Steel Stories #2 - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Steel Stories #2

(The United Steelworkers monument to workers killed on the job stood in front of Local 9477’s union hall before its relocation to a nearby park following the shutdown of the former Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, Maryland.)

Deaths inside the steel mill were expected as surely as spells of bad weather outside. For decades, at least one fatality a year shattered the workforce at Bethlehem Steel’s former mill at Sparrows Point, Md.

 The fallen were commemorated on a marble monument outside the Local 9477 union hall in Baltimore. Every April 28 on Workers’ Memorial Day co-workers and family members of the deceased gathered around the stone which was relocated after the plant’s 2012 shutdown to Heritage Park in Dundalk, a nearby working-class neighborhood.

 It took years for managers and union representatives working together to reduce the rate of death on the job through enhanced safety consciousness and training.

But there were still perilous lapses. Some of our very best were left vulnerable, like my co-worker, Butch Rowley, killed on July 27, 1996.

 Quality Out

Butch applied the rag to clean the looping steel strip,
racing up the towering mill at 620 feet per minute.

The 45,000-pound zinc-coated coils
would bring in the cash as
gleaming hot water heaters or washers
if the steel was clean enough to
wear a coat of paint.

Bethlehem’s steel could never be too clean.

That was until Butch Rowley slipped
into the hurtling strip,
catapulted from the mill onto his back.

His scalp was ripped away.
His brains were bared.

Sam walked up on him and puked.

John looked like he was losing it.

I asked if he wanted to talk to a counselor.
No, he said,
I saw plenty of that in

Mike, a Vietnam Ranger,
stepped right over Butch to investigate,
almost like he was still alive,
just taking a nap.

John changed his mind.
Now he wanted someone to talk to.

the gentle brother who, just the year before,
penned a letter to the company
demanding better staffing to spare injury to his
union buddies’ backs and shoulders,
Butch, the dude with the easy smile,

The superintendent arrived with a plant cop.

He asked if I wanted to accompany him
notifying Butch’s next of kin,
said he had done the duty
way too many times before.

Out of cowardice or
premonition, or both,
I declined.

I heard later Butch’s son blew hot
when the super and his sidekick
broke the news his dad was never coming home.

What had Butch told his son about
dangers on the job?

What had he passed on about
Bethlehem Steel-style apartheid that
pushed men like Butch into a fight to escape
sweltering and filthy corners of the mill for
cleaner “white man’s jobs,” like
the gig on the hot-dip galvanizing line,
where his daddy went down?

A union president told me there’s a pattern for families
when loved ones are massacred in the mill.

The first day, they’re too distraught to talk.

The second day, they want to know about life insurance to
cover burial costs.

The third day, they ask to visit the scene,
no matter how gruesome or
ghoulish the carnage.

They want to know,

They need to know.

The company lawyer contested the
$70,000 fine levied by the state.
Bethlehem Steel was innocent of a “willful” violation, he said.
The company had warned Butch and other employees against
using rags to clean a moving strip.

The fine was reduced to $7,000.

But everyone knew the truth,
none more than those
responsible for not designing
safer ways to scrub a strip.

Truth was there, stark and vivid as the wreath
hallowing the spot where Butch bled.

Man, everyone knew the truth.

a loyal soldier, was
martyred for a hackneyed
$7,000 cliché,
one truer of men than of steel:

Quality in,
Quality out.

About the author

Len Shindel

Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron, Labor Notes and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point in 2002, Shindel, a father of three and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. The International Labor Communications Association frequently rewarded his writing. He retired in 2016. Today he and his wife, Maxine, live in Garrett County where he enjoys writing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, fly-fishing and fighting for a more peaceful, sustainable and safe world for his grandchildren and their generation Contact the author.

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