At one time, Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrow Point, plant near Baltimore, Md., employed 36,000 people. It was the world’s largest steel plant in the mid 1950s. Today, the sprawling complex is owned by a Russian conglomerate and employs about 2,500, about 1,800 of whom belong to the United Steelworkers. (USW). Yesterday, management announced as many as 600 workers could be laid off on July 1.
In “Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town,” author Deborah Rudacille recreates the lives of the workers who once lived in the company town of Sparrows Point. In the style of the late Studs Terkel, Rudacille, who grew up in the neighboring town of Dundalk, Md., interviewed 45 former Sparrows Point workers who tell the story of what life was like at the plant and in the town. Their stories about the demise of the plant and the town also tell the larger story of the decline of the steel industry in this country. Her book is a reminder, according to one reviewer, “as the American economy seeks to restructure itself, of the people who inevitably have been left behind.”
In a reading from the chapter, “Smoke,” (see video) Rudacille talks about the dangerous working conditions at the plant and how the constant pollution in the air and the nearby river affected the workers and their community.
In 2001, Bethlehem declared bankruptcy, leaving workers at Sparrows Point and their families without income or health insurance, and destroyed the familiar culture that had grown up over three generations. Through the intense efforts of the Steelworkers, many retired workers received their pensions when the plant was purchased by a new owner.
In a review of “Roots of Steel,” William Hughes, who worked as a longshoreman on cargo ships at the dock at Sparrows Point, says:
Rudacille details the economic loss, the trauma, the psychic blows, that the collapse of the Point had on its workers, retirees, the USW and the community. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the area also saw Lever Brothers, General Motors, Crown Cork and Seal, Eastern Stainless Steel, pull up stakes and leave town.
In an interview with Baltimore Brew, Rudacille says she wrote the book in part because she didn’t like the “condescending” way the national media and politicians portray blue-collar workers who lost their jobs. Because after all, Rudacille knows their experiences first hand.
It goes all the way back to my paternal great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father and all his brothers-they all worked in the mill.
Her mother worked in the United Steelworkers’ office.
Despite all the tensions and troubles that plagued Sparrows Point over the years, Rudacille told the Brew, most people she interviewed spoke glowingly of the sense of security the mill imparted: “These were good jobs, with good benefits—it always came back to that.”
The loss of that feeling, she said is something everyone immediately relates to,
because it is, essentially, the story of what happened to industry in our country.