The United Steelworkers (USW) has pledged to fund a meeting space for retirees of the now-defunct Sparrows Point steelworks, even if the Dundalk Avenue union halls that housed their locals for half-a-century are sold. "We are committed to making sure the retirees have a place to meet for at least five years," confirmed USW Maryland subdistrict director Jim Strong last week.
Don Kellner, president of the USW Local 9477 retiree organization, announced the USW's offer to support the retiree gatherings on March 20 at the group's monthly meeting. "I'm proud as hell to say that the International [USW] set back and said, 'Let's do something for them guys' out of the respect they have for this group," Kellner told his members.
The news was greeted with relief by the 300 or so retirees at the event. Most had expected to be turned out of their halls this summer, after administrators for the Pittsburgh-based USW complete their work. "The members feel like the International might cut us off," said LeRoy R. McClelland Sr. just prior to the USW announcement.
McClelland, who is vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), an activist group which also meets monthly in the hall at 540 Dundalk Ave., wrote to USW president Leo Girard last month, pointing out that the union has a responsibility to keep members informed about pensions, benefits, and union business. "They have an obligation to keep the membership up-to-date and let them know they are not forgotten," McClelland said.
In January, USW Local 9477 was placed in administrative receivership following the sale of the 122-year-old Sparrows Point works to liquidator Hilco Industrial. Sparrows Point was the largest private employer in the state of Maryland for decades, employing around 33,000 at its mid-century peak. Hilco began auctioning off equipment on Jan. 23. The site will be razed.
The international union was required by law to put Local 9477 into receivership, to destroy payroll and membership files with social security numbers and other personal information, and to ship financial records for the past seven years to Pittsburgh, said Local 9477's last financial secretary, Michael Lewis, who is charged with wrapping up its affairs. "The plant is gone. It's painful but it's the reality. And you can't operate the hall as if the plant is still running," he said.
But even prior to the closing of the Sparrows Point works, local union officials were contemplating selling the halls at 540 and 550 Dundalk Avenue. "The buildings are very expensive to maintain," Lewis said, citing sky-high monthly utility bills, Baltimore City tax rates, and the need for asbestos abatement in the buildings.
For the retirees, however, the halls represent a last link to a storied past. "If we lose the halls, we've lost it all," said James Blankenship, who worked for 35 years in the blast furnace and in iron-making at Sparrows Point.
The two halls at 540 and 550 Dundalk Avenue were built in 1952 and 1958, when employment at Sparrows Point was at its peak-Local 2610 alone had over 10,000 members. Many of the retirees who attend the monthly meetings are veterans of that era. "I'm the youngest guy here. The rest are in their 80s and 90s," joked Tom Capecci, 65, who was president of the Local 2610 retiree group before it merged with the 2609 retiree group in 2007.
Approximately 300 people attend the monthly meeting, out of 550 dues-paying members, Capecci said. Dues are low-$20 per year-to accommodate older members living on modest pensions, but the organization's biggest expense are the catered lunches at the meetings, which run about $1,300 per month.
In March, Kellner announced that the group has $14,000 in its treasury and an income of approximately $12,000 per year from dues. "We can ride on that for three to four years, with a couple of fundraisers," he said.
The USW does not charge the retirees rent or require that they contribute to the cost of maintaining the Dundalk Avenue buildings. But if they are forced to move to another location, monthly expenses will likely double, Kellner said.
Some retirees said that they will continue to attend meetings no matter where they are held. "I come for the people," said Thomas Washington, 67, who spent 33 years in the tin mill at Sparrows Point.
But a change of location would be hard for some of the older retirees, said Frank Mortis, 65, who retired this year, after 45 years of steelmaking. "I would probably go no matter where the meetings were held," he said. "But the old people are used to coming here. They live in the area or can get a ride here."
Regina Griffin, 84, who worked in the tin mill for 36 years, says that the meetings are the highlight of her month. Sitting with two fellow "tin floppers"-women who sorted sheets of tin by hand back in the '40s and '50s, Griffin speaks softly of losing her daughter this year, and the husband and brother and friends who are also gone. "So many have passed away. It seems like it's just the three of us left," she said, gesturing to her fellow tin sorters.
A wave of recent retirees swelled the crowd at the March meeting. Alice "Sam" Elliott, 63, a crane operator and procurement analyst in the tin mill who retired in January 2012, after 33 years, has been attending meetings for the past three months because she misses her co-workers. "I'm seeing guys here I worked with years ago," she said. "Some of these guys have been coming up here faithfully for a long time. It would be a huge loss for them if these halls close."
Even those who understand why the USW needs to sell the buildings are grieving the impending loss. "I feel like a mortician preparing a family member for burial," said Lewis, who has been combing through half-a-century of files documenting the life of the Local-newsletters, membership files, payroll receipts, grievances, and other official papers and memorabilia-deciding what to toss and what to save.
"At 2610, 20 bins of stuff had to be shredded," said Bill Barry, former chair of the now-defunct labor studies program at Baltimore County Community College. Barry is trying to salvage valuable historical documents and recently shipped 13 boxes of material to the Steelworker Archives at Penn State. He is reserving photos and other archival materials for his own long-planned Baltimore Labor Museum. The Maryland Steelworkers Credit Union has offered him storage space in the old Circle Bar-B-Q building on Dundalk Avenue across from the union halls.
Barry has met with Roland Woodward, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, about providing a home for some of the memorabilia or hosting a Sparrows Point exhibit. Citing "financial and space constraints," Woodward said that the BMI has no plans at present to absorb any of the material.
The BMI, which is currently running a six-month exhibit on the Maryland Lottery, might be interested in acquiring "photos and small artifacts" on the Sparrows Point works and its unions, said Woodward. But that would require coordination with other local museums and would take time, he said. "I don't think that good decisions [about preservation] are made in a short time frame."