End of an era as Steelworkers hall prepares to close doors
Wednesday, 27 August 2014 13:03

Volunteers handed out food during last week’s food bank at the Steelworkers hall.
photo by Nicole Rodman

 by Nicole Rodman

    The line began forming early. By noon it stretched around the building and nearly out of site.
    Tracey Coleman, director of the monthly food bank held at the Steelworkers hall on Dundalk Avenue, surveyed the scene.
    While she has been running the food bank for the past two years, Coleman admitted that the large turnout was unprecedented.
     “We’re going to run out of food,” she said. “That worries me.”
    The wife of a former steelworker, Coleman first established the food bank as a way to support out-of-work steelworkers and their families.
    Since September 2012, Coleman and her volunteers (themselves former steelworkers) have gathered at the union hall each month to provide food — and hope — to those in need of both.
    The food bank is organized by Coleman’s nonprofit Laughing Wolfe Resources, in partnership with the Maryland Food Bank.
    The organization, which received federal 501c(3) status last March, was named in honor of Coleman’s great-great-grandfather, William Laughing Wolfe.
    For the past two years, the food bank has operated out of the Steelworkers Hall — formerly home to United Steelworkers  (USW) local 9477. Last Friday marked the final food bank at the hall.
    According to Local 9477 financial officer Mike Lewis, the USW International is working to sell the hall.
    The international union took over local 9477 in February 2013 in the wake of the closure of the Sparrows Point steel mill.
    As Lewis noted, without union members paying dues, the USW can not afford to retain the hall.
    “You can’t maintain financial upkeep of the hall without membership,” he explained.
    In the 18 months since the international took over, Lewis has worked to wrap up decades worth of union business.
    His efforts have included shredding personal information, offering employment verification for former employees and preserving important memorabilia.
    According to Lewis, some photos and papers have been archived at the Pennsylvania State University library.
    Other records have been saved in the hopes that, someday, they might be displayed at a museum dedicated to steelmaking in the area.
    Though business is wrapping up at the Steelworkers Hall, Coleman is hoping to continue her monthly food bank events at a new location.
    While a number of organizations have expressed willingness to help, any potential facility must have extra dumpster pick-ups and doors wide enough to accom-modate pallets of food.
    Coleman pointed to the Ironworkers Local 16 hall on Merritt Avenue as one potential location.
    Regardless of where the food bank ends up, Coleman will not make the move alone.
    “My volunteers will go anywhere,” she said.
    In the two years since Coleman organized her first food bank, need for the service has increased rapidly.
    As Coleman noted, while the number  of former steelworkers seeking help has decreased, the number of community members attending the monthly food bank has spiked.
    “We are having an increase of new faces,” Coleman said, pointing to veterans and the newly-unemployed as two of the largest groups seeking aid.
    For the former steelworkers, the past two years have been rough.
    While many have completed training and found new jobs, they are unlikely to make as much as they did working at Sparrows Point.
    For his part, Lewis bemoaned the decline in manufacturing, especially here in Maryland. He pointed to the closure of the steel mill, the General Motors plant, Sun Products and other local manufacturers to illustrate his case.
    “If we don’t start making the things we use again, what’s going to be left for our children and grandchildren?”
    In addition to the financial effects of the mill’s closure, former steelworkers are continuing to deal with the emotional impact.
    “It was gut-wrenching the way that it ended,” Lewis said. “It’s been a bitter pill  to swallow for everybody.”
    Despite the loss of the mill and the impending sale of the union hall, many former steelworkers continue to keep in touch with the coworkers they considered family.
    “It’s a bond that, if you weren’t a part of it, you really don’t understand,” he said.
    “Losing the plant — it cut the cord on a lot of that.”
    For some of the steelworkers, Lewis explained, volunteering at the food bank each month has been a chance to stay connected.
    Lewis also pointed to the impact the plant’s closing has had on the wider community.
    “It’s a part of this area’s identity,” he said. “It’s the end of an era.”
    While it may be the end of an era, Coleman is determined that the loss of the union hall will not mark the end of her food bank.
    She is hoping to hand out food at a new location starting next month.
    “I will find a place to operate out of,” she concluded, her face set in steely resolve.
    “I will do it. We will persevere.”
    For more on Laughing Wolfe Resources, including information on upcoming food bank events, call 410-238-0506 or visit www.facebook.com/Laughing