Mill Story #37: Thanksgiving Eve at the County Jail

October 2, 2016
By Ike Gittlen

One of the all to frequent issues that Union Reps face are difficulties our members have with drug and alcohol abuse. In spite of the stereotype of the hard drinking steelworker, I don’t think we have any corner on the market. But you can’t hide being high in a steel mill and when a co-worker isn’t sober; it endangers both themselves and their co-workers who depend on them for safety.

Our Steelworker Local Union negotiated a progressive D&A contract section that provided a jointly selected D&A assessment and treatment provider for our members. Generally, if a member followed the treatment program that the provider recommended, they would get an opportunity to return to work.

This story is about a member we’ll call Bobby. He was young, single, cocky and had a known problem with alcohol. Right before Thanksgiving, he was jailed for a DUI. As a repeat offender, he faced a decent stint in the County Jail. The union appealed to the judge in the case, who agreed to allow work-release (allowed to come to work, but return to jail at all other times). The company had to agree to this arrangement. As Bobby’s Grievance Committeeman, my problem was that our contract had limitations on how long an employee could be off work without a reasonable excuse. Bobby’s sentence would put him past that deadline. If we didn’t get the company to agree to the work-release plan, he would most likely lose his job.

The Superintendent, who had the power to make that decision, was seen as a “hard ass” that was not known for leniency or influenced by appeals based on human concerns. Bobby’s mother had contacted me and was frantic about the situation. Without any expectation of success, I called the Superintendent and made the appeal on Bobby’s behalf. The Superintendent candidly told me that that Bobby had promised to straighten up before, and here he was again in trouble. In typical addict behavior, Bobby had blown his credibility. The one thing that Bobby had going for him was that when he was at work, he was a damn good steelworker. As a long shot I asked the Superintendent to go to the jail with me, talk to Bobby and judge for himself how sincere he was about cleaning up his act. I was stunned when the Superintendent agreed.

So there we were, on Thanksgiving Eve. A union and management guy who didn’t much like each other, emptying our pockets into the County Jail Visitors lockers, loading our shoes in and going to the interview area, complete with us on one side and Bobby behind the protective glass on the other. The discussion started off well, with the Superintendent reviewing Bobby’s record and Bobby accepting his responsibility for his situation. I actually began to think that the Superintendent might agree to the work-release program. Then Bobby pulled a religious tract out of his pocket and told the Superintendent that he had found God and was in “his” hands. The change in the Superintendent was immediate. Whatever sliver of credibility his earlier admissions and commitments might have been worth was gone. It was obvious that the “conversion” speech left the Superintendent with the sense that Bobby was running another con game. The discussion ended abruptly and we left. The Superintendent did not agree to the work-release. Bobby remained in jail. As it turned out, God was not on his side that night.

The deadline for his seniority continuation came and went and I was chalking Bobby up as a lost member. Then Superintendent surprised me again. When Bobby was released from jail, The Superintendent put him back to work with full employment rights. In all my time as a union rep, this was the only time that had happened without reaching a settlement in the grievance process. Bobby managed to get a handle on his alcohol problem, remained employed and is still working today.

I can’t tell you why the Superintendent agreed to go to the jail that night. I can’t tell you why he reinstated Bobby when he was released. Was it that he was a good worker? Was it Bobby’s mothers appeal? Was there something in the Superintendents personal life that resonated?

This case came back to me when a friend told me of his struggles to get an undocumented worker released from ICE detention. He had to find a lawyer who understood that the pure law didn’t always determine the outcome. Many of us face situations where it would seem that there are no options for success. Because it falls into that category of “you never know if you don’t try”. This case always reminds me that in any situation there are things we cannot know, that are playing in the outcome. Because of this experience, and many others since, I get irritated when someone asks why the union is pursuing an issue that seems hopeless. Many issues are. But one good result, like Bobby’s situation, is worth the disappointments and “I told you so’s” that come with the ones that don’t work out.


Mill Story #36:Just Sign this Card Buddy…

usw auth cardMost steel mills have train service both inside and to the property that moves supplies and product in and out. The major steel mills usually owned their “in-plant” railroads. They also usually were wholly owned subsidiaries that functioned under the arcane rules of the Rail Labor Act and rail transportation regulations. Each Bethlehem Steel Corporation Mill had one of their own. At Steelton, we had the Steelton-Highspire Railroad.

As the Mills dwindled in size and new technology transported goods and materials, the in-plant railroads became a shadow of their former size and importance. In Bethlehem’s case, the unit across the entire company had shrunk from thousands at one point, to just a couple hundred. Some were under the traditional railroad unions and some, like the SHRR were represented by the United Steelworkers (USW). As they became less important, their ability to get contract improvements equal to the master steel contracts diminished as well. But it wasn’t until the consolidation of Bethlehem into International Steel Group (ISG) that we had the opportunity to fold these workers into the master ISG contract.

To bring all the railroads in the ISG system under the master Agreement we had to go to workers represented by non-USW unions and convincing them to join the USW and come under the USW agreement with ISG. I was assigned to do that.

I put together a 20 slide PowerPoint presentation, tossed a projector and computer in the van, and hit the road to visit the various RR wash houses in the ISG system. It wasn’t a particularly tough sell because once the railroaders understood the master agreement and understood how the law would treat their benefits, they stood to gain in a big way. Mostly it was education.

At one large facility the USW Local Union gave me one of their young grievance men to get me through the Mill safely and help with the presentations. The first morning Tom and I set up in a washroom for the 6am shift change. The guys coming of the 11pm to 7am turns were dog tired and clearly were put out that they had to listen to 20 slides of contract information. There really isn’t many ways to spice that content up.

As I walked then through the slides, I began to realize that I was losing railroaders from the audience. The goal was to get them to sign USW union cards so we could get them under the ISG master. But they were leaving before I got to that part. Tom had been in and out of the room repeatedly and I couldn’t seem to get his attention to start collecting the cards. I pushed through the last couple of slides and signed up the couple remaining workers left. I saw Tom standing outside and went out to tell him we probably would have to come back the next morning to get the rest of the cards signed. But he handed me a stack of signed cards for each of the railroaders that had left.

Confused, I asked him how he got those. It’s simple he said. “I just tapped them on the shoulder while you were talking on, got them outside, and I told them if they didn’t want to hear any more of your bullshit, all they had to do was sign a card and they could go home.” “Wasn’t a single one of them said no”, he assured me.

We both busted out laughing. Those were the easiest cards I ever got signed in the organizing drives I’ve been involved in. And all it took was a young street kid who understood that if you put a man between a union meeting and his sleep time, you could get him in a joining kind of mood. The lesson was not to take yourself too seriously, the facts don’t always drive the decision, and you can learn a whole lot when you least expect to.

Copyright 2015, Ike Gittlen

Mill Story # 35 Just a Good Business Decision

Back in the 197smiles.jpg.0x545_q70_crop-scale0’s the Mills were seeing the WWII steelworkers retire and the generational change brought the children of the sixties into the steel workplace. It was a different breed, to be sure. I had been elected to the Zone Grievance position, which meant I handled grievances for about 500 people.

I was called into the Steelmaking Superintendents Office because a employee named Tim Muckly (not real name) was regularly missing one day a week. The Superintendent was a mostly humorless man with a reputation as a stern disciplinarian. He had called Muckly up to his office and tried to reprimand him over the absences. But Muckly had shown the Superintendent his paychecks. Because of tax brackets, Muckly explained that he only made $10 less working four days, than if he worked five. I’m just doing what Bethlehem Steel would do, Muckly apparently told the Superintendent. It’s just a good business decision. The Superintendent tried to explain to Muckly that if he didn’t show up for all his scheduled days, his take home pay would be zero, because he was going to fire him. But as Cool Hand Luke would say, “what we had here was a failure to communicate”.   The Superintendent was so dumbfounded by Muckly’s explanation that he asked me to try to reason with him.

I found Tim on his overhead crane shortly afterward and told him about the conversation with the Superintendent. Tim had a new relationship with a woman at his church, who had several children. I tried to talk to Tim about the need to have a good job if he was going to marry the lady. But Tim said that his Mill hours were interfering with his ability to date, and that if God wanted him to lose this job, then it was Gods will.

In the spirit of “if you can’t beat em join em” I asked Tim if it was possible that God had sent me down to his Crane Cab to tell him to make his schedule and keep his job? Tim considered it for about 10 seconds, and then violently shook his head and said NAW! Clearly I was not the messenger from God that Tim had envisioned. As a dismissed messiah, I was out of arguments.

Tim Muckly wasn’t fired. He quit. I later saw him driving commercial buses and he appeared to be happy and content. He had married his lady friend and was helping raise her children. He had daylight hours. Even though he wasn’t earning as much as he did in the Mill, he was making it. In the end, the Mill just wasn’t for him. Ironically, the decision he made wasn’t a good business decision at all. He had opted for quality of life instead.smiles.jpg.0x545_q70_crop-scale

Mill Story #34: A Plan They Could Call Their Own

ImageIn the 1880’s Frederick Winslow Taylor developed time study methods to determine what the potential productivity of a particular job might be.   “Taylorism” was a hotly debated issue because it reduced people to the position of being just one more cog in a machine. But in the eternal search for profit and productivity the captains of industry used Taylor’s time studies to set production goals. Ultimately in the steel industry, they were used to determine part of a workers wage. Steelworker contracts put rules around the time-study process and how production “rates” were to be developed. Because time-study was a specialty, Joint Labor/Management Incentive Committee’s (JIC’s) were established that oversaw the rate-setting process and allowed our members to contest “rates” they felt were being unfairly applied.

But on the Mill floor management dishonesty and human ingenuity had resulted in a convoluted “incentive” system that old Fred Taylor could never have predicted.   The basic truth was that management never wanted to put a fair rate on any production process and used their time-study engineers to try to cheat workers out of making money from their increased efforts. As a response, workers being time-studied would “work to rule” and hide any short-cuts they had devised, to compensate for the expected deductions that the time-study people would use to depress the rate.  Over the decades that this went on, the system lost any semblance of integrity. Rates varied wildly, and their connection to productivity was often questionable. Continue reading

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


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. Continue reading

Mill Story #32 – I Think You Lost Them…

Mill Story #32: I Think You Lost Them


For those who need certainty, the greatest invention of the computer age was the spreadsheet.  The endless rows and columns of neat numbers; the absoluteness of the mathematical calculations; the superiority that comes with being the master of the information; all feeds the soul of those who need a world of unassailable truth.

Then there are those who understand and have the flexibility to deal with the chaotic reality of our world.  The twists and turns of human nature; the speed at which one truth is replaced with another; the fact that there are many ways to reach a solution.  On one morning in 1989 these two types of personalities came together with comical results. Continue reading

Mill Story #31 – First Job in the Mill

Mill Story #31: First Job in the Mill

steelton brass check tag

(Steelton Employee Brass Check from Rail Mill)

The Mill wasn’t my first industrial job.  I had been working for Fruehauf Trailer Corporation, riveting together Tractor Trailers in their Middletown, PA plant.  But the Mill was a definite step up the job ladder, and I was feeling pretty good about getting hired.  My dad worked at the Mill and he seemed pleased that I was coming to work there as well.

The hiring was done by a humorless guy who seemed to disdain most of the new recruits and was particularly suspicious of the class of the 1970’s.  Whatever his standards for Mill workers were, we didn’t meet them.  This was particularly true because his total autonomy in hiring had been curbed by new civil rights laws that forced him to hire women and minorities.  As gatekeeper for the patronage and favoritism of Mill jobs, his world was slipping away. Continue reading