March 7, 2006
We're with Joe Kotelchuck. It's
March 7th, 2006, and we're going to talk about the
How did you end up coming to Sparrows Point?
Well, I originally lived in
Brooklyn, New York. We came here during the war in
1943, and I ended up going to Baltimore Polytechnic
Institute High School, and the counselor told me about
Bethlehem Steel and there were apprenticeships opened,
and I went down in '47 when I graduated from Poly and
they were hiring. They were just looking for warm
bodies at the time, they were hiring everybody, and I
got an apprenticeship as a machinist, but that's how I
got to the Point.
How did your family come to
Well, my father had passed
away when I was about a year old, and my brothers,
couple of brothers and sisters supported my mother and
myself, and there was no work in New York to speak of
and you had the war industry here in Baltimore, so my
mother and my sister and myself came up here and we
moved to what was called Perkins Projects, and it
originally was built for poor people. Then it was
turned over to the war workers, anybody that worked in
the war industry got a place there. We lived I think
it was Dallas Court at the time.
And where was the Perkins
Around Pratt and Caroline in
East Baltimore, and like I say when I graduated from
Poly, I didn't go to college until later I took courses
in college, University of Maryland. I was looking for
work, and I spoke to the counselor from Poly, and he
said there was openings in Bethlehem Steel, and I went
down there and took the test for hiring, and they
wanted to hire me immediately except I had trouble with
my eyes, so it took another few days to get clearance
on that, and I got hired as an apprentice machinist.
What was it like the first day
walking into work there?
Well, I couldn't believe it.
They were paying at that time $1.09 an hour for
laborers. That was unheard of, $43 and change a week,
and I never heard -- never made that kind of money
right out of high school. I worked summer jobs and I
worked one time for the B & O Railroad. I think they
paid 44 cents an hour, which I think was the minimum
wage. I was really in awe of it, started on the
How did you get to work?
Well, I lived -- like I say,
I lived in Perkins Project at the time, and I either
rode with what's called the Red Rocket, which was the
13th street car, the 26. We called it the red rocket.
It went up to Highlandtown town with the 10 bus and caught
the 26 street car, or I eventually made friends with
people down there and I got a ride in a car pool.
The Red Rocket just ran all
Ran all night and all day.
Just to accommodate all the
workers at the Point?
Well, that was one of the
places it went to, Sparrows Point. It went downtown.
I had incidents where I was supposed to go into work in
the late shift and fell asleep and I -- well, you
couldn't overrun the run going to the Point, but coming
back I would overrun it because I fell asleep, and the
street car conductor didn't wake me up.
How far did you go?
I went downtown wherever it
went, and then I caught it back and missed the shift
going back to sleep.
So what were your impressions the
first day when you went down, other than the money?
Were you in the machine shop?
Yeah, I was in the machine
shop, and they started you off, they put you behind in
the tool crib, and you were supposed to learn all the
different tools that they would give out. People would
come to the window of the tool crib, and they had brass
checks and they would give you a brass check and they
would say give me a one and a half-inch drill or give
me a quarter-inch pipe tap and a wrench, and they asked
you for the different things and they had all of the
The tool crib also had a grinder where they
ground drills and bits and whatever was used in the
machine shop, and then eventually they put you on a
machine, they either would put you on a floor to work
with somebody, but during your four years they moved
you around the whole machine shop, and you ran a lathe
and a shaper, planer.
And what were they making in the
Well, they were turning out
either material for the mills like shafts or gears or
whatever they needed to produce steel or broken work
came into the machine shop, and we took it apart and
made new -- replacement parts for it so they could
produce steel. They made -- over at blooming mills
they made what they called hot blooms, and eventually
they pressed it down into either sheets or cut it up
and used it for various material.
What's a bloom?
A bloom is a big slab of
steel which they made into a certain temperature and
they made each one different -- I don't know if you
would call it -- not intensity, but they had some were
stronger than others, some were tougher, certain
Well, we were in all what
you call the roughing end, and like I say the blooming
mills and the blast furnace, the coke ovens where they
made coke, and they used that to make steel. Later on
they had -- (phone interruption.)
Part of the interest of the tapes
is to get people who don't understand the making of
steel, the vocabulary and the process, so that's why
I'm asking you about that.
So when you started there, you were 18 years
old. How many people worked in the machine shop?
Over 800 people worked in
the machine shop, somewhere between 800 and 900 people
worked three shifts in the machine shop, and they put
you on -- while you are an apprentice, you worked
partly on the midnight turn for maybe six months and
then they put you on the daylight or 4:00 to 12:00
shift for six months, and you went around and around,
but they were different.
Out in the mills, they put you on a shift and
you worked the shift for either a week or a month or
over in the open hearth they actually worked three
different shifts a week, but in the machine shop you
worked as an apprentice, you worked all the different
shifts, and then when you got out of your
apprenticeship, the desirable shift was daylight, then
they would post notices for it and you would bid on it,
and if you had the time and the ability, you could get
Now there was a lot of people that they
didn't like daylight, they liked the 4:00 to 12:00,
they found it easier, it was less stressful, and then
there was some that worked the midnight, they loved it.
It was sort of you worked midnight all night and
then -- I just say this because I think they cheated on
their sleep, and then they went and did things during
the day, maybe they fixed their car, got a haircut,
went to the doctor, whatever got done, and they found
that it was a lot easier working midnight. And
daylight, when they said you worked daylight, I got up
like I lived in northwest Baltimore, I got up at 5:30
in the morning so that I would be ready to go to work
and be at work at a quarter after 7:00.
When did you leave the Perkins
I'm trying to think. I got
married in December of '49. I think that's -- when I
got married, I think that's when I left.
Did your mother stay at Perkins
Well, she remarried, and my
sister moved to another house or an apartment, and my
brothers -- like they both lived in New York and they
helped us manage because my father was gone.
So when you got married, did you
move up here to this house?
No. When I got married, we
lived in an apartment on Collington Avenue for a year,
and then we lived on Brookfield and Whitelock, which
was a real nice area at the time. Now it's kind of on
the rough side, and eventually we lived on a street
called Willaren Avenue, which also was northwest
Baltimore near Park Heights and Garrison, and it was a real
nice neighborhood, predominantly -- in northwest
predominantly Jewish neighborhood. That's where I
lived with my wife and started a family when I lived on
Brookfield and Whitelock.
Now obviously then you got a car?
Oh, yeah, I got -- we got a
car and I would take my turn in the car pool. I was
with something like three or four of the fellows and I
drove one week out of the month, and also when I was in
the machine shop I was always union conscious from New
York because that was predominantly union, everything
Of course I joined the union, but I wanted to
be a shop steward, and when I was an apprentice I told
a fellow, a man named Jim Boyle who was what they
called the grievance committeeman at the time, zone man
that I wanted to become a shop steward, and he advised
me against it because he said you're an apprentice, and
they judge you every three or four months and they can
always find something wrong. So I stood away from
union stuff except to maybe go to the meetings until I
finished my apprenticeship. Then I became a shop
steward and became moderately active. Later on of
course I got more involved, and I sort of went up the
ladder in the union positions.
Well, what was the union like
when you first came into the machine shop? The
steelworkers had just been in the Sparrows Point about
five years, six years.
Yeah. I think the union
actually started in 1942, and this fellow Jim Boyle,
this man, he was really strong in the sense that one
time I heard the story -- I wasn't there at the time
they fired him, and when they fired him, the men
wildcatted for three days, and then they took him back,
and the union was very strong at the time.
It wasn't until recently that they -- like I
say when they had between 800 and 900 men in the
machine shop, I think counting everybody at Sparrows
Point they had 30,000 people, and now I understand they
have got about two.
What was it like being in a place
with 30,000 people?
Well, I really liked it. I
had never seen anything like it, and with all of those
people, and I found my co-workers very friendly, and I
didn't really run into any type of problems, and when I
said about the money, you said beside the money, well,
the money was the big thing. It was funny you made a
dollar nine an hour to start with, and every six months
I think it was you got upgraded, and when you finally
came out of your time, I think the rate was about --
for a machinist $1.66 I think it was, and then we
always said boy, if we could make -- at that time if we
could make a hundred dollars we would be sitting on top
of the world. Well, eventually we did make a hundred
dollars and then you looked at another figure.
One of the things that happened
after the war was the integration of some of the locker
rooms down there. Was that a problem by the time you
got there for the machine shop?
Well, it was a problem, I
mean not limited to the machine shop. The union forced
integration, but there was still a lot of people that
were against it, and I remember when they put up a
notice -- it was an unwritten law that in the machine
shop that the black workers could only be riggers,
crane operators, helpers -- well, not even helpers, and
one time they put up this notice that said drill press
operator wanted, and one of the black crane fellows put
in for it, and they just took it down, and we went in
to see about it, but they said well, they changed their
mind, but they kept putting it up, putting it down, and
then finally he stopped putting in for it and then they
got a white worker.
Well, how were the officers of
the union -- who was the president of 2610 at that
A fellow named John
Klauzenberg, little guy out of electrical repair shop.
He was a C-rate machinist. He was scraping babbitt
bearings and that was rated as C rate.
And how was he as a president?
I thought he was good. He
was an honest sincere type of guy, and I got along with
him. Of course later on in union politics, there was a
falling out and he got knocked out of the office, and
one of his best friends -- I'll think of his name, took
his place. I think he was the vice-president and he
was the black man and he was the first president, black
president of the 2610.
No, Bartee came later. This
was -- I can't think of his name.
That's all right. I'll look it
Was there any talk when you first started
working there about organizing the union? Did guys
have stories to tell or memories of it?
I don't know what you mean
by organizing the union.
Well, when the union drive
started in late 30's and up through '41 or obviously by
the time you came to work there, there would have been
people who had been through that campaign.
Would they talk about it?
Well, they talked about it
at organizers. There was Phil Murray was the president
of the international. I think he came from the coal
miners, and as far as organizing, they went into some
of these small areas to organize like up in
Highlandtown there were different companies, and there
was always a problem, but they had union organizers and
they were pretty tough type of guys, and the people
that worked for the international, they did organizing,
too, and they sort of worked like day and night, and
they sent them all over the place, and they had the
conventions in Atlantic City, I remember that, and that
was before gambling.
Did you ever meet a guy named
He was from 2609. He was one of
the in-plant organizers.
I never heard -- that's
funny, I never heard the name, and I think I knew them
He's still around. I actually
have a great interview with him.
I wonder how come I never
heard his name.
But people like Don Kellner say
that everything they knew about the union Neil Crowder
He's a wonderful, wonderful guy.
The period of '47, '48, '49 when you were a
young guy, the political activities, the Taft-Hartley
Act and stuff, did that have an impact on the shop at
Well, that was really
controversial, and -- yeah, it definitely had an
impact, and I remember at that time I was one of the
Henry Wallace supporters, and he was the third party,
and there was a lot of stink about that, but the union
still basically went Democrat.
Why did you support Henry
Well, I thought that he was
the best thing for the day, that he was for the workers
and for the labor people, and he had been a Democrat --
I think he was vice-president one time, and then he ran
for president, and I thought he was the best man, but
it just wasn't to be.
Were there a lot of discussions
in the shop? Were people politically interested at
Well, there wasn't too many
discussions in the shop, but there was a lot of
discussions at the union hall, at the meetings they had
So what was it like when you
became a steward?
Well, when you became a
steward, you had a certain amount of power. You went
in to see the foreman when somebody thought something
was wrong and you tried to get it straightened out, and
later on when I became what they called the zone
committeeman for zone -- let me see, zone six, the
machine shop -- it covered the machine shop, blacksmith
shop and car repair shop, and they had -- well, in
those three shops, the blacksmith shop had about 200
people and the car repair shop had about 200. The
blacksmith shop went down to nothing and they did away
with it, and the car repair I think they eventually fit
it in with the iron workers. The car repair built and
assembled and disassembled railroad cars.
That were used inside the plant?
The Back River railroad?
Well, the Back River and
back -- that was a different group.
So when you became the zone
person, what year was this; do you remember?
I'm trying to think of what
year it was. I think roughly in the late 60's.
So you were there for almost 20
years before you got to be a zone man?
Well, let's go back a little bit
then. Do you remember the 1959 strike?
Sure. That was 16 weeks, we
were out 159 days.
What was it like? What was it
before the strike? Was there a lot of talk?
Well, the people backed the
strike. Nobody thought it would go that long, and we
had a lot of problems with it. We went through any
savings that we had, the wife got a part-time job,
which was really hard because one of the questions that
they asked everybody was where does your husband work,
and when she said Sparrows Point, they said no, we're
not going to hire you because as soon as they settle,
he will go back and we will lose you, and it really was
the truth, and then some guys got jobs on the outside.
They didn't tell them they worked at Sparrows Point.
Most of them said they did work at Sparrows Point and
if you hired them they would stay, but these companies
never believed that.
So what was the strike operation
here? Were you involved in that at all?
Yes, I was on one of the
committees that gave out food to people and helped
approve loans to pay the rent so people didn't get
dispossessed. It was a big operation.
Where was the union hall then?
Well, the union hall under
Klauzenberg was on Lombard Street, somewhere near
Highland Avenue. It was a storefront place, and they
had an office up at the top, and then we had our
And did you distribute food
during the strike?
Yes, we distributed food.
They bought a lot of sacks of potatoes and canned
goods, and they gave it out to people.
Was there the hope that the
Government was going to intervene during the strike?
Well, I don't remember which
strike it was, but there was one strike we went out for
one day, Truman was the President. Truman said he
wanted to see Bethlehem's books. As soon as he said he
wanted to see the books, they settled the strike. It
lasted one day.
Do you remember what the strike
Well, it always was over
either wages, or one time it was over health benefits,
and we were paying something like ten dollars and
change a month for health benefits, and they arranged
it that instead of getting a raise or anything like
that, the company would pay the health benefit, but no
And so the guys were unhappy with
They were happy, very happy
with it, because it was just another thing -- well,
when you pay for health benefits, it was like they gave
you a raise with one hand and took it back with the
other, but this way you got it, you didn't pay tax on
it, and whenever you had to go to the hospital or you
needed pharmaceuticals, that was one of the best plans
around. When they said what kind of coverage have you
got, you always said Blue Cross Blue Shield, I work at
Bethlehem Steel, and that was it.
Did you find in the period -- one
of the things that's interesting is how people move
away from the place they worked, because when you
started there, you lived relatively close to the plant,
and then as soon as you got some money and got married,
you moved a fair distance, a distance away where you
had to drive. Did you find a lot of workers did that?
Oh, yeah. Some of them --
the ones who lived in Dundalk, of course they didn't
move, they were happy with Dundalk and ten minutes to
work, but everybody else. There was some -- a lot of
workers bought houses on North Point Road, and used
houses sold for about $4,000 and new ones for $6,000
and $8,000, and there was a lot of guys that come back
from the service who were getting -- either going
through school under the GI bill or making loans
through the government, getting a lower rate of
Well, did the fact that people
move away have an impact on the union do you think?
No, I don't think it had any
impact on -- we heard stories like where they put in --
there was always a debate on piecework incentive, and
some people believed in it and some people didn't
believe in it. The union originally thought that you
should be guaranteed your wages, and they believed in a
fair day's work for a fair day's pay, but the company
always wanted to put incentive in because that was a
way of getting the worker to work harder or produce
more, and it definitely worked, and I don't know what
year it was, but the union took a 180-degree turn and
tried to put everybody except the laborer on an
And what were the arguments? Big
arguments at the hall and in the shop?
Yeah. Well, the people who
didn't have incentive and stood a chance to get
incentive and make more money, they were definitely for
it. We went to Washington, we had meetings. I don't
remember the year, but I was the chairman of the
grievance committee, and I went along on the meetings.
I don't know how much of an input the people
like myself had. I went to contract negotiations, and
on the one hand I really thought that I was part of the
makeup for negotiating for wages and other stuff, but
the first meeting I went to on in the negotiations I
was thrilled to death. I got a letter, a telegram in
the mail saying you are part of the steel negotiating
committee, be in Pittsburgh at such and such a date. I
went there and I thought I'm on the committee, that's
great. Do you know how many people were on the
committee? 600. So then I realized that hey -- yeah,
I put my two cents in, but the people up at the top did
the big work like of money and holidays and vacations.
Who were the officers of the
international at that time? Dave McDonald?
Yeah, Dave McDonald was a
president and later was --
Yeah, I.W. Able, Dave
McDonald and one that was out of Canada.
George Becker? Lynn Williams.
Lynn Williams, yeah, he was
a good guy.
Did you ever have any experience
with Dave McDonald?
No, I had experience with
Lynn Williams. Lynn Williams came down one time and he
was going to speak at a meeting of laborer and
management, and they were building a hotel downtown and
they were trying to get union labor, but the builders
fought them, and I.W. Able put his two cents in, but it
really didn't change anything.
Well, you said you went to
When did you start that?
Once when I was in the shop
I was talking to one of the men and he said they got a
program at the University of Maryland called -- you got
a certificate. It had to do with shops, it had to do
with -- also there were nurses that went there to pick
up credits. You had public speaking, you had writing
and you picked up 16 credits, and it allowed you to
teach, because I ended up teaching labor courses, union
courses, and I taught at Dundalk Community College and
also taught at some labor halls.
I once taught a labor course in South
Baltimore for the sugar workers, Domino Sugar workers,
and -- I'm trying to think of what the name that they
called the course.
Did you have to go to College
Park to take these courses?
No, went downtown on Green
Street, University of Maryland downtown, and you took
them in the evening, and it allowed you to get credits,
and some of these credits were transferable if you had
wanted to go during the day and then other ones -- and
there was a certain requirement that you had to make --
industrial arts, that's what it was called, and we had
all different types of people, from industry and also
like I say nurses were taking courses there, but
industrial arts is what it was called.
Well now, when did you start
college? Do you remember what year?
No, I don't really remember
what year, but I was active in the union. I was either
a grievance committeeman or chairman of the grievance
committee, because I went up the ladder from what we
called shop steward, grievance committeeman, or we
called them zone men at the time. I became chairman of
the grievance committee. Then I ran for election, and
the first time I ran, I lost.
Whom did you lose to; do you
I think Ivory Dennis had won
at the time, he won by three votes, and the next time I
ran -- well, Casey Robinson was the president and Ivory
Dennis came along and he won, and then the next time I
beat Ivory Dennis, and I became president for two
terms, and that was sort of -- I ran several times
after that, but that was the end of the political
career. I did become grievance man again for the shop
and the car shop and the blacksmith shop.
How come you kind of cut back on
What do you mean; now?
No, then. You said you ran for
local president. Did you get defeated?
Yeah, I got defeated, and
like they said, they are trying to tell you something.
Who beat you; do you remember?
Well, one time it was the
treasurer -- I'm trying to think what his name was.
This is terrible.
Now, were you around when the union halls
I was around when the first
union hall was built, and that was Baltimore
contractors had got the bid, and they built the first
Which one was first; 09 or 10?
I think 09 was first and
10 -- there was so many people that they needed another
hall, and then they built 10.
Now, when they built those halls
and before, were there always the two big locals, one
for the steel side and one for the finishing side?
Yeah. If you had their
backing, you pretty much were in, and like Dave
Wilson was the -- not Dave Wilson.
Well, Atallah was the
district director that started and later was Ed Plato,
and Ed Plato definitely controlled 2609, and 2610
backed him, too, so he became district director and
Primo Padeletti was in there for a little while and
then Dave Wilson came. I had backed Dave Wilson.
In the beginning, the first time around
Wilson wasn't running and I backed Plato, and then the
next time around it was Wilson against Primo Padeletti,
and I backed Dave Wilson.
Were they hotly contested
Oh, yeah, they were really
something, and then there was a lot of small locals
that contributed. You had to win either 2609 or 2610.
What were the elections like in
the shop; do you remember?
Well, when they ran for
grievance committeeman, zone man, you pretty much -- if
you were in the machine shop, you had the advantage.
There was a fellow that ran from the car repair shop
and then one time they had a small department called
scale repair. Frank Rose ran against me and he really
got beat, and yet years later he ran for president and
he won that election.
There are a couple of things that
happened after you became active in the union. We had
a program last week about the black steelworkers
lawsuit. Do you remember any of that activity in the
late 60's, early 70's?
Well, the blacks filed a
claim of discrimination, which it definitely was, and
they were trying to figure out who was discriminated
against, and Bernie Parrish sort of handled that, and
they paid -- I don't remember how much they paid, 7 or
12 -- I think it was $7 million they paid out, and Jim
Harmon was put in to help distribute this money. There
was a lot of -- some blacks said it wasn't enough and
they wouldn't take the money, and other ones like Ivory
Dennis said don't believe what's going to happen in the
future, what's in your hand, take it, and he took it as
one of the ones that took it. So the majority took it
and then others that still filed a further claim.
Was it a big issue dispute in the
Well, we didn't have that
many blacks working in the machine shop, just a hand
full. Like I say later on they did become drill press
operators. There was some apprentice machinists who
became machinists and toolmakers. There was a fellow I
remember as rate setter, but there wasn't that many.
But did it become an issue in the
local when you went to the meetings; do you remember?
Oh, yeah, it was a big
issue, a big fight on it like who should get what and
how much they should get. Yeah, that went on for a
long time. Then finally between Bernie Parrish and Jim
Harmon, who came on later working for the
international -- I don't know who made the decision I
guess between the union and the company what they were
going to pay out, who would get what. So they paid the
blacks for being discriminated against.
There was another gentleman
Yeah, I knew Francis Brown.
He was very active fighting for black issues. Yeah, he
Did some of the white workers
oppose this whole move?
Not that I remember. They
just wanted to be involved in the payout.
What were the biggest issues when
you became local president that you had to deal with?
I don't know what the issues
were at that time. There was always something in there
about wages. It was funny, we always said you could
close your eyes and if the fellow talked about wages
and vacations and holiday pay, he was a young guy. If
he talked about retirement and Blue Cross Blue Shield,
he was a guy that was getting close to retirement and
was thinking in terms of the future.
Well, did you have a sense as you
were going on that the American steel industry was
going to be in trouble?
I never thought -- I thought
that Bethlehem Steel and company would last forever.
No, I didn't think they would be in trouble, and it was
only later on when we started having trouble where
Bethlehem kept going in the hole, and what was
happening in my mind was that the foreign steel was
being subsidized. They were also paying the workers
there for sickness and everything else, and with us,
when Bethlehem put in at times as much as 300 million
dollars toward these different benefits, they became
more and more an obstacle to try to overcome.
Some people have said that
Bethlehem was too many managers. Did you ever have
Yeah, they were top heavy,
and I think that that went against them, but I don't
think that that was -- though they were top heavy and
they paid them, they got people in and they paid them
good wages, and if they didn't work out, they let them
go and they paid off their salary, but that wasn't what
turned it around. I think it was the foreign companies
were -- we could outproduce them, we could outwork them
and we just had too much overhead, at least that's what
I mean is it ironic now that it's
owned by a foreign company?
Yeah. It's hard to believe,
but we always jokingly said we fought the Japanese and
they can one day come in and take over or the Arabs,
because they are the ones that have the money.
Well, how have you felt over the
last five years about the end of Bethlehem Steel and
Well, I wasn't happy, but
when this other company took over -- of course they
really took everything away from us. They took away
your medical benefits, your pharmaceuticals, your
pension, your insurance. Luckily the Government had a
program to pick up your pension, so I still get a
pension and Social Security.
Of course now I pay my own Blue Cross Blue
Shield and my own pharmaceutical, so I can manage, but
had they taken away the pension and the Government not
picked it up, I and millions others like myself would
be in deep trouble.
When did you retire?
I retired in August of '91,
almost 15 years ago.
So you worked there --
And after you were president of
the local and you came back in the shop, did you stay
politically active or were you --
Yeah, I went right back to
being a shop steward, because I think you only needed
five votes to become a shop steward, and I always was
active as a shop steward, and -- yeah, I stayed active.
That's a long time to work at one
Well, if you are going to
work somewhere, why not work there.
If you had to do it over again,
would you go back and start at Bethlehem Steel at the
age of 18?
Sure, I thought it was a
good place to work. As it turned out, a lot of people
got asbestosis or I don't know if they call it red lung
or black lung, but a lot of people got sick, and at the
time before Peter Angelos picked up on the asbestosis,
they had a company lawyer who said there was no
industrial diseases. Of course he was -- and later on
he got let go and he just said -- they got on him
because he never told the worker that they were dying
of this disease. He said I was working for the
company, I told the company.
What kind of safety issues did
you have in the machine shop?
Well, they had safety
issues. Asbestos was one of them, getting hurt on the
job. I mean in the other places like the open hearth
and the blast furnace and the coke ovens, they had
polluted air, and you had to end up wearing a type of a
mask, and in the blast furnace they wore these
rubber -- real thick rubber-soled shoes to work on top
of the furnace because the floors were so hot. But one
person did get killed in the machine shop, but
basically the machine shop they got stitches and burns
from hot chips and maybe lost a finger or something
When you were the president of
2610, did you get over into the open hearth and the
coke ovens at all?
What was it like? Can you
Well, we went down, we got a
call one time and we went down to the blast furnace,
and in order to show us what it was like, we put on
clothing to work in there and we sifted the -- it
wasn't sand. It was some type of material and it was
so hot, so strenuous. There were two, maybe three
gangs. A gang worked for 15, 20 minutes, and then you
quit, and then another gang came in and did the same
thing and then they quit and then they went back.
By the way, it just came to me that one of
the presidents that beat me was a fellow named -- my
treasurer Donald Ervin or Ervine.
So you went through those safety
issues and you went down in the blast furnace. Were
there activities around trying to prevent the accidents
or people just were accepting that it was hazardous?
Sometimes they would call
up -- they had what they called Article 13, Section 3,
if you thought that it was over and above the normal,
you could invoke Article 13, Section 3, and the company
would send a man down and the union would send either
the president or the chairman of the grievance
committee and they would take the man off the job and
stop the job and try to settle the issue.
And a worker could refuse the job
if they thought it was really unsafe under that
They could refuse it, but if
he was wrong, he stood a chance of getting penalized,
a day off or something, and a lot of times it wasn't
right. One time I got called, we were up on top of a
shutdown blast furnace, and they wanted the welders to
go into the shutdown blast furnace to do some welding,
and they said that it was too hazardous.
Later on, management, one of the top
management people came and they said they are going to
work this job overtime, and the overtime seemed to
change some of those people's minds. Suddenly it
wasn't that hazardous. They put a rope around the
welder and tied the rope off somewhere up top so that
if something happened and they fell, they were held by
the safety harness and a rope.
When you were living up here, did
you ever go into the town of Sparrows Point?
Before it was torn down?
Yeah. One time Sparrows
Point -- I talked to people that lived there and they
had a setup there and it was letters, and the foreman
and the management people that were like sitting on
top, they had either A Street or B Street or something
like that, and the regular workers had the rest of it,
and normally you talked about company towns as being
really terrible, but I understand the Bethlehem company
town was pretty good. They had stores that sold
company stuff and they had the best of everything.
The only problem was a lot of times if people
wanted -- needed some money, they would get these chips
to buy stuff, sometimes they would buy with them.
Sometimes they would use them and they sold it to other
fellows at a reduced rate, and when the check came,
sometimes they got nothing in their check.
So you would drive in from here,
park. How far did you have to walk to get to the
machine shop? Was the parking lot right out in front?
It wasn't bad. I would say
it was about two blocks to walk, had a nice big parking
Of course my problem that I looked at the job
would say well, what do you think of the job? Well, if
I can get passed getting up at 5:30 in the morning and
driving from where I lived 25 miles one way, otherwise
I liked the job, I liked the company work, the union
work, and even though we had different disagreements, I
found it was a good place to work.
Well, you talked about being
involved in the Wallace campaign. There were other
people from the shop that were involved and then this
House of America activities committee came in in 1957.
Do you remember anything about that?
Well, I didn't run into that
much trouble about that. They had some fights up at
the union hall and some disagreements and name calling,
and over at 2609 they let -- they fired some people,
but it wasn't that much of it that I was involved in.
Do you remember it as a tough
time though for the local in the area?
Well, they pointed the
finger at different people, and they come to find out
later that some of the people that were making
allegations -- I can't remember the man's name, but he
said -- well, it was a woman and a man, they were
naming names of different people, and it came out later
that they named people they couldn't possibly even
know, they couldn't see or know as many people as they
What about another period that
came into -- it was the late 60's, early 70's, kind of
the cultural resolution and anti-war stuff, was that an
issue in the plant; do you remember? You would have
been an officer by this time.
Well, I remember first was
the Korean War and everybody was sort of gung ho, you
were either for it or you were un-American if you were
against it. But the company put in for different
workers. In fact, I was one of them where the company
put in and said that they needed me, and I got a
deferment and I never did go into the Korean War. They
wanted to draft me, and I still remember dealing with
the man on the draft board, his name was Simon. He was
a florist in East Baltimore, and he basically said the
company asked for a deferment he said. We're going to
take everybody except like half of one percent, and he
said we're going to get you, but I guess the company
had enough pull, I never did go.
He didn't direct that at you
personally; did he?
No, it was a general
statement. He had lost a son in the second world war
and I think he was bitter.
Was your wife from Sparrows
Oh, no, my wife was from
East Baltimore, up around Patterson Park.
Did you meet her while you were
working at the Point?
And she got used to the shift
work and raising kids under shift work?
Well, I didn't really work
shift work. The only thing I was on the 4:00 to 12:00
shift for four years. She wasn't too happy with it and
I definitely wasn't happy, though it was probably the
easiest time I had. It was almost like you got up
late, you had your breakfast or your lunch and then you
sort of waited for your rider to pick you up. You went
to work and came back home, got home by midnight and
had something, coffee or something to drink or eat, and
you went to bed and went on, and then by the time you
were off on the weekend, you basically in my opinion
lost your friends.
So you had to recapture all those
Yeah, but luckily I didn't
stay on night turn too long. A four-year
apprenticeship where I went to the different shifts,
four years of 4:00 to 12:00, and then I went on
daylight for the rest of the time. Half the time I was
at the union hall, half the time I worked at the
After you retired, what did you
Well, when I retired, I was
still active in the -- it's a group called SOAR,
Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees. I was
the secretary there. I was also secretary in something
called Maryland -- it was Reverend Miller.
Maryland Labor Education?
Maryland Labor Education
where I was the secretary there, and I was secretary in
a few organizations, about four of them at one time.
Now, were you friendly with
Yeah, I was real friendly
with Reverend Miller.
Tell us about that. I will share
this with Mary, I'm sure she would love to hear it.
Well, Reverend Miller ran
things, and he was -- we sort of laugh and joke about
it. At that time they had a lot of people in the
Maryland Labor Education Association and they were
struggling for money. You paid a little dues. I think
it was three bucks a month or something, and much later
on like now they are still busy, they are still active,
but when they first started they must have had 30 or
more people would come to a meeting, and like I say
didn't have any money. Now they have got half a dozen
to a dozen people coming to meetings, and they do have
money, so times have changed.
But Reverend Miller, he was very versatile,
and he put me through work -- he was head of something
at Dundalk Community College, and there was another
college that he was active in.
McHenry Bible Institute?
Yeah, McHenry, right, and he
taught courses there. He always said that he could
teach any course whether he knew it or not. After
three days reading up on it, he could teach you how to
So what did you teach?
Well, I taught grievance
committee work. I once taught a parliamentary class.
I taught blueprint reading. Let's see what else.
Like I say I taught grievance procedure, I
taught it to the sugar workers. I held various
classes. I also filled in for some of the people at
Dundalk Community College when they wanted to go away
on vacation or for a few days, I took over their class.
Did you ever know a guy named Don
Sure, he worked in the
machine shop. He was a machinist, and later he was
a -- I'm trying to think what you call them, like
similar to apprentice instructor. Somebody came up
with the idea that once you came out of your time as a
machinist in the machine shop, they either put you on
the lathe or a layout table or on the floor and you
stood there, and when they worked weekends, which they
had a skeleton crew for the weekend, a lot of times the
person couldn't necessarily make keys or run big
machines, so they decided that they are going to start
retraining all the machinists that they can do either
everything or at least a lot of things.
Like cross training?
Like cross training?
No, training you back for
the work that you should have been able to do but you
hadn't done in a long time, and Yost was one of the
instructors, and we had about four different people
that came out of the machine shop and became head
honchos at Dundalk Community College for mechanical
studies. We had Yost. We had -- let me see.
Did you ever meet Dave Ledford?
Yeah, Dave Ledford is a good
friend of mine. I taught some classes for him. I
still remember when I went in and filled in for him in
a class, and there was young people there from one of
the outfits that sent the people there for training,
and he introduced me and he said, "Joe has worked at
the Point, he is retired now, but he worked at the
Point 44 years," and one of the young guys raised his
hand and he said, "My mother isn't even 44." So they
felt it was a long time and it was like ancient
Because Dave is still around.
Oh, yeah, Dave is still
around, but he teaches I understand a class here and
there. He taught welding, which I could never teach
welding because I never welded, but he welded, and he
also spends a good bit of his time or at least he did
He was the head of the grievance
committee at 2610. Was he there --
No. As far as I know he
wasn't head of the grievance committee.
Or he was a zone --
He was a zone committeeman,
Was he there while you were the
Well, he ended up taking my
place. I got sick for awhile and he took my place and
then later he ran and became grievance committeeman.
For the skilled trades machine
Now, does Bethlehem Steel still have a
machine shop, or has that been sold over to Voerst
I think it's sold over to
Because I know that Voice Alpine
does machining work there, it's up on North Point Road,
it's outside --
Well, I don't think they
have anymore, but originally a lot of the workers at
Voice Alpine were retirees from the machine shop.
And so Bethlehem Steel just
basically phased out the machine shop, subcontracted it
Well, we had a lot of
battles on that. They were sending work to Voice
Alpine. Sometimes they paid us a grievance settlement
that they admitted they sent it out and we should have
done and we got certain monies, but most of the time
they were sending that work out.
Was that issue of subcontracting
always an issue for you?
Yeah, it always was an
issue, and as far as I was concerned it never really
Were there construction
subcontracting that went on that was an issue for your
Well like Langenfelter, some of
these outside outfits that come in.
Yeah, well, the truck
drivers were always complaining. There were guys in
Langenfelter that had more seniority on the Point than
the truck drivers, and also I remember one time we
picketed the main office, and Dewey Parks was the
grievance man for the electrical repair shop, and he
said that we can fix these motors that you are sending
down the road, we can fix them cheaper than you can
send it down the road. They didn't want to hear it,
and they came and got the police and told us all to
disband, and we wouldn't disband, so they ended up
taking our pictures and they ended up arresting us all,
not right then and there. They come out with summons
and tell you you had to appear in court at a certain
Did they come to your house with
Yeah. I remember a State
Trooper came here, gave me a summons, and for awhile
there you was on record as being arrested for
What year was this; do you
No, I'm retired fifteen
years. I would say it was about 25 years ago.
What was it like when you started
thinking about retiring? Did you look forward to it or
did you have mixed feelings?
Well, I didn't really think
about retirement. I was going to work even longer, but
I ended up back in '89, '88, '89 had a heart attack,
and I was in laying in the hospital and I was thinking
what the hell am I working for? I'm not going to
become rich. I've had enough, 44 years and so --
Were your children grown and gone
Well, I was 62. Let me see
how old my boy was. Fifteen years ago, well he was 52,
So he was well out of the house?
Yeah, he was well out of the
house, and my daughter was just a few years younger,
and my younger son is about 12 years younger than her,
so they were -- let me see, the youngest was about 25,
yeah. I was looking forward to retirement.
What was it like the first day
that you didn't have to go back to Sparrows Point?
I don't really remember.
Dave Ledford organized the retirement party for me and
they gave me a watch, and they had something -- I think
it was one of the military hall, not the military hall,
Yeah, one of those places
out around in Dundalk, and they had a nice -- it was a
nice tribute they gave me.
Well, then the next morning did
you wake up at 5:30?
Oh, no, I never got to the
point -- with all those years of working, some people
like you say they continued to get up, but I struggled
to get up at 5:30 all my life. Many a time I went back
to sleep and then going flying down the road, and I was
either late or just made it. I function better after
nine o'clock in the morning at the union hall.
So then you just spent your
retirement doing retirees' work and grandchildren and
stuff like that?
Yeah. Like I say I was
active in all these different retired activities. I
was the secretary. Yeah, I enjoyed it.
If there was anything that you
were going to say to younger workers at the Point to
kind of a guide to the future, what would it would be?
I don't know what I could
tell them. I'm not even sure what's going on down
there right now. My understanding -- I still talk to
men whose -- some of whose children work there, and
like this one fellow has two sons working there, they
are working overtime up the gazoo, and they are real
happy with it.
Of course they are not hiring anybody
anymore. I don't know what kind of battles they have
got going on down there, but they are speculating what
they are going to do because this company is talking
about buying another company, and you sort of wonder
why is this one making out and the others don't. Well,
they don't have the same overhead, they don't pay
any -- I don't know what the pension setup is. I think
it's a 401K pension setup. They don't pay -- I think
they pay something toward the medical. I don't know
even how that works, and the pharmaceutical, and the
pharmaceutical I think they pay for the worker, they
don't pay for his wife or kid.
We had a discussion last week in
class with Mark Reutter who came and wrote the book on
Sparrows Point, but some of the workers that I have in
my class have been there five years and they say they
are making huge amounts of money, but we say that a lot
of that is retirees' money, you know it's almost like
blood money, that its company cuts off all the older
workers, and so that they can't separate themselves
from what all of you did to build the union and build
Well, I think there are
different eras. When the union first came in, the
people were conscious of how the union really helped
you, and later on all the younger people came in and
didn't realize what the union did. It was an entirely
When you first started working
there in '47, did people tell stories about what it was
like before the union came in; do you remember?
Yeah. There were stories
about the foreman would come along and maybe somebody
had screwed up a job or done something wrong, he would
fire them on the spot and maybe take them back the next
day or a few days later.
Anything else that you can
remember down there, stories that you would tell your
grandchildren about working at Sparrows Point?
A lot of times they joke
about you break for lunch or for supper and people
would take a nap, and one time they had open house and
they brought -- people brought their kids in, and the
kids came around and they stood there like through
lunch time and they went up the locker room, people
were sleeping in the locker room, and this one kid said
doesn't anybody work around here?
Was it ever considered that your
kids would go to work there?
Well, no, my kid never
considered it, and I got my son, my oldest son a job in
the summer part days. They used to hire a lot of
part-time work in the summer when people were on
vacation, and we always laughed about it because he
went to work in a labor gang in the blast furnace and
it took him about three days to learn to sleep on the
floor with something under his head, and he also was
making at that time -- he was going to college and he
was making good money. They worked a day overtime and
they shifted every week, and he stood there about three
weeks, and then he went to work at this job that he had
put in for at the summer camp. He liked to do that
type of work. So he said -- here he was making about a
thousand bucks a week with the overtime and the shift
work and he went to work at a summer job at camp. How