April 25, 2006
The 25th of April, and I am
talking with Ted Priester at his house in Edgemere.
Tell me a little bit about how you got to
Sparrows Point, Ted.
Okay. I was born and raised
in West Virginia in a coal mining town. Had seven
brothers and sisters. My father was a coal miner, and
this goes way back to the '30s. So anyway, in the '30s
it was tough living. You was working three or four
days a week making 50 cents an hour, 50 cents a day
most of the time because he had to load slate besides
coal, so things were poor, and then we lived day to
day, and then also we were the type that had holes in
their shoe where you put cardboard in there to patch
the hole up so the snow don't get in or put them by the
burn sod stove in the evenings and let them dry out.
They would be stiff in the morning, but that's what you
did, so things was tough. It was never put no food on
the table, bowl of pork chops or whatever, the mother
would dip one dip for you, one dip for the other kid,
the other kid, so one of them wouldn't take all the
food and everybody were to get an equal share. Things
Was it a company house?
Company house. We rented off
the company. A company house up on the hill above the
coal mines. So anyway, things was tough in the '30s,
and anyway, but then the union came in. John L. Lewis
brought the union in because the company used to --
they had yellow dogs, which were guards that the
company hired, and if the guys didn't want to come to
work, they would get guys they called scabs to work
because the men was trying to get a union, they
couldn't get a union, but John L. Lewis came in as the
President of the United Mine Workers of America, and as
he started organizing and these yellow dogs, which were
really police security for the companies, would beat
our coal miners up going to work or coming back. So
they finally broke that and then they started -- got
rid of the yellow dogs, that's what they called them
and used to beat up the coal miners to no end, and then
they had scabs came in there to work for maybe 25 cents
a day or whatever at that time.
Finally, John L. Lewis got it straightened
out. He was the union president, and then from that
day on I believe in the union, and without that I
wouldn't have had nothing.
So anyway, after I went to school, I had to
quit in the tenth grade because we didn't have food, it
was tough living, and I had to go to work to help the
family out. I was making 50 cents an hour driving a
coal truck, weighing coal. Anyway, after I got 17, I
went and joined the United States Army, spent four
years in the Army. Sent allotment home to my families
to help them live because things was tough with eight
What year was this that you
joined the Army?
I joined the Army in 1949 and
I got out in 1953, and anyway so I sent allotment home
to help them out and then kind of got them straightened
out when I came home. I came home from the Army in
1953 and then got a job in my hometown in Farmington,
West Virginia where the coal mine blew up, killed 97
men, and I think it was in '68, and my father worked in
the same mine, but that day he didn't work for some
reason, so he missed it.
So anyway, then I got a job in West Virginia,
Fairmont, West Virginia, worked in an aluminum company
for a little while. Then I met my wife there, my
girlfriend at the time and start going with her. Then
they laid me off.
Then I married my wife in 1954, and then work
was bad, no jobs. You could get a service station job,
so I came to Baltimore, Maryland. We got in a car with
our old television and her clothes, that's all we had.
Things was tough, and I had $300 of mustard out pay
that I saved from the Army. Came up here to Maryland,
went down to Bethlehem Steel Company, and on the first
day applied for a job as a mechanical helper. They
gave me a test, I passed the test. They hired me and I
started the next day.
Why did you go to Bethlehem
Because they were the highest
paying job in the area at the time. I was going to go
to Broady Highway to the Chevrolet plant or go down on
the docks with the stevedores, but a cousin of mine
said hey, Bethlehem is -- you are making good money,
which at that time I think I was making $65 a week,
somewhere in there if I remember right, 65 bucks a
week, and boy, I thought I was rich.
So after we moved in with my cousin, only had
my $300 mustard out pay, and anyway stayed with them,
and the third week -- they held back your money for two
weeks. The third week I got my first check. We went
out, rented an apartment to get out of their house, a
furnished apartment, and that's where we started out.
Where was the apartment?
The apartment was like in
Edgemere, Maryland, on Lynch Road, and I think it was
$20 or $22 a week, and I was only making about $65, so
it was tough. It was tough for actually for the first
fifteen years because after we moved there, then we
came down to this house that I'm in now on River Drive
Road. I used my -- it was up for sale, I used my $300
mustard out pay for a down payment on this house and
then I went into debt. Then I had to go borrow money
for furniture, pay the house mortgage. I had a car and
we was living week to week. Sometimes I would run out
of money before the next payday, so the first few years
from like maybe 1954 until probably '65 was tough
years. Owed everybody, had to pay for the furniture,
nobody would help.
Then had two kids growing up then, too, and
it was tough to make ends meet, and a lot of times I
know our food was really low because I owed furniture
payments, house payments, car payments besides your
utilities and wasn't making no extra money, so anyway
that's the way it was.
Anyway, I'm still here today 40 some years
later and Bethlehem Steel did -- I admire them, I
worked for them, I provided them a service and they
helped me buy a house and furnish the house and send my
kids to school and clothe them and buy food, so I
really was indebted to Bethlehem Steel until I retired.
They went bankrupt, they cut off all of my
insurance, and that really hurt, and I never would
believe Bethlehem Steel would do that, but they stopped
our insurance and cut my pension some, which I was
relying on to live my golden years, which I didn't get
to do because they really put a hurting on me and
50,000 more steelworkers. Anyway, I didn't like that.
Well, one of the things that you
talked about in the period from '54 to '65 about things
being tough, do you remember the 1959 strike?
Tell us a little bit about the
Okay. The strike, okay. I
started at Bethlehem Steel down at Sparrows Point in
1957 in April. That was April the 1st or 2nd was my
first day at work, and so then like I just said we
borrowed money for furniture, bought the house in '58.
Then my wife was pregnant, and then I owed everybody in
the country and had to charge to buy kids toys for
Christmas and never had no cash money. But 1959 the
strike happened, and so here we are, I owed everybody
and they wanted to sell my house and this and that and
whatever else, so I couldn't get no help. So me and
the wife, I had one daughter then, little girl about a
year old, year and a half old.
Anyway, we went stayed here for about four or
five weeks, we couldn't make it no more, didn't have no
money, no job. I tried to get other jobs around here
but they wouldn't hire you because they knew you was on
strike from Bethlehem Steel, so we went to West
Virginia. We lived with her parents for awhile and
went to her sister's and I worked on the farm. They
had farm, we cut his grass and run his tractors and all
just so they would feed us. That's all we asked, and
then my parents fed us and her parents did, too, so
that's where I stayed for the next 12 weeks because it
was a 16-week strike, but things were tough and they
were going to foreclose on my house, but then they had
20, 30,000 other people that owed them money, too, so
they didn't close on me. I couldn't pay them one
penny. They wanted interest and all. They didn't get
a nickel from me. Then when I did finally go back to
work after the strike was over with, then I started
paying regular payments after that, but they wanted --
I said do whatever you've got to do. You want the
house, take it, because I don't have it and my family
comes first anyway.
Do you remember what any of the
issues in the strike were?
Not really now. I think it
was for more money, but he knows more about it, he's up
on that. But anyway, it was naturally always ask for
more money and better benefits, and then vacations,
too. So I don't know really what made it last that
long. I think the company was trying to break the
union and so they wanted to starve us out. They talked
about hiring scabs. That's what we call a scab, a guy
comes down there off the street and takes your job, but
we fought it, union fought it. We had picket lines and
we stopped them coming in there, and finally, the
company finally settled with us because they were
losing money and the foreign steel started coming in
then because the automobile factories and the can
factories needed the steel and Bethlehem couldn't
provide it because we were on strike, so they finally
settled because they were hurting for business. Then
they had to sign two, three, four-year contracts with
foreign steel for them to buy steel. The automobile
companies did that and the can companies, so it was a
So I forget what all the reasons were, but I
know it was money, vacations and better working
conditions. So we finally got it settled, things got
I know you said you went to West
Virginia for most of the strike. Were you picketing at
all in the early days?
Yes, I was for the first three
or four weeks because they assigned you a certain day
to picket. You began from 9:00 to whatever, give you a
time and all, and I did walk the picket line several
times of those first four weeks or maybe five weeks,
I'm not sure now, but then after that I couldn't make
it here no more, so I went to West Virginia and we
lived with her parents, my parents and her sister.
How was the spirit of the guys
during the strike?
It was tough, but they said
they don't care if they starved, they will get in the
soup line, but they are not going to give in, we are
not going to give in. We fought too hard over all
these years to get what we had at that time, and we
will not give in to them if we have to go and get in
the soup line or go on welfare or whatever, but we were
not going to give in and that was it, they don't care
what, so we was not going to give in regardless of
what -- the company could have shut down, burned the
plant down, we could care less. We were not going to
give in to them because they tried to break us, they
tried to break us, but they didn't make it.
Well, when you started working
there in 1957, there was still people in the mill who
had worked there before the union?
Did they ever have discussions
about what it was like and what the union meant?
Yes, they had a rough time,
and then I heard stories, I don't know how true it is,
but if the boss said hey, when you get done doing
whatever, you go over there and do this and do that,
and then if you told him no, he said you are fired, you
are gone, you are leaving, you are fired. You had to
kiss butts or whatever you had to do, you brown nose
and bust your butt to hang in there because you
couldn't give the supervisor or the foreman or whatever
you want to call him any hard time because you would be
gone. So that's whenever the union entered, they
stopped that stuff. Hey, they couldn't pick on you or
fire you because you just disagreed with them to a
certain extent. So anyway, yes, the union -- hey, the
union was the greatest thing that ever happened and
made better living conditions for all the workers.
Did you participate in the union
at all as a steward?
No, I was never -- no, I never
did, no. No. I attended meetings now and then, not
all the time, but then no, I did not participate, no.
Let's go back to the day you
started at the Point. What was it like your first day
Okay. The first day when I
went in the steel mill to work --
Which mill were you in?
They started me out in the 68
hot strip first, and I was there for six months, and
then they was going to lay me off. Then they said
there's a job open over there in the open hearth, would
you like to go over? I said oh, yes, because hey, I
needed a job. So anyway, the first day in there I seen
that steel and those hot steel coming out of there and
the big roll machines was rolling down thinner and
thinner, thinner. I said this place is not for me,
it's hot, it's dirty, smoke all over the place. I said
no, what is this here, but then I said -- I stopped, I
had to keep this job regardless of what I've got to do
because I need the money, I've got to support my
family, but I did not like it the first day. I said no
way, I want to get out of here, I want to go get me
another job, but I never -- I stayed there because the
money was better there than it was in most other mills
at the time, automobile mills and can companies or
whatever else, so I stayed there, but I did not like it
And then when I went over to the open hearth,
they said well, we are either going to lay you off or
you go over there, and when I walked in that place over
there and they took me on a tour when they hired me, I
said no way, that was worse yet, hot, dirty, dusty
around those furnaces. I said I will die from the
heat. I will die from the sweat. I could never make
it, but then again, I have a family to support, I
needed the money, so I accepted it. But my impression
the first time no way, I will be out of here in a
couple of days, I'm going to find me another job, but I
Now you came from a small town in
And You are working at a place
now with 31,000 people. How did the size of the
It was awesome. I never seen
nothing like that before. We have a couple little
factories down there maybe a couple hundred feet wide
or couple hundred feet long or nothing hardly bigger
than that, except the coal mines, and it was kind of
spread out. They have a temple where they load the
coal and coal cars that they load, but it was awesome.
I couldn't get over how big the place is, and when they
took me on a tour, they take me here and there, I
figured they are going to take me into this next
building and that was going to be it, but then they
went to number one open hearth, number two open hearth,
number three, number four, that's a long walking down
through there seeing all them furnaces cooking and hot,
guys around there. You couldn't hardly even stand the
heat, and I'm 30, 40 feet away from the furnaces, but
it was awesome. I said I'm getting out of there right
away, but I stayed. I had to stay.
Now, when you were living in
Edgemere, how did you get to work?
I had a car that I was paying
payments on every month. I think it was a '57
Chevrolet or '55. Anyway, it was several years old, so
yeah, I drove to work every day. Only took about ten
minutes, but I drove to work.
Were there car pools, because
there was a whole community of steelworkers over here?
No, I didn't car pool with
nobody. I drove my own vehicle for all the time I was
down at Bethlehem.
Tell us a little bit about the
job. When you applied for the job, what was the test
that you got; do you remember?
Some of it was like from -- it
was a mechanical test, could you read a rule, and then
they would have the numbers like 5/16, 7/16, 3/8 on
there, they have them mixed up. They say put them in
order, which is the lowest up to the highest, quarter
inch, one-eighth, and you did that. Then you read the
rule, then you had triangles where you had to multiply
to find one side of the triangle, and then they asked
you about if the gear is turning to the right clockwise
and this shaft is turning to the left or which way --
if it turned counterclockwise, which way would the
shaft turn, and you had to answer it, you had to figure
it out whichever way, and then they asked you about
oil, what types of oil there were, and then about
bearings. You had to know -- I forget exactly what the
questions were, but they asked you about bearings and
about seals, what kind of -- they have different kinds
of seals, leather seals, maybe plastic -- I don't know
about the plastic at the time, but anyway, a lot of
mechanical questions and then math. You had to do
math, add and subtract, multiply and divide and
fractions and changing fractions to decimal, decimal to
fractions. You had to do that also. So it was a
pretty tough test, but then like I say I did good
because they hired me. Right after the testing guy
checked the answers out, he said okay, you've got a
And what was your job then?
Describe a little bit --
I was a mechanical helper, but
then my first job was a bearing changer helper in the
hot strip. So when you get in there, they have these
big rolls that they put in the roll machines that when
the steel, the hot steel comes down, there's two rolls,
it's like a washing machine rolls on -- when you have a
washing machine, the old washing machine had two
rollers on there, and so you run your clothes through
there and crank it by hand and the clothes came out.
So the steel would go between these two rollers. So
after awhile the bearings would get hot or go bad, so
then they would take the roll out and put a new roll in
there. They would put them on a rack. We took the
bearing, big box bearing off the end of it and put a
new one on there and tightened it back down again, so I
was the bearing changer, I was the helper on the job.
I helped the bearing changer himself change the
bearings on the end of the rolls that they rolled the
So there was always a backup roll
and a rack?
Yes, we did that all the time.
We had to grind on them sometime and shine them up and
clean them up, too, while they were sitting on the
rack, get them ready for whenever they needed them.
The roller says hey, got a knick or whatever on the
steel that he is rolling, change them rolls, right, so
they would change them, set them on the racks. They
would take the new ones, and we would take the bearings
off and check the bearings out and clean them up,
whatever we had to do to then put them back on there
Because steel had to come out
Yeah, couldn't have any kind
of blemish or say a piece of dirt happened to land in
there, and when it went through the rollers, if it made
a mark on that steel, it ruined the whole coil of
steel, so they had to -- it had to be nice and clean.
And this was used for automobiles
Yeah. This steel was -- yeah,
automobile, appliances or pots and pans and probably
also steelworker, I-beams and girders and all, too.
When It left us, it left us in coils. Then it went
over to the plate mill where they would need to roll it
out flat for ships or whatever else it would go. They
would send it (inaudible) they call it, it was six
inches thick and maybe three foot wide by six, eight,
ten foot long. They would roll them down to whatever
size the order called for. So they would squeeze it
down with the rollers, so that was my first job.
Now, were you on shift work at
And How was that for your family?
That was no good. I didn't
like midnight shift because you wasn't home with the
family. I wanted daylight, but hey, you are a young
man, you take what's left. They had shift work, and
that was new to me. I couldn't believe I would be
working when I should be home sleeping, so it was hard.
Then I would try to sleep in the day time, and then the
kids were younger and they are making noise, the wife
is trying to keep them quiet, so it was tough. Didn't
get a whole lot of sleep for several years there.
And You also ended up working
Saturdays and Sundays and holidays?
Oh, yes, a seven-day job.
They scheduled you so you couldn't go on vacation or
plan ahead of time because sometimes -- anyway, the
schedule I think would come out once a month and show
you what you were working, but Sunday was just like
Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. It was just another day,
and I didn't like that either because I was -- Sunday
was the Sabbath, and I'm a Christian guy and I believe
in the good Lord and Sunday was rest day, but here in
the steel mill it was just like another day. It was
tough to get over it to have to work on weekends, so it
was. Then turn work, one or two, three days one
schedule was on daylight and two or three days 3:00 to
11:00 and a couple days on midnight. Some weeks they
would schedule you the whole week for 11:00 to 7:00 or
3:00 to 11:00 or whatever, but I didn't like it to
start with. It was tough to get used to, but I
finally -- I had to do it, so I did it.
Also you had to work like
holidays, Easter, Christmas?
Absolutely. It was tough
sometimes because you are a younger guy, I don't know
who made out the schedule, but the older guys got to
have Christmas off or Thanksgiving or Easter, and us
younger guys, we had to work it. That went on for 20
years. I Always worked the holidays. Or when you
picked vacations, the older guy got seniority, he picks
first, which I respected that, and so what was left was
May and June or whatever else because they took the
good weeks, and it was tough, and hey, you've got to go
to work Christmas morning, your kids is getting up. It
hurt, it was a tough life.
Did you ever feel that you were
often closer to the people you worked with than to your
own family because of that?
Sometimes. There was a few,
okay, few you get close to. Our gang had 300 guys in
it I think at the time, and then anyway, I got close to
a couple guys that I had met where we would talk about
our families or whatever else, and Bob was one of them
and then another guy we had was Hensley. We kind of
maybe at break time we would hang together just two or
three of us. The rest, you know, they were nice, but I
worked close to them, but we didn't talk about things,
about our cars or trucks or whatever, but yeah, you do
get kind of close to a couple of them and you rely on
them, they are working with you, because me and this
gentleman right here worked together for years as a
team. We did our repair work, mechanical work all the
time, too. So yes, sometimes you get close to them,
too, but family was still number one, but they were
close so you kind of relied on them.
When you were here in Edgemere
with your family, did you socialize with other
No, no, no. I had a few
friends and maybe I would see them down the road, but a
couple of them I think yeah, we went out together maybe
to a Saturday night party or to dinner at different
times, but not often. We couldn't afford it for the
first nine, ten, fifteen years, things was tough. So I
couldn't take them to a restaurant and spend 20, 30 or
40 bucks for a meal because I didn't have the money.
So then you went over to the open
hearth, and you were a maintenance person over there
Yes. I went over, started as
a mechanical helper and then in the open hearth. So
mechanical helper was a tough, tough job and you work
on them furnaces. Only had open hearth furnaces then
and we used to have to work around those furnaces
during the steel work. If they burn through or
whatever, and then we change lances on top of the
furnace, and you would walk on that catwalk up there to
change the lance, and you were like two or three foot
from the roof which was cherry red. You couldn't even
breath up there. In the wintertime, summertime, it
would be so hot, but we would have to change it. We do
it as fast as we could. Then sometimes when the cable
broke, it would open the doors on the furnace, it's up
in the girder, and you've got to go up there and
realign that cable around, and man, you couldn't
breath. I bet you it was 200, 300 degrees in there.
You get up there and if you got a little bit frightened
or whatever, you would pass out in a second. How hot
it was, it was so hot, but working on top even close to
the furnace it would burn through whatever and you are
working there, and the brick is red, it's cherry red.
Did you ever worry about safety
Oh, yeah. I worried a lot of
times about hey, the roof is going to fall in and burn
me up in a second, or it's going to -- be working
around it and it's going to fall in for whatever reason
because the building change when things happen, oh,
yeah, I thought about that a lot of times. What if I
fall in, I'm going to disintegrate.
Did you ever see any accidents in
the open hearth?
No. I actually never did, no.
Came there after it happened, but no. We had a guy on
the forklift over at the BOF on the third floor they
called it working around the furnace. Anyway, he would
move material. Anyway, he just one day he dumped his
dirt down three floors, would fall down in the pit they
called it. So one day he went over to dump that, too.
Something happened, the brakes didn't hold, whatever,
and down there he went. So they found him down below
with the hot steel, got burned up, but I came there
after it happened, and then I've heard where guys had
fell through the hole behind the furnace where the
steel comes down, they tap it, where the furnace cooks,
it's ready. They put a torpedo in the hole, and they
shoot it off with electricity or with batteries and
blows the hole in there and steel comes out and goes in
the ladle, and I've heard where guys would be working
back there because they had to plug that hole up after
steel comes out, put their whatever in there, and they
would fall down in the hole. That's 30, 40 feet down
to the bottom. There's rubble, bricks down there, work
junk. Anyway, they didn't survive. It was terrible
working. It wasn't a whole lot of safe -- no handrails
and this and that. Some places they had them, some
places they never. It was unsafe and it was tough for
the first so many years.
Well, did it get better?
It got better later on, yeah.
Then they started to enforce the rules. You had to put
a handrail up before you worked there because sometimes
you would be working and the ground is down there 30,
40 feet away and you are right on the edge and there
ain't nothing -- if you slip or turn real quick, you
are going down there. But it took the union, they
argued and argued about safety and the company said
well, no. Anyway, they put it off for a whole lot of
years until the union finally got tough on them to make
it safe for us because guys were getting hurt.
Do you remember who the officers
of the union were that fought for this stuff, your
I'm trying to remember who was
it? We had several over the years for 2610. I can't
remember their names. Joe Capp was a president for
awhile. He was a good president. I thought he was
anyway. And they fought and they had meetings with the
company and meetings and more meetings to try to make
it safe. And when you go up a ladder sometimes, say
you are carrying a burning torch, you've got to go up
there and burn something. You are supposed to always
have one hand free. That's what we finally got, but
otherwise you go up there or you are going to burn
something and the welder goes up there and he's got to
take a piece of metal and hold it up there and weld it
so he ain't holding on to the ladder. He is using both
hands, and we fought against that, and the company let
it slide for so long a time. Then finally the union,
which he was a part of it for 30 years, Bob, good union
man. Anyway, they fought for us and finally got hey,
one hand you hold the ladder as you go up, whatever you
are carrying, not two hands. It was tough to get them
to break them that hey, go ahead and do it, whatever,
right. So then I figured hey, if I don't do that, they
will discipline me or whatever and lay me off for a
couple of days, I couldn't afford it. So I did it like
the rest of us did, we all did it, but it was tough.
The company was tough on us. I think they
wanted to make the money and no safety. Hey, get the
job done, I don't care how you do it, get it done. So
what it's too hot, we need a handrail, we need to build
a scaffold, this and that, that's okay, get on the
ladder or lean over there and hang over. The union
finally got that stopped. That's why the union fought
to try to make the working conditions for a worker safe
anyway, not go up there and get knocked off and get
hurt, so the union is number one. I believe in the
union 150 percent.
How long did you stay in the open
I was over there 37 years.
So you stayed in the open hearth
for 37 years?
Yeah. I started in the tin
mill. I almost had 38 years. I think I was in the hot
strip for maybe six, seven months before they wanted to
lay me off and they send me over there, so I spent the
rest of my time in the open hearth.
Did you move up in the jobs?
I was a mechanical helper and
then a ladle repairman, which is three jobs higher.
Ladle repairman, I bid on the job. They post the jobs
that this job is open, so you bid on it. If you are
qualified and whatever else the requirements were, then
you got the job. So I bid on this job, it came open,
and besides maybe half a dozen other helpers because
that's a step up, more money, and I got the job, ladle
repairman. So working this ladle repairman for several
years and this consent decree law came into effect, and
then a few years after that I'm a ladle repairman, they
said, "Okay Ted, you are going back to helper." I
said, "Why?" They give it to a black man, okay. I
said he didn't take no test, he didn't do nothing.
They give it to the black guy, just give it to him.
Besides, the black guy has got like three, four -- I
know one guy in my department, he told me he got
$7,000. I didn't see the proof, 7,000 bucks. White
boys didn't get nothing. And that burned me up, too.
But anyway, what made me mad, I bid on that
job. He had a chance like everybody on my department,
but I bid on that job and I got it, and then they just
give it to them. Oh, man, then they cut me back to
helper. I lost money per week, less money and just
give it to the guy, and then oh, my, I was so upset,
and I will never forget that. That wasn't fair.
Let go back because this is a
topic that's obviously interesting to everybody. When
you started there in '57, what were the race relations
They were okay. I mean we had
white guys in my department, we had black guys in
there, too. We got along okay. I don't remember no\
trouble or you say I ain't going to work with you
because you are black or nothing. We got along okay,
it was all right.
Were there still separate
bathrooms at that time?
Yes, there was. They had
black ones and white. Yes, there were separate
bathrooms, yes, indeed.
Were there discussion about that?
No. I mean we just kind of
took it in stride, and then later on then they finally
integrated. We had bathrooms and locker rooms, white
locker room, black locker room. Then they finally
integrated it, put the blacks in or put the whites in
with the blacks. I don't know whether people disagreed
with it. Hey, I accepted it, because back in my
hometown where I was born and raised, we lived --
blacks and whites lived in the same neighborhood in a
company house up on the side of the hill, so there was
some black families there, too, and they went to their
schools at that time, we went to our schools. There
was no trouble. There was no all this racist stuff, I
never heard that word until I come over here.
Well, one of the things about the
United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis was that was from
the founding in 1890, an integrated union was one of
the few in the country and that may have affected how
things worked out in West Virginia.
It could have been, but I know
in the '30s, it was still -- like I said, my dad worked
for 50 cents a day. Sometimes he would get 50 cents,
he would be there from daylight to dark, go in dark in
the morning and come home night time. Then he hand
loaded coal in the coal mines, and so if the roof fell
in, all this slate and junk is there, you've got to --
you dig that up, load that in cars to get the good
coal, so you don't get nothing for that so that might
take you six, eight, ten hours to get that junk out of
the way, so it was tough until John L. Lewis came. I
think Phil Murray was in there, and then John L. Lewis
became president and then things changed, but the
union, union, union, hey, that's the only way we had a
decent living after that. If we didn't have a union,
they could have said hey, go dig that ditch. You don't
dig the ditch, you are up the road, you are fired.
Well, did you find that the
activity around the consent decree before the consent
decree had a positive effect or negative effect on the
union at Sparrows Point?
I don't really know then, but
I didn't like it and I still don't like it because I
didn't pick on them people and my father never. Maybe
his grandfather never. It happened way back when, so
why did we have to pay for it now, and I didn't like it
at all because I don't think that's fair. I don't care
if you are black, white or green. I'm black, you are
white, we apply for a job, whoever qualifies gets it,
and then don't say well, the black guy didn't get no
education and he was deprived. I don't want to hear
that stuff because now it's been 40 some years since
that consent decree went in and they ain't no smarter
now than he was then. That's how I feel about it, and
they still -- you've got to hire so many blacks before
whites and all this stuff, I don't like it. How long
is it going to take? 100, 200 years they are going to
keep saying racist and picked on? 40 years. So hey,
if you can't learn in 40 years, you ain't never going
to learn. That's my opinion and I don't like it one
bit. When that consent decree come in there, I said
hey, I didn't do nothing to them. Why pick on me. Why
give them the benefits, and that's another story.
Did you go to the local? Were
there meetings discussing this consent decree?
No, I never, no. I think some
guys -- we just -- I think overall, I could be wrong,
we kind of accepted it. The government said okay,
there are going to be equal rights now and this and
that and whatever else and you've got to hire whatever.
Anyway, we just kind of accepted it because hey, you
can't fire them anyway. I can bitch about it and you
can bitch and fire the guy, but it ain't going to do no
Well, some of the guys hired
lawyers, and were you involved in that at all?
No, no, I was not. I know
that McClelland guy that you talked to, yeah, he got
involved. He was always involved in this and that and
whatever else. I didn't agree with a lot of his
thoughts over the years.
Did it affect your personal
relationships with people in the mill, the consent
No, it never. I worked with
some black guys, they were my helpers, and hey, we got
along fine. You always had a few guys if you said hey,
we better paint that wall black, and they would get all
upset about it. Hey, we ain't even talking about race.
They were hard heads or whatever they were. But
anyway, some of them got upset that way and didn't even
talk about it, but the majority of them was okay. Hey,
we got along, we worked. However your personal
feelings was, that was your business, but we got along,
okay, we helped one another.
So then can you remember some
stories about the open hearth? You worked there for so
many years. If people said to you hey, tell us a
couple good stories or friends you remember or things
you remember particularly about the open hearth.
All I know -- well, not
stories, but when you are working as far as the dirt
goes, dirt and like we were working in the cellar -- I
mean there's plenty of dirt, you breath all that dirt
and junk, and anyway, the heat and the dirt, it's
terrific, or it was anyway. But anyway, I had a buddy,
Cliff Hensley his name was, he tried to stay kind of
clean all the time. He was a helper just like me, and
anyway, we were working in the cellar, down in the
cellar of the open hearth, okay, that's where they have
the checkers and whatever, and anyway, so they have
machines down there that they pour this asbestos stuff
at that time in there and they spray on -- mix it with
water, it's like cement or you spray it on, it gives a
coating and it kind of seals the brick and keeps the
heat in the furnace. So he's down there working one
day in this area and these other laborers are spraying
the furnace and the hose breaks and that stuff goes all
over the place.
So I'm working down maybe 50 feet away from
him, me and another guy. Anyway, and there he comes,
this dust, you could see the white stuff floating
around. Anyway, he comes out of there and he's
coughing and all and he's all white, got that stuff all
over him. I said ah-ha, they finally caught up to you,
because every time if he would do something, he worked
good, but he would wipe his hands, he didn't want to
get dirty. I would be dirty, grease on me or whatever,
and he's clean, clean, clean, but he did his job. I
don't know how he did, it amazed me. But anyway,
that's one story about working in the conditions,
right, and that stuff -- so we breathe it all the time.
It was terrible, but the heat, didn't like the heat.
The heat and the dirt, that's a dirty job, and the hot,
I don't know how stood it. Right now I look back, I
say how did I climb on them furnaces and work around
them with two, 3,000 degrees heat and I'm a couple feet
from it or on the roof, which could fall in and burn me
to death just like that. I don't know how I did it,
but I did it besides us other 300 guys in my department
at that time. Everything was work and go. I think we
had about 300 in my gang, and then now when I left I
think we had 30 or 40, 50, somewhere around there like
Did you start to see then by the
'60s that the employment started to drop?
Oh, yeah. It started because
in our gang we had some guys that was going to retire.
That guy worked behind our blacksmith shop, or anyway
they shut it down. He retired, they didn't replace
him. Another guy retired, they didn't replace him. We
got to talking hey, what's going on here. Well, then
if they needed that job done, then they would say hey,
Bill, when you get done with your job, go back there
and do that job, so they gave you two jobs.
Like cross training?
Yes. Then they kept -- when
people started retiring, they didn't replace them. I
forgot what year that started, but it started and hey,
we went right done on down to a little bit of people,
but they never replaced the retirees. Somebody else
would do that job.
When you were there, were there
other people from West Virginia, Tennessee, kind of
Lot of our guys was from out
of state, yeah, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky. Like
you say West Virginia, Pennsylvania, yeah. I think
the -- maybe, I'm not sure, but the majority were from
out of state, they weren't local people.
Did you guys tend to hang around
together at all?
Just by talking, you know hey,
guy from Tennessee, yeah, well, I went down on vacation
one year, this and that, and you talked a little bit
about that, but no, a lot of them, I don't know how
many or the numbers or percentage, but were out of
state people and seemed like they hired a lot of out of
state people because we were really looking for a job
when we come here. Then you hire a guy off the street
from here, maybe he just works for you a couple weeks,
and then he works for somebody else for a couple of
weeks. I think the out-of-staters came all the way up
here, we want a job and we will take care of our job.
We will work and earn our keep.
So when you went there, your
expectation is you were going to work the rest of your
life at Bethlehem Steel?
No. At the time -- like I say
my first day, my impression was get out of there now,
hey, this place is too hot and too big and dirty
looking and dust flying around, whatever. I said no,
this ain't for me. I'm going to just work here a
little while. I'm going for another job in a clean
factory or somewhere, a clean job, inside where they
got air fans and air conditioned, not down there. But
I always figured on just working there a little bit and
buy me -- after I was there for a couple days and
seeing how things were, I'm getting out of there, I'm
going to go down the road and get me a job somewhere
else, because it was too dirty and too hot. I just
couldn't believe it. It was so hot to me, but I stayed
there for 38 years plus.
At what point did you finally
realize that you were going to be there for the rest of
your work life?
Probably after I was there
maybe five, six, seven years, somewhere after I had
that much time, and the money was good. But then the
other factories like General Motors, they picked up,
started paying their people more, and in the end they
were good pensions. They was making more money than we
were, but at the time we were making more money than a
lot of these other companies outside of Bethlehem
Steel, so I stayed there because they paid the best
money at the time. So then I figured I'm just going to
stay here because they had a good -- the union fought
for a good pension plan, and when you get so many years
in, you get so much money, this and this and that, so
the pension program at the time was good, too. So I
said hey, I will stay here, work my 30, 40 years or 20
or whatever and get a good pension when I retire and
health benefits was the greatest, so I said hey, what
else can I ask for.
What finally made you decide to
Well, I figured I'm going to
get out of there, retire. I retired at 62 and then I
would start getting Social Security also, but then you
get less money if you retire ahead of time, so I took
that, and then the pension was good at the time from
Bethlehem Steel and the health benefits was good, so I
What year did you retire?
1995. So I figured I would
retire, maybe I would live a year or two, enjoy myself
instead of working up to 64, 65, and if you work
longer, then you get more pension, money is a little
bit higher. I said no, I'm going to get out now, maybe
I will live for a little while and I can enjoy myself
where I won't have to punch a clock, get up at a
certain time or whatever, so I decided I'm going to get
out then and maybe enjoy a few years before I kick out.
So that's why I left at 62 -- I mean in '95 at age 62.
So by that time though there were
already signs that Bethlehem Steel was in trouble?
Oh, yes. We was already --
our department was maybe 100, from 300 down to that and
conditions -- their new program was hey, you are the
mechanic -- in my time, I took a test and made C
technician, moved up, made more money. Anyway, it was
hey, the crane millwrights did their job; the mechanic,
we did our job; the laborers did their job;
electricians, whatever, but then they start
implementing hey, you are going to be like a super
mechanic, you are going to be an electrician, you are
going to be a crane millwright, you are going to be
your mechanic, so they start wanting to put that into
play. I said that ain't for me, I'm doing my job. I'm
not going to do the electrician's job or the
pipefitter's job or whatever else, so I said it's time
for me to get out of there.
So then after you lost your
position as a result of the consent decree, you then
came back and bid on another job?
And came back up?
Yes. After that, after -- I
forget how many years it was, but then they had
openings for they called it technicians, they are
millwrights, C millwright, B and A millwright. So I
took the test then and I made C millwright at that
time, so it was more money for me.
And you were still in the open
Yes, I was a millwright.
And what does a millwright do?
A millwright repairs machinery
and you fabricate, you make things for the steel mill.
Mostly it's changing gears and shafts and bearings and
cable for doors and all, and anyway lubricate them, you
change them when they wear out and whatever. Mostly
it's -- anyway, it's gears and bearings, shafts on when
the BOF came into play, they bearings, it's always
rotating and whatever else, too, but anyway to repair
all metal work, all steel work if it broke down, burnt
through or whatever else besides moving fans, and they
have these big fans that we repaired them, take them
out, put new ones in, overhaul them, clean them up or
whatever else, so all mechanical work.
This was still shift work?
Oh, yes. Then after I got I
guess about 30 years in or 35, then I had enough
seniority then to get steady daylight, and that's what
I went on, but it took me all that time. Whenever that
1959 contract gave us 13 weeks vacation, right, so they
say every five years you was supposed to get 13 weeks.
Well, it took me 22 years to get my first time. After
that 1959, it was 22 or 23 years before I got my
first -- I got it one time. Some guys got it four or
five times, 13 weeks. Anyway, it took me 22 years
because the way they set the program up or whatever
What was it like having 13 weeks
Oh, my goodness, I didn't know
how to act.
What did you do?
I was ready to go back to work
in a couple of weeks. I just stayed around the house.
We went on vacations in West Virginia. I think we went
down to Tennessee for awhile, but then came back after
two or three weeks and I was ready to go back to work.
That was too much time because I wasn't used to it. It
was only one week at a time before then or we would get
two weeks if you had 15 years or whatever or maybe
three weeks if you had 25 years. That was so great. I
was ready to go back to work after like three or four
weeks, because that was the first time I was ever off
that long working all them years.
Did you ever consider having your
children go to work at Sparrows Point?
No, I didn't want them to. I
wanted them to get a good education and get a white
collar job, wear a suit and a necktie, or my daughter,
hey, get a good office job where you wear high heels
and dress up. No, stay out of the steel mill. No, I
was against it and they never got into it. I said no,
you are not going to go eat that dirt and dust and the
heat and all that, no way, even though women start
coming in the later years, right, and I said not my
kids, not if I can help it.
How did you feel when the women
started coming in?
I didn't like it at first
because there was some cases where if you go around and
the woman can't really lift her weight or climb up the
ladder, do whatever else, so the guys, we would help
them out when they should have carried their load. I
didn't like it at first, but that's the way things were
so I accepted it. Maybe I seen the wrong ones, but
seeing some working out there in the pits, that's out
there where they pour the steel and whatever, and they
are out there working and hey, the laborer gang where
they run a jack hammer, and the girl is standing over
there leaning on a shovel and the guy is doing that
work, and she's supposed to be doing that, but they
took care of the girls, the guys did, and I didn't like
that. I said they ought to carry their load. And then
I also thought the woman should be working in the
offices with high heels and nylons on, not in no steel
mill with big Little Abner shoes on.
You didn't see the movie North
Country; did you?
We'll talk about that after this.
It's a new movie. It's an interesting movie.
So what happened then after you retired?
What did you do?
Just stayed around here,
visited my kids more often then. Like I said I have
been a volunteer fireman for 40 years. That kept me
busy. I'm on my church council, it's like a Board of
Directors of the church. I do that job and do
different projects for them, and for the fire hall, I
was a volunteer, that would keep me busy, and then I
coached little league baseball to keep busy or whatever
else. Besides we traveled a little bit, not a whole
lot, but a little bit. We went out more than we did
before because we had the time. They say it's your
golden years, then you get up and say ah, ah, you have
the money but you can't go, you don't feel like going.
Well, did the bankruptcy at
Bethlehem Steel affect you?
Absolutely. I lost the
insurance after 30 days when they went bankrupt. Just
cut us off. Didn't say hey, you go to whatever and get
it cheaper. Just cut us off and cut our pensions down
some, too. I was so disappointed, and I believe
Bethlehem Steel helped me raise a family, buy a home
and whatever. Then all a sudden -- it hurt, it hurt,
and I had to go around and shop around for insurance
and then naturally you pay more because Bethlehem, the
price was right. I was disappointed to no end. I did
not like it.
If you had to do it over again,
would you go to work at Bethlehem Steel?
No, I would go somewhere else,
fire department. We had a few guys had left, went into
the fire department. Clean job. It's a rough job,
hey, putting out fires, some of them can be terrific
sometimes, or any other job, a cleaner job and not hot,
because hey, we cooked and we froze down there.
Everything is wide open. You stand beside a building
in the wintertime, and your back side is hot and this
side is freezing and you turn around and you are out
there working on a fan or something wide open spaces,
the wind blowing and you are all covered up. It was
tough times. Hey, we earned our money. We earned our
What do you think should be done
for steelworkers today? What's the answer?
I would like to see them get
good pensions and make a decent wage to keep up with
the times or even better because they deserve it. Any
steelworker, I don't care whether they sweeped the
floor or they are a mechanic or a roller, they deserve
top money, but our money went down lower because I know
General Motors was paying more money and better pension
than Bethlehem Steel. Our union did a good job, but
they could have maybe done better.
That's true about the active.
How about for the retirees, what can the country do?
Is there something we should do?
I think the companies that
agreed to give us pensions whenever we worked or here's
your future, you will get a pension, you will get this
and that, but they reneged on it and spent our money
that went into fund for retirees. Bethlehem Steel,
other companies, Chrysler, a whole lot of them did it.
I think they are crooked on the working class people,
and they should not do that. I don't think that's
Hey, I depended on that and then it cuts down
and every other man after working in the industry
relies on your pension, besides you get Social
Security, but hey, your pension, then all of a sudden
the company says no, they done spent your money, we
ain't going to give you no pension and then they pass
laws in favor of the big man, the big business and the
heck with our working class. Our government, I'm
bitter about that. I don't like that at all.
Are you involved in political
action at all?
No, no. I express my
concerns -- I have been writing to my senators in the
state about different things, about the oil, the
electric and whatever else, but when they answer me,
they get around the question, they get around the
question. I think they are so lousy, hey, tell me how
it is, but I know they play clickety click politics.
Hey, whatever. So the bottom line, they don't treat
the working class, the middle class people like they
should. Seems like the rich is for the rich in my
opinion. They don't care about me or the working
class, the guy that makes $15,000 a year. They are
taking care of the rich, and it's not fair. Our
country is treating us bad.
Do you ever participate with
other retirees in any activities?
We meet sometimes and then he
gets us together with people from my gang or 20 of us
more or less that meets every couple months. We have
breakfast, shoot the breeze and reminisce. Once a
month our union hall has a dinner for our retirees that
you can go to. You pay a couple bucks, you get a
dinner, and they have a little business meeting, which
is nice, so I have attended them off and on.
Do you enjoy seeing all the old
Yeah, because I see guys from
other departments, brick layers or whatever else,
electricians, but yeah, our guys, the guys I worked
with all them years, like he's been real good, Bob has,
he's organized this and he calls us and tells us where
to go and what to do. You sit there and reminisce. I
really enjoy it, seeing guys you worked with for 20,
30, 40 years, and hey, we are all getting up in age,
but it's nice to see them. You reminisce and talk
about different things, so I like that. That's really
If you had to tell somebody just
briefly what it was like working at Bethlehem Steel,
what would you say?
It was the hottest, dirtiest
job I ever -- didn't even dream about before that it
could be that bad, but hot and dirty. I don't know
what else to say, but it was just terrible, under
terrible conditions. I don't know how we stood it, but
hey, I guess you are determined, you have whatever it
takes to do it, you know you had to do it to take care
of yourself and your family, but hot and dirty. That's
Bethlehem Steel work.
I want to go back just because
the reason we were over here talking about the consent
decree, if there's anything else about that. Did
relations get better as time passed as far as you were
concerned, or was that still a block between good
Well, in my case I also filled
in as a temporary foreman for like 12, 14 years. When
the foreman would go on vacation, they would step me
up, pay me be foreman's rate, and I would be the
mechanical foreman, and I didn't like it when I would
go around catch a guy sleeping, especially if it was a
different race than me, and I would come back and tell
my general foreman and say hey, Johnny Brown is
sleeping over there. Well, just wake him up. I said
I'm going to write him up. No, you can't do that.
After the consent decree came in, you couldn't do that,
and I experienced that because I was a foreman and I
seen how it was, even though we worked together good,
but hey, they gave them favorable treatment over the
white guys. That's my opinion.
Is it fair to say that there was
never a white guy sleeping down there?
No, no, white guys did, too.
Oh, yes. Even me, I slept, too. At lunchtime, I would
sleep over -- you know you are supposed to go to
work -- only get off a half an hour. I would lay there
for 45 minutes or whatever. Oh, yes.
Like on the midnight shift?
Yeah. Your lunchtime or
whatever, you lay out on a piece of cardboard. Yeah, I
did it many a time.
But wasn't it true that on those
shifts that people kind of covered for each other?
Yes. I'm going to go over
there and take a little break for awhile. In case the
boss comes around, you tell him you went to the
bathroom. Oh, yeah, we covered, yes, indeed, but hey,
whites and blacks both did it so...
Because it was really just
survival in the mill?
In the shift work?
Not that I'm that bitter
against them, but you couldn't discipline them. The
black people, too, but if I caught him sleeping, I
would say hey, Bob is out there sleeping, I got him
over there, he's not on the job, he's been gone for two
hours or whatever, we will write them up, document it.
That's what they told me to do when I was filling in as
Well, by the time that you were
ready to leave did you have black friends down there?
Oh, yeah, I got a good friend.
One guy -- anyway, several friends, but I see them now
every once in awhile when I go do my clothes at the
laundry or whatever, and he was a great guy. His name
was Stills, right, and just a wonderful black guy, good
worker, and I respected him and I would do anything for
him. Hey, I liked him, and it ain't that I don't like
them because they are black or whatever, but hey,
there's bad white guys and there's bad black people,
but I had some nice black friends and I like them, and
I figured they took -- the government took care of
them. My buddy didn't say hey, government, you owe me
because my great grandparents was slavery and all that
stuff, he didn't say that, no. If the government said
hey Ted, here's 7,000 bucks because you was a hillbilly
from West Virginia, I would take it, but there was some
good black guys, yeah. I had several friends. I like
them, they are good, they did their job.
Last question that we ask
everybody is why do you think Bethlehem Steel went
Poor management on their part.
They was making money. They didn't invest right. I
will call it without going into details poor
management. They was making big bucks and they wasted
the money. They didn't invest it right or improve the
mills, and I guess they paid their stockholders or paid
their chairman of the board big bucks, but I say poor
management Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt; otherwise,
they still should be operating today.
No, it was an experience, but
if I had to do it over again, no, I would not work in
the steel mill. I would work somewhere else, but they
treated me good. I worked for them and they paid me
good for it, and I enjoyed that time, but like I say
back again bottom line, hot and dirty in the steel