Mill Story #33 – Respect, Not Earned: The Board of Directors Comes to Steelton

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Bethlehem Steel Corporate Headquarters, Martin Towers, Bethlehem PA (now vacant)

Steelton was one of the smaller plants that Bethlehem Steel owned, and rarely got much attention from the top of the Corporation. But in the early 1980’s, with the Corporation in trouble, the Board of Directors (including the CEO) decided they needed to get out and around the empire and scheduled full Board visits to every facility, including Steelton.

This was a huge deal for Plant Management. It was an opportunity to showcase a Mill that had a history of outperforming its size and a way to point out the need for a laundry list of capital improvements. Underlying the opportunity was the fear that their management jobs literally depended on the visit going well. The visit became the focal point of much of the Plant’s activity. Tour routes were developed for a “walk through”, a schedule of events (including a minute by minute timeline) was drafted, great thought went into who would be allowed to meet the Board, and under what circumstances. The biographies of the Board Members were distributed for study and special arrangements were made for the several Board Members who were in fragile health.

For weeks, the walk-around routes were cleaned, painted, brought up to safety code, and otherwise made to look as modern as a plant dating back to the Civil War could. Chaperones were carefully selected from the most trusted employees so that no errant comment might be uttered during the visit. Speeches, presentations and talking points were prepared to carefully shape the Plant’s image and “message” for a Board that would probably never set foot in Steelton again. Everything was under tight control, with one exception. The Board wanted to meet with the Local Union officials.

This was before the Company/Union “partnership era”.  Back then, the Bethlehem Steel Labor Relations Department dealt with the Union while the operating Plant Management rarely interacted with us. Steelton had all kinds of operating issues that the workforce knew how to improve. But any idea that generated from the ranks was summarily dismissed by management (at least until enough time had gone by that they could claim it as their own).  While Zone Union reps dealt with Departmental Superintendents and line supervision, there was a firm management rule that the Union was only allowed to discuss the contract and workforce issues and the management dealt with operating issues. This situation later gave rise to USW International Union President Lynn Williams’s mantra that “management was too important to leave to management alone”.   The Company itself segregated management tasks with Operators having one line of authority to the top and Labor Relations another.

Therefore, it fell to the Superintendent of Labor Relations to handle the Board request to meet with the union. The Bethlehem Steel Labor Relations Department’s historic role was to contain the union. It had cultivated two absolute principles. First was to make sure that union “wins” were kept to a minimum in the grievance procedure. Second was to maintain a level of arrogance and superiority that would protect the power and sanctity of all management decisions. It was more important to win than to solve problems. It was more important to keep the union “in its place” than benefit from the broad knowledge of the union’s membership. One management labor relations assistant wryly observed that the labor agreement preserved the right of management to make decisions, but didn’t require them to be good decisions. You might now begin to understand why Plant Management was a bit beside themselves about a chance for the Local Union to speak freely and openly to the Corporations top dogs.

Management put off notifying us as long as they could, and then at the end of a meeting of the full Grievance Committee they basically ordered us to assemble with the Board at a designated time and place. To give you some perspective, I have to describe the way Plant-level Grievance Meetings were handled. Meetings were held in the Plant Office Conference room. It was a drab functional room with a huge table that sat twenty in its hard wooden jury chairs. Other wooden seats bordered the walls for those not worthy of table status. The Superintendent of Labor Relations (the second highest ranking company position at the Plant) would sit at the center of his side of the table, flanked by four to six labor relations assistants. Our Union Grievance Committee Chairman would face him on the opposite side of the table flanked with what was then a nine person elected committee.   The Superintendent rarely spoke to any of the Union Grievance Committee people directly. Instead he would intone (often swiveled around in his chair with his back facing us) to one of his assistants “ask Mr. Jones just exactly what section of the Agreement he is basing his argument on”…   And when Union Rep Jones would answer, the Superintendent would say “tell Mr. Jones that he has failed to meet his obligation….”.   Bethlehem had raised the ability to exhibit superiority in all matters, to an art form.

So when the Labor Relations Superintendent had to arrange a meeting between the Union and the Board of Directors, it came in the form of a derisive order, with the expectation that we would comply. But not everyone did.   The Zone 6 Griever was a union man of the old school. He asked nothing of management and gave nothing to them. He scoffed at the fake superiority of the Superintendent and returned the disrespectful treatment with an equally fake but gentlemanly demeanor.   They hated each other.

The Superintendent advised the union committee that the Company would brief the Union on what we should say (and not say) to the Board and rose to leave. The Zone 6 Griever loudly cleared his throat and told the Superintendent that he would not be attending the Board event. This both angered and perplexed the Superintendent. He never calculated that a union representative wouldn’t want to take advantage of an opportunity to meet with the Board. Particularly this contrarian. Bethlehem management was military in its belief that no matter who was running the company, or what kind of job they were doing, they were to be honored and obeyed. “What do you mean you won’t be there, hollered the Superintendent”, who made it a practice never to raise his voice. “At the least, you should be there out of respect for the leaders of this Corporation”, he spit out, red faced. Time stood still. Had the old timer pushed it too far? “RESPECT”, the elected representative of several hundred workers responded. Turning the word over as if he were giving it long consideration. Then he asked a question of his own. “How can I respect people who are presiding over the decline of one of America’s greatest corporations?”  In one sentence he had captured the sentiment of most of the union reps in the room and I suspect a number of the company people as well.

It was one of those times when all the air and light seemed to disappear from the room. The Superintendent turned around and breaking form, stared directly at the union rep. He clearly was off balance. Eventually he said in an uncharacteristically uncertain tone, “Perhaps your right not to come”, and then he and his troupe of Assistants filed out of the room. Most of the Grievance Committee were in disbelief at both the audacity of what had been said, and the fact that the Superintendent had been rendered speechless. The old timers’ one question had pierced the pomposity and undeserved aura that management had so carefully erected. It was an “emperor has no clothes” moment.

It turned out that the Board of Director’s meeting was unremarkable. A typical corporate dog and pony show. But the Zone 6 Griever’s decision to skip the Board of Directors meeting produced a lasting irony. It was the only time any of us can remember, when that Steelton Plant Labor Relations Superintendent and that USW Local Union Zone 6 Grievance Committeeman came to agreement on an issue. And as far as we know, neither spoke of it again.

copyright 2014 – Ike Gittlen

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