spent the last year and a half back in
the mill before they offered the buyout.
Well, a working coordinator was a
new position that came out of the partnership.
Came out in the '93
What was the working coordinator?
Why was that controversial?
The company wanted to
eliminate workers, and I was part of this discussion as
a zone committeeman. They wanted us to cross train, take
on more work, one guy does three jobs, and the counter
argument to that was well, why do we have all these
supervisors, front line supervisors that we really
don't need. The guys, if you are a craftsman, you've
got to do your job. All you need is someone to get you
material to work with and point you in the direction
that this is the job you've got to do, so it was a
We got the working coordinator position. It
started off with crew chiefs, which really never took
off, and it evolved into the working coordinator, and
basically the alley guys took over the front line
Now, I had the first working coordinator
agreement in the plant. Now, me and the superintendent
had a disagreement when we presented this to the first
group of guys. We had a disagreement right in front of
them. He said they can discipline people, and I said
they can't. So we took it outside, got the staff rep.
involved and the staff rep. overruled me.
Basically what it came down to was they could
issue reactionary discipline in terms of if you refused
a job. Well, this is all I have for you, either this
or go home, as long as it's not unsafe. If they wanted
to pull a safety thing, that was legitimate. But other
than that and any kind of other discipline would have
to be done by management.
So you could send the guy home for the
balance of the turn for refusing to work, and you could
dock a guy if he comes in late or goes home early, but
basically with the card reader system they were doing
that to themselves anyway.
But that was a relatively late
development, the card reader system, because it was --
Well, the card reader system
came in -- I'm trying to remember -- in the late
'80s -- I'm trying to remember when they came in.
Late development in the life of
Sparrows Point, it was notorious --
Well, they eliminated time
cards in '83, '82 or '83, so there was no time cards
any more, and then it just went way the other way.
Nobody knew where anyone was at at any time. I know a
couple of guys that built some houses on company time,
but then the card readers came in and that was supposed
to be for security reasons, and then eventually it
evolved into a timekeeping system. So I would say that
as late as 2000 it was a timekeeping system.
How was it going back in the
I loved it. It was where I
belonged I guess. You get burned out doing union
stuff. The guys just -- they become unreasonable for
some of their demands. Life down there wasn't that
bad. They were making really good money without really
having to kill themselves, and all they did was bitch,
at least that's the way I saw it after awhile.
There was some guys that you are constantly
getting out of trouble, and then there's some guys that
you never hear from, and when they do get in trouble,
you bust your ass to help them out because you know
something is not right.
Do you think that part of the
problems in representation was due to the tension
created around the Bethlehem Steel decline?
Well, to tell you the truth,
I can remember as an apprentice an austerity program.
had been crying poor mouth for the whole time
I was down there. Later on I found out that in the
almost went bankrupt then, but they
kept it pretty well quiet.
Because of my job as a partnership
coordinator, I found out some things that was going on.
I was privy to information that was confidential, but I
didn't realize it was that bad. Then it was just when
they rebuilt L furnace, the BLF, and they spent money
for the new coal mill, it was like they just blew all
their cash, and that was really what did it.
Then we got into a little bit of an economic
downturn with steel, and without a cash flow
could not survive that economic downturn, and that's
what did it, they just spent too much cash that one
year '99 and couldn't survive, couldn't come out of it.
Well, did they have to spend that
because they had not invested before that in new
They did a mini reline L
furnace in '92 or 4, somewhere back in the early '90s
when they were supposed to do a full reline, so they
had to do those reline or build a new blast furnace,
which was unfeasible. They did not have to do all the
work they did at the BOF, found that out later.
The coal mill, they needed that, but it's --
again, they scrimped here and spent too much there,
they didn't get certain things in the mill. I don't
think to this day is still running exactly the way they
wanted it to, but they just spent too much money at one
time. I'm not sure what was going on at
at the time, which was the other big plant, but they
just -- their cash flow just went, and they probably
did not have to spend all that money, but they did.
Sparrows Point was always the stepchild of
, but then
became a dated mill
and they needed more maintenance money and more
maintenance money and more maintenance money, and it
just became a downward spiral. We knew a lot of this
stuff through the partnership.
Like I said, I was involved in a lot of
things that I just couldn't tell, it was confidential.
The staff rep., the presidents knew about it and we
weren't really supposed to tell certain financial
dealings. One president got in trouble for that one
time, and that was part of the partnership, we did know
things that was going on financially with the company
that we really weren't supposed to be divulging to the
What made you then start thinking
Stress, just plain old
stress. I really liked doing that job. I was doing
training over there, which was enjoyable. Since I was
involved intimately with writing the working
coordinator document, we did a week-long session of all
new working coordinators, and I had a part of that
explaining all the disciplinary things and making sure
that those guys did their jobs from a union
perspective, because what happens is they -- anybody
gets in those kind of positions and they start thinking
like a foreman or they start thinking like a white hat,
and I prevailed with those guys to think like a union
What got you then going?
Well, like I said the new
group came in at the one union hall, it became more and
more obvious to everybody in the plant that we should
go to one local instead of five locals, that people
don't look at what's good for the membership sometime.
They only want to see what's good for themselves and
they like their positions at the union hall and they
didn't want to give those up, so when I started talking
about one local, they didn't like what I was saying,
and they just started bringing a lot of pressure on me,
and I was fed up with it.
And at that time it coincided
with the sale and bankruptcy?
That was all going on. We
tried to do some innovative things with the membership
to try to come up with ideas where we could possibly
save money, and every step of the way -- and I was told
to do things through the international because I never
did anything on my own. The international would direct
me, either the district director or the staff rep.
And the district director at that
time was from Bethlehem Steel, Dave Wilson and --
No, that was Billy Thompson.
Billy Thompson, and this was
But it would come through
him to [Frank] Rossi to do this or do that, or Tom Conway,
who was basically more our district director than Thompson
was. He had more hands-on than Thompson did, but when
I would go out and implement it, I would get all this
backlash politics from one local in particular, and
they would just cut my nuts out, and when I would try
to explain to them I'm not doing this on my own, and
there were numerous projects like that, they didn't
want to hear it, and then things would fall on their
face and everything just got worse and worse, and I
think they just expected things to stay hunky-dory and
The bottom line was guys were still getting
plenty of overtime, they were getting plenty of ass
time, so they are making money and they are saying
what's this company, there's nothing wrong with this
company, look at all the money they are throwing away,
look at us working all this overtime and there's really
not that much work out here, and the company -- and
they were right because the company wanted to bring
contractors in. So to appease the hourly guys, they
would just give them 60 hours a week on their regular
jobs just so they could bring contractors in.
It was stupid on both sides, and I always
argued why is the contracting committee agreeing to
this? We should agree to do the work, not to free
overtime. We are hurting ourselves in the long run,
and that's exactly what happened.
We want to work because the work is going to
be there. That's what our jobs are, not just to make
money. It all kind of backfired, so I was on the verge
of retiring, put in for my pension, and a couple of
guys from the gang came into my office and said, "What,
are you fucking nuts? Come down back to work with us
and get away from these assholes." So I thought about
it and said yeah, they are right, so when I did that, I
got called over to the main office, this is a little
known story, I got called over to the main office and
the president of Sparrows Point -- I can't even think
of his name now.
No, guy after Dwayne.
Can't even think of his
name, that's terrible. Anyway, he offered me a white
hat. I said “no, I don't think so, that's not what I'm
I went back out in the gang, and fortunately
got a really good project and spent the last year down
there working on that project, building a compressor
station, really good project.
But then the buyouts came around.
Well, it was -- I sat down
with my wife and overtime -- it was February of 2002
and overtime was breaking loose and she never really
wanted me to work overtime. We always considered
overtime as free money that we would stick away in the
bank or do something with, but we never counted on
overtime as an income and I never really worked a whole
Well, then this came around and I said look,
here's the facts, whatever happens,
think at the time was the Brazilians still wanted to
buy us and
was definitely out of the running.
[Steve]Miller had taken over as CEO, and basically he was
trying to sell us to somebody, and I said I'm going to
work every single bit of overtime they offer me, don't
expect to see me, and I said but all that money we're
going to bank, we're going to pay our credit cards off,
we're going to do everything, because we don't know if
they are going to shut this place down, if they are
going to sell it. If they are going to sell, who they
are going to keep. If they are going to keep it, are
they going to buy us out, whatever it is, we're going
to work it and we will be set up.
So as it turned out, we were pretty well set
up when they offered the buyout. So the only thing I'm
absolutely positively worried to death about right now
is healthcare. Healthcare is the biggest issue going.
Let's talk a little bit then
about life after Bethlehem Steel. What was it like the
first day of the rest of your life?
Geez, I have always been
busy, I have always been doing things, either if I'm
working at the Point, working at home, I have been
involved in the community. I'm here at the college
with the Labor Studies Advisory Board, Southeast High
it now, I'm on their advisory board. I have been a
member of Steelworkers Credit Union, member of the
first credit union for ten years, always been involved
in stuff, going to school. I went to school here
forever, but I got two certificates and two AA degrees
here. Was involved with the district teaching steward
classes all at
I have always been busy, so going home and
sitting there and collecting unemployment was driving
me nuts, and I could have sat there and collected
unemployment for six months or whatever, but it's just
not the way.
So after six weeks, I put an application in
to Home Depot, and to my surprise they hired me. My
son made fun of me. I spent 33 years at Sparrows Point
and 33 days at Home Depot, but I didn't want to work
that damn hard, so I went online and put an application
in to Sears and got a job there.
What was so hard about working at
I worked in the millwork
department. They gave me two days of training, which
was basically some safety stuff and the company
philosophy bullshit, and they put me on the floor, and
I know doors and I know this, but I didn't know was how
to get in the computer system and order these things
and put the dimensions in there and all that, and
nobody showed me, and every time somebody began to show
me, it got so busy I never got through the whole cycle.
So it was like every time I started doing it, the guy
is looking over my shoulder, he is pushing all the
keys, and you don't learn anything that way.
What really ticked me off was after three
weeks, the fourth week they start putting me on days by
myself, days meaning Saturday and Sunday when the store
opens, when it is busy as all get out and I'm there by
And what kind of ticked me off, too, I was
there one evening, just me and the manager, the manager
is in a meeting, and this is the way they work at Home
Depot, you are not allowed to point. If someone is
asking where the electrical department is, you've got
to walk them down and show them. Then on the way out,
you've got 900 people asking you what this is and that
is. By the time you get back to your department you've
got five people standing at the counter waiting to be
serviced, the phone is ringing, people wanting to call
you and ask you what size windows you have in stock,
and if the PA is saying millwork, line so and so and
I'm busy trying to take -- the way I figured it you
take care of the people in front of you. The people
that are calling can wait.
Well, the manager comes out, and he starts
chewing me out because the store manager says he is
tired of hearing the PA system announcing millwork. I
said fine, all these people can stand here, I'm
answering the phone. I know how to play the game, I've
been in the union too long. So it's just crazy, and
trying to talk to some people -- I wasn't there long
enough to really start talking about organizing the
place or anything, but boy, they needed it. They
really needed it. People were afraid to do some
There was some good people in the department.
They should have been promoted a long time ago and they
have been overlooked, so it was not a fair system I saw
for the month I was there, and I would have been
getting myself in trouble there anyway.
All right. So then you went
Well, Sears offered me -- it
was basically a laid back commission job selling
appliances, and they promised me basically I could make
the same wages, which I was, and benefits after my
Well, when my probationary period was up and
they called corporate to put me in for technically it's
called full-time position, even though I was already
working full time, corporate said no, they weren't
going to make any more people -- they didn't want to
pay benefits. A lot of companies don't want to do that
any longer. It's pretty expensive, medical benefits.
So I told them at that time I was only there for
benefits, I really didn't care about working.
The other part of it was I really enjoyed
selling the appliances when people were there, but
probably 60 percent of the time I was just standing
there doing nothing, and since you are working
commission, they can't tell you to do a lot of stuff
because they aren't paying you to do anything, and once
in awhile I would volunteer to do something just to
stop the boredom, but if the manager come up and told
me to start cleaning something up, screw you, you are
not paying me to do that. You are paying me to sell
I'm a proud owner of a Chuck
Swearingen-sold Sears dishwasher.
But I was pretty good. I
was the top salesman for weeks and weeks in a row for
the maintenance agreements, which they push because
they make big money off of that, and we made ten
percent off of it. So the maintenance agreements were
one of the big things because that's like a cash
account to them, and I was always top salesman. For
being a new guy, that's not too bad.
Did you find a lot of the people
you knew from the Point?
It was like probably one or
two in ten that came in the store I knew, and there was
a guy -- they had us divided between refrigeration and
washers and dryers and everything else, we could cross
sell, but there was a guy there that was there since
the store opened 12 years or something, and he always
prided himself with all the people he knew because he's
bar fly, and when I started to know more
people than him, he started getting jealous.
But it got to the point I started looking for
other work, and I really wanted to get back into
maintenance because that's where my heart is at, and
the jobs I'm looking at for maintenance all require
some type of refrigeration. They want you to be a
refrigeration mechanic, even if you just know the
principles of refrigeration. So I went back over to
-- I forget what they
are called now, but anyway, it was money that was from
the Federal Government for TRA for displaced
steelworkers to retrain, so I thought I had blown my
chance. I went back over there and they said oh, no,
you can do this and that. So I applied to Tess
College, went over there and got accepted, and I'm in
school right now. This is my fourth week for
refrigeration and repair, heat and refrigeration, air
conditioning, it's nine-month full time, and right now
I'm fighting with unemployment to find out if they are
going to pay me unemployment because I voluntarily quit
Sears, but basically because I wasn't getting benefits,
which I absolutely need and to be retrained so I could
find a job that I could do with my other
Well, let's talk health
insurance. Do you have health insurance now?
Part of the buyout for a
30-year employee was 12 months of COBRA, and anyone
less than 30 years was six months of COBRA. My 12
months end next month. At that point in time I can
pick up COBRA on my own, and for my wife and me it's
something like $760 a month, somewhere in that
neighborhood. So what I'm trying to do right now is
under the TRA, and I'm not sure of all the details of
this yet, but I qualify for the health tax, whatever
that's called, where they pay 65 percent. Otherwise,
you have to be 55 years old and collect the PBGC
pension. I'm 52 collecting the PBGC pension, so my age
doesn't make it, but because I'm a full-time student
being retrained, I'm waiting for confirmation whether
or not I can get that.
What may hurt me is because I couldn't stand
sitting on my ass and I went out and got another job.
That may disqualify me. I haven't found that out yet.
It's a reward for the work ethic.
Well, it's the way I was
brought up. You always stay busy, you always work, and
you don't want to be collecting something.
Now, does your pension -- was it
cut when the PBGC took over, or was it part of the
buyout that PBGC already had?
Well, my pension should have
been around $2,200 a month with my years of service and
the salary I was making. PBGC, when I applied for it,
they automatically cut it. Where the other guys who
were collecting it prior to had to pay money back, mine
was already cut, so I didn't have to pay any money
back, and the option we took was -- because there was
like ten different options you could take, and I don't
remember all of them, but basically the one I took was
take a slightly reduced pension, because I think my
full benefit was $1,256. We took a reduced one that
I'm going to die first so my wife gets the higher
pension for the five-year certain, whatever it's
called, and if she dies first, then my pension goes
back up to the full $1,256.
And you basically took a
50 percent cut?
More than that. My bottom
line, I'm getting $1,070 a month from $2,200. So when
we go back to the beginning of the interview I was
expecting 30 years of service. Actually we were
talking about within the next couple of years anyway
leaving, retiring and moving to
it's cheap to live. We still have that dream, but
things have changed now.
Thirty years of service with the company, you
lose your pension like that, and I feel fortunate that
I do have some pension. Enron people have none, they
blew all theirs, so without healthcare -- we would be
fine with a thousand dollars a month, do some part-time
work, I would be fine. But healthcare is the killer.
If we don't do something in this country with
healthcare -- it's unbelievable that an industrialized
country like us has a system that we have. It's just
Well, I think that you are
probably a great example of the Bethlehem Steel. If
you had to do it over again, would you?
Yeah, it was a good
experience. It was probably a really bad place to
work. I was exposed to umpteen different kinds of
chemicals and carcinogens and who knows what the future
will bring with my health with that, but I met some
great guys, had some great experiences, and we were a
pretty tight family down there, made lifetime friends.
I learned tons of skills that apply to
anything at home or anywhere else. We had to become
basically a jack of all trades down there, and if I had
changed things I would have thought more of the future,
would have gotten into my 401K earlier, put more money
away, but you can't see those kind of things.
Did you have any interest in your
children working down there?
No. Well, my daughter
would -- I guess she could have probably fit into an
office environment, but my son, that was a concern and
I did not want him working down there.
But when I was working down there with my
father, that was a different kind of situation, but he
didn't work in the mill like I did. He worked on the
gate posts and patrolling and he didn't really get into
the stuff that I saw.
I wouldn't want to put somebody in those kind
of conditions. It's just too nasty, and things got
markedly improved over the years as we worked down
there, but you still worked in all sections of the
plant where the steel is painted with red lead and you
are burning and welding on this stuff and the asbestos
dust is laying all up in the ceilings, and it's just a
But it was a great place.
What can you say? I can
remember working night turn on the blast furnace free
line, and we had these things called doughnuts where
the stoves were at, and they -- we would mix up a
powder with water that was red lead and we would --
after we took the doughnut out, it was an expansion
joint, we would pack it, paint it with the red lead
paste and pack it with fibers with asbestos. The stuff
was real nice and soft to sleep on, so you make
yourself a little doughnut with this asbestos rope, and
then you get up and dust yourself off and the stuff
would be flying. Didn't even think about it, and then
a year later you find out all this bad stuff about
asbestos and then it took years and years. I have been
tested three or four times now, haven't seen anything,
but it takes like 30 years for it to show up.
Do you still see guys from the
Yeah. In fact, there over
there's probably half a dozen or more
right now taking various types of training over there,
most of them are in the refrigeration, but other ones
are in medical skills, and some of them are in
electronics and computer stuff that they teach over
there. So that's a pretty busy school over there.
I don't know how many all together have gone
through the school, but -- well, right now I think the
first group of guys that are going to be graduating
next month, the first ones because most of them are
nine to twelve-month courses. They have seen quite a
few of us over there, and a lot of them -- I run around
and see them in a bar once in awhile, see the guys, see
them in bars or at
, or like I said when I
worked at Sears -- well, first of all, the people
coming in, but then when it got around that I was
working there, people would come in just to buy stuff
from me, so that was nice.
Will you ever go back to the
No. No, my old
superintendent came in Sears one evening and told me
that there might be a position available for me working
for a contractor as a planner since there was talk of
contractors taking over the maintenance work, and I
just kind of like gritted my teeth and I don't want to
go back down there. The trouble is it would be good
money, it would be really good money, and I'm thinking
oh, I could stand it for another two or three years and
make some nice money and sock it away and get the hell
out of here, but I really don't want to go back down
that place. It never did pan out anyway, so I never
really had to be pushed to that decision, but it was
nice that he was thinking of me anyway.