Local author Deborah Rudacille grew up in Dundalk, marching in the town’s annual Fourth of July parade and developing a taste for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Her family’s roots in the area reach back a half-century— her paternal great-grandparents came to Sparrows Point in the 1920s, and her maternal forebears two decades later— and, like most kids she knew, she was the daughter of a man who earned a good salary and job stability in return for laboring in the hot, hard din of the Bethlehem Steel plant. In 2006, Rudacille returned to Dundalk and Sparrows Point to research her new book “Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town” (Pantheon), which is at once a history of one of the nation’s mightiest manufacturing plants and an homage to the people whose efforts made it thrive.
Did you always know you would write this book?
I always kind of wanted to write about Dundalk because it was such a fascinating place to grow up, but I never thought about writing about Bethlehem Steel. Right after President Bush was elected for the second time, there was a lot of talk in the media about how white working-class workers were always voting against their interests. I thought people in places like Dundalk were being demonized, and I wanted to show this community and communities like it in the round rather than in this very limited, negative and flat picture.
You knew a lot about Dundalk and Sparrows Point when you started. What surprised you most in researching the book?
The biggest surprise, and one of the things that became a major theme in the book, was the very different experiences that black and white steelworkers had. The history of race in Sparrows Point was painful to come to terms with. From its earlier days, the town of Sparrows Point was segregated— black families lived on the north side. And Dundalk had a charter mandating that black people couldn’t live there— they lived in Turners Station. In the mills themselves, all of my sources pointed out that African-American men had the hardest, dirtiest jobs. In many ways, the African-American steelworkers were better off than elsewhere— the jobs paid pretty well even though they couldn’t get the best jobs— but still, they did not have anywhere near the opportunities for advancement that white steelworkers had.
We all know about the demise of Bethlehem Steel, and the fact that many retired workers have lost their health and life insurance and much of their pensions. What could have been done to have created a better outcome?
One of the points I try to make in the book, and which came through in all of my interviews, was that in the postwar era, American manufacturers were at the top and didn’t plan ahead for the days when Europe and developing countries would develop steel themselves. Management was resistant to new technology. The union and management were always locked in conflict. The workers, themselves, didn’t understand they were going to have to make some changes. In the end, when the whole thing fell apart, upper management protected their own pensions and benefits, but the retired workers really suffered, and continue to. As one of my sources pointed out, Bethlehem was on the front edge of this recession.
What is the legacy of Bethlehem Steel?
I think Bethlehem Steel represented the kind of job security and working-class prosperity that has largely disappeared in the United States. When I was growing up in Dundalk, people who didn’t graduate from college or even high school could go down to the Point and get a good job. It was a hard job, a dangerous job, but it was a stable, profitable job.
What’s the best future you can envision for Sparrows Point?
If I could wave a magic wand, I would transform it into the nation’s premier facility for green manufacturing and green industry. The products manufactured there would be used to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and the foundations of a 21st-century transportation system— and the companies operating on the site would be American-owned and maybe even Baltimore-based.