MHC launched a new radio segment in March 2013 on WYPR 88.1, FM called “Humanities Connection,” airing every Monday at 5:45pm. While the station reaches the Baltimore, Hagerstown, Frederick, and Ocean City areas, from time to time we’ll share the written essays submitted for the show by MHC scholars, some of which are truncated for time constraints. Please enjoy this essay by labor scholar Bill Barry, which aired April 15th.
The Words of Steelworkers by Bill Barry
When friends were passing through Baltimore over the Key Bridge, I would always tell them to look to the east to see America. There on the peninsula where the Patapsco River meets the Chesapeake Bay, they could see the Sparrows Point steel mill, which once employed more than 31,000 workers, where there was a town of more than 10,000 residents, and which supported an extended community of millions. They could see the fire and smell the smoke and hear the noise that was so great that one World War II veteran quit working there because he said the noise sounded just like combat.
Now when I tell people to look off the bridge to see America, they see almost 500 acres of empty mills, with the last 2,000 workers cast off at the end of 2012. The abandoned sheds, the huge furnaces and railroad cars now being sold as scrap are the end of a wonderful and complex civilization that lasted for 124 years since the first steel was poured at The Point in 1889.
While there had been tough economic times at The Point for 30 years, and regular rumors about the closing of the mill, no one really thought it would happen—this was the company, after all, that made the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and the Bonneville Dam. The last ten years, however, were brutal—after 86 years of ownership by Bethlehem Steel, the Sparrows Point mill was bought and sold four times in 10 years before closing in late 2012.
- Visit Bill Barry’s site www.SparrowsPointSteelworkers.com
As an instructor at The Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, I taught classes to the workers at The Point for 15 years and in class, they would tell stories about their work, about their families and communities and their union, about their struggles to build this union, to deal with a workplace that was strictly segregated and which was not at all welcoming to women.
Captivated by the stories that the workers and retirees told, I began to videotape interviews with them in 2002 and with some help from The Maryland Humanities Council, created a web site to display memories of the lives of the workers and their families. I wanted to capture these histories to help the next generation to understand how this country was built. I also began to collect “stuff”—tools, photographs, and work clothes, for example–the physical accumulation of memories that workers saved.
Most importantly, I wanted to emphasize the importance of their lives because so many of them began their interviews by stating “I’m not important, I just worked at the mill’’- for 40, or in some cases, 50 years. These are voices of history and should be heard. Sparrows Point workers are special—they have, from the largest man to the smallest woman, a certain swagger that reflects working in the toughest place in town and their memories are marvelous.
The question now is why did Sparrows Point, like so many manufacturing companies in the U-S, close. Was it the greedy union members? Was it inept management who paid extravagant executive salaries instead of reinvesting in new technology? Was it the civil rights movement that established equal access to promotion for blacks and women? Was it bad trade policies, like The North American Free Trade agreement? Was it just a country that would rather know things than make things? Everyone has an opinion and the discussions are passionate. My interviews of the Sparrows Point workers reflect this wide range.
Finally, how can we prevent this kind of closing from happening over and over again, displacing millions of American workers? When Mittal Steel—which owned Sparrows Point from 2005-2008–proposed in November, 2012, closing two blast furnaces and laying off more than 600 workers in France, the president of France threatened to nationalize the mill and the company immediately agreed to invest in the mill and to retain the workers. After the closing of Sparrows Point was announced, the wailing by the politicians, at local, state and federal levels, was deafening but not one proposed a way to keep the plant open.
The history of Sparrows Point teaches an exciting, if cautionary, lesson about the delicate relationship between industry and community, culture and identity.
Professor Bill Barry, now retired, is currently working on a book about the 1877 B&O Railroad strike. Listen to a podcast of a Humanities Connection segment at www.wypr.org.