In 1887 an engineer named Frederick Wood toured an undeveloped area of land at Sparrows Point east of Baltimore, Maryland and decided it would make an excellent site for a new steel complex for the Pennsylvania Steel Company. Over the next sixty years that facility was built and expanded until, ultimately, it became the largest single steel production facility in the world. At its peak in 1957 it housed 35 separate furnaces and employed 30,000 workers.
Purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1916, the mill produced the girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and the cables for the George Washington Bridge. At the neighboring Sparrow's Point Shipyard the steel was turned into ocean going vessels. During the seven-year period from 1939 to 1946 this yard alone built 116 vessels, many of them the famed Liberty ships that carried American troops to war in Europe and the Pacific.
Last week a federal bankruptcy judge approved the sale of the mill from its current owner, RG Steel, to an Illinois firm, which specializes in the demolition and redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites. The sale price was $72 million, down from the $1.5 billion paid for the mill when it was sold in 2002. The remaining 2,000 workers at the mill, now a fraction of its former size, are poised to lose their pay, benefits and standard of living. The surrounding community, which has taken an economic beating in recent decades, is set to take yet another body shot to its economic health.
The Sparrows Point Steel Mill created not only steel plate but also an entire way of life. African-Americans looking to build new lives came here by the thousands from the Deep South, formed communities and climbed the ladder. Eastern Europeans, from Poland, Hungary and Russia, flocked to America, worked the furnaces and became Americans. Bethlehem was forging steel, but, in a very real way, it was forging America as well.
A tour of the surrounding area today is a depressing tour of the skeleton of a once prosperous, thriving community. Large sections of company housing are simply gone. Those areas that remain are threadbare and barely hanging on. The bulk of the businesses in the area now are nail salons, tattoo parlors, discount food stores and funeral homes.
Businesses that used to cater to steel workers, like bars, restaurants and clothing shops have shuttered their doors. The few remaining are struggling to stay afloat. Other businesses that provided materials and expertise to the mill are also vanishing. In the aftermath of the news of the sale of the mill, one local company that specialized in maintaining equipment used in the mill laid off its entire workforce of 32 men.
Where once manufacturing provided the bulk of the jobs, now most jobs are in service industries. In fact, in nearby Baltimore City, 90% of all jobs are service oriented. These jobs are characterized by low pay, lack of security and lack of benefits. Few of them offer any hope of stability or of advancement. Because pay is so low, many of these service industry workers have to work second jobs just to survive.
This is the face of American industry in the age of "free trade" and globalization. We were told, decades ago when we started down this path, that free trade would mean that we would flood the world with our exports. Our factories would be running overtime. Our workers would enjoy a steadily rising standard of living. The inhabitants of the globe would drive our cars, wear our clothes and entertain themselves with our televisions and radios.
The reality for communities like Dundalk has been very different. Over the last thirty years, population in the Dundalk area of Baltimore County near the mill has fallen by 30,000. The unemployment rate has doubled. The median household income is now over $20,000 less than the median income for the State of Maryland as a whole. There are 39.3 crimes per square mile annually in the United States as a whole. In Dundalk there are 217.
A few miles from Sparrows Point in the port of Baltimore four 14-story cranes are in the process of being installed. These giant pieces of equipment, emblazoned with the colors of the State of Maryland, will be able to handle the loading and unloading of cargo from the largest vessels in the world. Only the port of Norfolk has anything comparable on the Eastern Seaboard. The cranes cost $10 million a piece.
The cranes were made in China. They were brought here by a special. low-slung vessel, the Zhen Hua 13, which is also Chinese. The cranes' job, once operational in Baltimore, will be to unload containers containing Chinese merchandise.
"These cranes represent the future of the Port of Baltimore," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement from the Maryland Port Administration. He was, perhaps, more right than he knew. Sparrows Point, which is soon to go under the wrecking ball, was once the largest private employer in the State of Maryland. Even in its diminished state, the mill produced over $1 billion in sales in the last year. It was the economic engine that drove the prosperity of the surrounding area. That prosperity, or what is left of it, is now dependent on our serving our role as consumers of what Chinese factories and steel mills create.
Meanwhile, the same bankruptcy court, which approved the sale of Sparrows Point to a liquidator, has issued another ruling. It has approved the decision by RG Steel, the current owner of the mill, to award multi-million dollar bonuses to ten company executives. The bonuses, totally in excess of $20 million, will be paid at the same time that the remaining mill workers are fired and their pay and benefits terminated.
This also is, apparently, the future of Maryland and of the country as a whole. The middle class will continue to decline and diminish, while those at the top will ensure that they turn a profit no matter what. We have seen the future, and it is grim.