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City Folk

A Millwright’s Tale

A laid-off Sparrows Point worker reflects on the past and the future

Photo: Noah Scialom, License: N/A

Noah Scialom


Sparrows point could and should be more than an amusement park or a place for an expanding port, says Robert Price. “If the state of Maryland would step up to the plate, there’s room for an auto production plant,” he says, citing Toyota and VW as possible takers. Think of it: A vertically integrated car-making site, where the steel is made on-site and rolled over to the auto plant, and then finished cars are rolled to container ships that can take them overseas.

Baltimore could also build a grain distribution center, Price believes, to take some of that export business from New Orleans. It could get back some banana import as well, he says. Baltimore was a big banana center for decades until Delaware outfitted itself exclusively for the industry in the 1990s.

Robert Price is a big man with a big, bald head and big hands to match his big ideas. He also has big problems. He was laid off at the end of July from Sparrows Point, where he worked as a millwright since the mid-1990s. “I’m an unlikely steel worker,” he says. His mom and dad were both teachers. Price has three associate’s degrees.

As Sparrows Point slouches toward a final transformation into who-knows-what (would-be buyers face a Dec. 21 deadline to submit bids—probably the last chance for continued steel production there), Price called City Paper to complain about our Oct. 17 feature (“Point of Departure”), which was written without consulting any steel workers. “Steel workers want it to be a steel mill,” he says. “That should go without saying, but it has to be said, because some people are not saying it.”

Over a ground-beef pizza Price holds forth on what it’s like to be laid off, what Sparrows Point means to him, planning for the future and the shock of life not only without a job, but without the clout that the millwright job afforded him a few months ago, when his judgment could gain or lose the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in an instant—or save lives.

“At the time, if I said that cable on that crane wasn’t safe, they’d shut it down,” Price says. “Now it’s, ‘You’re on the unemployment line—another unemployed, unimportant person.’ It’s a lot of bureaucracy. Our people aren’t used to that.”

Price says Sparrows Point workers used to get money every year for education, so if you worked the day shift to 3 P.M., you could get a class or two in before dinnertime. “You’d go to the career center, get your paperwork, and drive over to Dundalk Community College,” Price says. “You’d get your books for free and 30 minutes later you were registered. You had your books, classes might be on-site [at Sparrows Point] or in the union hall.”

By contrast, after his layoff, “I spent I don’t know how many days and I drove 300 miles this semester to accomplish the same thing I used to accomplish in an hour.”

The whole process of rethinking Sparrows has been flawed, Price says. “I’m upset that there’s a 17-member board looking into the future of Sparrows Point, and there’s not a single union official on it—and not even a superintendent from the mill,” he says. “These people are knowledgeable about what’s there.”

Details—where the train tracks are, how they work, even operational knowledge about the existing oil-burning power plant—could help the Sparrows Point Partnership (actually 16 business and political leaders) do its work better, Price says. “In August we curtail our production” to allow the power plant to provide peak power to the region, Price says: “People don’t realize that we’re the reason their lights don’t go out during heat waves.”

Sparrows Point could be a center for military shipbreaking, Price says, or an assembly plant for the tunnel sections that will be needed for the Red Line. “The Red Line is supposed to break ground in 2015,” he says. “We should have taken all our people and—anyone who wanted—gone into training to work on that Red Line.”

Unmarried and without children, Price has a lot of time to think about what could be. He says he worked at a grain silo in the 1980s and early ’90s, until it shut down. The Point looked good then, with a three-year, no-layoff guarantee, training and education available, a union contract with a pension. In 1995, he says, his wage was $13.50 an hour, plus a $3 “production bonus” and extra pay he calls “secondary indirect.” With overtime in his first year at the mill, Price says he netted $50,000.

“My average wage in the last 10 years in the new cold mill was $80,000 to $100,000 a year,” Price says. He says he did not save much.

“No. I went and bought a house, ’cause that’s what the American Dream is. Now the house is $100,000 underwater,” Price says. He bought it eight years ago, during a dip in the mortgage rates. So he has a 30-year fixed mortgage at a good interest rate, which he can’t afford on his $430 a week unemployment benefit. He can’t get his bank to help lower the payment.

“I have a lot of time on my hands,” Price says. “I could beat myself up. But look at the basic facts: I worked for the largest steel manufacturer in the world. It was run by a guy [Lakshmi Mittal] who actually made steel—he got his start running his own single mill. I worked in the new cold mill, highly automated. At some point, you have to make a decision on the future based on facts on the ground today.

“I look back now: Should I have been sleeping in my car then? No. I made a good decision.”

When Mittal bought Sparrows Point in 2005, Price says, “it was the largest steel company in the world. Why should we worry about closing? But when the Justice Department forced our sale—someone ought to be held accountable for that. Today, there are ArcelorMittal steel workers working all over the country.

“I think the federal government ought to buy it, lock, stock, and barrel,” Price says, though he doesn’t think there’s much chance of that, even at its current market price. “Somehow, in this crisis, we got lost in the shuffle.” Price says. “I don’t know what happened. Everybody else got help.”

Price says he has a buddy who used to listen to Rush Limbaugh all day and complain about welfare queens and lazy bums. The man was shocked, when, unemployed and broke, he found out he was eligible for just $16 worth of food stamps each month. “I met him at the unemployment office and he was ranting about that,” Price says. “What a political education for him, eh?”

It’s been an education for everyone. The bright side, according to Price: “I haven’t heard of anyone committing suicide yet.”

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