The struggle continues as steelworkers receive aid
Wednesday, 04 June 2014 14:23

Gansler appears at monthly food bank event

by Nicole Rodman

    The line stretched around the building last Wednesday as former steelworkers gathered outside of the local union hall on Dundalk Avenue.
    Since late 2012, Tracey Coleman and her fellow volunteers have set up at the hall one or two days each month, distributing food to many of those who once made their living at Sparrows Point.
    The food, mostly nonperishable canned goods with some fresh produce mixed in, is donated by the Maryland Food Bank and the Emergency Feeding Assistance Program.
    On hand to help hand out food during last week’s food bank event was Attorney General Doug Gansler. Gansler is currently running for the Democratic nomination for governor.
    For Coleman, the drive to help feed former steelworkers and their families comes from a deeply personal place.
    Her husband, a 17-year veteran of the steel mill, struggled when the plant closed in June 2012.
    Though he received training and recently found a job in a new field, not all former steelworkers have been so lucky.

According to Coleman, the number of people taking advantage of the monthly food bank has grown at an alarming rate  — from approximately 1,800 per month at the end of 2012 to between 3,700 and 4,100 today.
    Many of the former steelworkers continue to struggle for a variety of reasons.
    As Coleman noted, many of the older workers  are “running into walls because of their age and [because steelmaking] is all they knew.”
    Even for the younger workers, challenges abound.
    While many have taken advantage of government funds to train for a new career, they continue to struggle to feed their families.
    “They need help while they’re trying to train,” Coleman explained.
    For those who have been fortunate enough to find new employment, hurdles remain.
    “It’s been a great deal of struggle,” Mike Lewis, former steelworker and current United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9477 financial officer, said.
    One of the few remaining Local 9477 officers, Lewis is in charge of wrapping up business for the union.
    As Lewis explained, when RG Steel declared bakruptcy in June 2012, the company had to discard employment records of workers dating back to the era of Bethlehem Steel.
    Now, Lewis and USW act as a makeshift human resources office, verifying employment for former workers trying to get new jobs.
    “Thank God the international union has supported our local members through that effort,” he said.
    Even after finding employment, many of the former steelworkers continue to struggle.
    “Most of our employees that weren’t old enough to retire have found new jobs making less,” Lewis noted.
    According to Gansler, the situation at Sparrows Point is part of a larger problem.
    “Bethlehem Steel has always fascinated me because it’s [emblematic] of what’s been going on in Maryland,”he said.
    Calling the steel mill “a once-vibrant plant,” Gansler noted that “it closed under the O’Malley-Brown administration.”
    “One of the biggest problems we have right now is that we’re 46th in manufacturing,” Gansler noted.
    (According to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax policy think-tank, Maryland ranks 46th in the nation in “new labor-intensive manufacturing firms” and “eighth overall for mature operations.”)
    Gansler went on to claim that, if elected, he will work to “bring jobs back to Maryland.”
    One way Gansler hopes to bring more jobs back to Maryland is by offering tax incentives to businesses if they relocate to Maryland.
    When asked what he would do as governor to specifically help former Sparrows Point steelworkers, Gansler noted, “We’re the only candidates in the race with a robust jobs plan.”
    He cited elements of his plan, including allowing workers to collect unemployment while training for a new job and increasing adult education opportunities.
    “Many of these people have worked at the same station at the same plant for years,” he explained of the steelworkers, noting, “There are jobs; they just need to be retrained.”
    For most of the individuals who spent years working at the now-closed steel mill, the road to those jobs has been steep and perilous.
    Coleman plans to continue helping former steelworkers make the journey, one monthly food bank at a time.
    “As long as we have a place to distribute out of, we will continue,” she explained.
    That location, however, may soon be in jeopardy.
    Though the USW international took over operations at the local hall in February 2013, the union has allowed the food bank event to be held at the hall each month.
    That may change when the union follows through with plans to sell the building.
    According to Lewis, the timeline for the sale remains unclear.
    “One could honestly conclude that it would be by the end of this year or the beginning of next,” he said. “It all depends on the circumstances.”
    For now, however, the monthly events continue.
    The next food bank event at the Steelworkers hall, 550 Dundalk Avenue, will be held on Thursday and Friday, June 12 and 13, from noon to 4 p.m. each day.