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The Steel World

Deborah Rudacille looks at what Baltimore's steelworks built--and left behind

Michelle Gienow
Deborah Rudacille's history of Bethlehem Steel is, in a way, her own history.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 4/28/2010

Deborah Rudacille reads and signs Roots of Steel

May 1 at Greetings and Readings in Cockeysville.

For more information visit deborahrudacille.com.

Think of Maryland's 1950s and '60s steel industry boom as a war: Deaths, injuries, sickness, wanton destruction, unlikely alliances, self-perpetuation, people getting rich--and nobody really winning in the end. Right now, there are about 2,200 employees at the Sparrows Point steelworks, working under uncertain contracts and, more or less, waiting for the end.

During the boom, the works were the largest employer in the state, employing more than 36,000 people just at Sparrows Point and closer to 40,000 including all of Bethlehem Steel's Baltimore facilities, kicking out 620,000 tons of finished material a year. Beth Steel, along with other manufacturing industries in the city, is what built the Baltimore that we live in now, for better or worse.

It is this Sparrows Point that Deborah Rudacille chronicles in her new book, Roots of Steel (Pantheon), as fine of a magnification as you can manage over the course of 291 pages. As is often the case with retellings of war, it is something of a secret history. You take what you can and forget the rest--like the settlement of Sparrows Point itself, a once-bustling company town razed piecemeal like farmland when it came time to expand the millworks.

The book is a sprawling story of many outcomes: solidification of worker's rights, the manufacturing of ships and hardware to win a century's worth of wars, an entire demographic plagued by cancers and lung disease, wholesale environmental destruction, drug and alcohol addiction, institutional segregation and discrimination, and things far less quantifiable, like how families emigrated and thrived in the Sparrows Point mill neighborhood and its eventual successor, Dundalk, or how, in the face of that same institutional racism, African-American workers and white workers built camaraderie and friendships. (It wasn't until 1971, when a group of millworkers represented by Baltimore attorney Ken Johnson went all-in for the desegregation fight, that Bethlehem Steel's rigid program of discrimination started to crumble.) You read about the stories of the Sparrows Point workers--so much forgotten outside of Dundalk union halls--and you can't help but think of how much they match the stories of soldiers in wartime, themselves often forgotten outside of VFW halls and working-class living rooms.

Rudacille, the daughter of a millworker, was raised in Dundalk and has lived in Baltimore since. In person, she doesn't give off any sense of academia or the sort of stuffiness that trails a certain sort of detached historian. She chronicles, instead, a history that she and her family grew around and are a part of. Writing the book, "felt like a tremendous responsibility," she says in the second of two late-April interviews. "I had to be sure I got it right." Some three years of work in the making, the result is a rather unique combination of personal narrative and memories, and dozens of interviews with millworkers and their families mixed with the cold, hard facts of the steel industry's boom and bust on Sparrows Point and its shockwaves through Dundalk, the neighborhood that steel, essentially, built and sustained.

Dundalk itself is one of the steel boom's casualties. For much of the mill's history, workers lived in Sparrows Point, a Beth Steel company town that offered cheap housing, goods, and hard-cast racial segregation. When the company town finally gave way to more furnaces, Dundalk, just a couple of stops down on the streetcar, became the home for most Bethlehem Steel workers. "Dundalk people define themselves by their workingness," Rudacille says. "The worst thing you can say about a man, or woman, now, is he [or she] doesn't like to work."

Do the math: Sparrows Point lost somewhere around 34,000 millworker positions, jobs that, like a great many jobs during the American manufacturing/industrial boom, could be had right out of high school. A worker with little education could make enough money to raise a family, have a house, and count on a pension. That world doesn't exist anymore, and Dundalk shows it. Rudacille points to the glut of single-parent families in the neighborhood, drugs, and violence. "People have accepted the fact that the old jobs aren't there anymore," she says, adding that "there are still plenty of folks in Dundalk who are working really hard to make the transition to this new era."

Dundalk isn't alone in this transition, of course. The story is similar from post-farming ghost towns to the post-automobile ghost city of Detroit. Steel is a very specific story, but by no means unique.

Steel is most immediately arresting when it recounts the other, very specific, casualties of Sparrows Point. Workplace deaths were common, as were injuries, and asbestosis and mesothelioma. The latter can take 20 years to show up, and almost always kills. And the harbor? One interviewee in the book recounts being at the mill in its very early days, and being able to see "eight feet down to the bottom." The same interviewee remembers later being forbidden to swim, and looking out at the sewage effluent being pumped into the bay, just off the point. The rapid and prolonged poisoning of the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay is, by now, an old story.

Given the way Steel heaves you into these things--systematic racial discrimination among them--the was-it-worth-it? question becomes inescapable. Would we have been better off if Beth Steel just left well enough alone at Sparrows Point? What was this a war for anyway?

Cynically, consumerism: the steel mills boomed in the United States because they were already booming for the sake of the war effort--Rudacille, both in the book and in person, points out that the steel mills enabled the United States to win World War II--but, afterward, they churned out products for the unprecedented postwar orgy of consumerism.

So was the steel boom waged for that consumption--that is, waged in vain? Not entirely. "When you look at stuff that those jobs [enabled workers to do], and you look at the union movement and what it was able to achieve, those things were worth fighting for," Rudacille points out. Indeed, one of the many battles of the steel boom was for worker's rights--it may be even the most important battle, the most important victory. "We have all benefited from those triumphs," Rudacille says.

She also points out, warily, that the decline of the unions in recent years has meant a slipping of a great many things, from wages to the eight-hour workday to job security protections. "We can't think that the fight is over," she says. "Fighting for justice and all of those things that our grandparents and great-grandparents fought for--those things don't continue on their own accord. People don't know their labor history--working-class people don't know their labor history. It's why they're so easily bamboozled by the Rush Limbaughs of the world." A sampling of those things: the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the right to join a union, the right to equal pay for equal jobs. Consider Roots of Steel a counter-attack against the pro-common-man myths of the Republican Party and the toxic agents of the far-Right wing.

During one interview Rudacille recounts a story from a few weeks ago. She was speaking at a Dundalk senior center, and a 65-year-old man there had been working for the U.S. Census, distributing little bits of marketing paraphernalia. "He looked at them," Rudacille says, "and every one of them was made in China." The history of American manufacturing is, indeed, easy to forget.

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