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Ex-steelmaker's power base empties out

Martin Tower was the home and the symbol of Bethlehem Steel. Now it's turning into condos.

January 28, 2007|Matt Assad | The Morning Call

BETHLEHEM, PA. — For some people, Bethlehem Steel ended when the blast furnaces went cold in 1995. For others, it was the day the builder of the Golden Gate Bridge filed for bankruptcy in 2001, or when the company was sold in 2003.

But for the 50 employees who spent most of their careers watching friends get laid off, that day came Jan. 12, when they left Martin Tower for the last time.

Mary Deutsch, a billing analyst for 38 years, knows Bethlehem Steel hasn't signed her checks since 2003. And she knows that despite having to vacate her 10th-floor office, she still has her job -- the same job she took right after high school graduation. But she couldn't help but shed a tear with the realization that she will never return to the building that once represented the power and dominance of the nation's second-largest steelmaker.

For her, boxing up her office was like throwing the last shovel of dirt on the company that helped build her life and made her proud to answer when people asked, "Where do you work?"

"Every day I'd look at that I-beam [sculpture] on the way into work and remember how proud we all were to work in this building," Deutsch said. "I know the company went bankrupt years ago, but not a lot changed for us. For me, this is the end of Bethlehem Steel. This is the end of an era."

The last remaining workers from Bethlehem Steel moved out of Martin Tower so the building could be renovated into upscale condominiums, part of a $300-million plan to redevelop the entire 54-acre complex.

They remain contract workers for Mittal Steel, the European company that owns the remnants of Bethlehem Steel. Jokingly, they call themselves members of BARC, short for billing, accounts receivable and claims -- tasks they perform for all of Mittal's operations in the United States. They're moving to offices in downtown Bethlehem.

As they filed out of their dated offices into the parking lot to take photos of each other in front of the I-beam, they recalled the last three decades -- the good and the bad. Their careers span 30 to 40 years. Somehow, while tens of thousands of people were being laid off, the ax never found them. They remain the only Lehigh Valley survivors from a company that once employed 300,000 people worldwide, and 31,000 in Bethlehem alone.

When International Steel Group bought Bethlehem Steel's assets in May 2003, the workers were told they'd only be needed for three more months. Mittal took over ISG in 2005, yet the old employees are still here, and there's no sign they'll be let go any time soon.

"We were like soldiers walking through a minefield for 30 years," said Bert Smalley, a 34-year, third-generation employee who grew up two blocks from Martin Tower. "One by one, our friends all got picked off, but somehow we survived. Somehow we're still here."

Martin Tower opened in 1972 as an extravagant monument to one of the nation's most powerful companies. Built in a cruciform design to create more corner offices for Bethlehem Steel's glut of executives, it included hand-woven carpets, ornate woodwork and plush executive suites with marble bathrooms and miniature I-beams embedded into every brass doorknob.

The conference tables were mahogany, the interior design from New York City and the paintings on the wall expensive. The tower tops off at 332 feet, the tallest building in the Lehigh Valley.

Workers chuckled as they recalled entering the tower each day to see the impeccably dressed young female escorts waiting on their heated seats to escort visitors to whatever office they were seeking.

"That's what I really miss, the escorts," 38-year employee Mike Karabin said with a grin.

Men wore suits and women wore dresses. Sometimes, the wives of executives came in just to show off their fur coats.

For that moment of reminiscence about the heydays, Dorothy Johnson almost forgot how many friends were escorted out of the office with the remnants of their careers in a box.

"There are so many things I'll miss about this place," said Johnson, a 33-year employee. "Things I won't miss? Well, nothing really comes to mind."

But with a moment to think, almost every worker cited one day as the worst of their careers: Sept. 30, 1977, known at Bethlehem Steel as Black Friday. That's the day 2,500 white-collar workers, including 800 in the tower, were laid off.

They remembered how people with families to support sobbed as they left the building. The cuts were brutal and without warning. The day created such pain that Bethlehem Steel secretly issued a directive not to make layoffs again on Fridays.

Most employees never knew about the directive. Deutsch said she has spent her entire career dreading Fridays.

"It probably doesn't make sense, but I still get that uneasy feeling every Friday," Deutsch said. "We always felt like if you make it to lunch, you'd be OK. They never did it after lunch."

For more than three decades, the members of BARC always made it past lunch.

The workers say they'll miss their underground parking spaces and the daily trips to Rudy's convenience store in the Martin Tower basement. But mostly, they'll miss the feeling of working in a building that carries so many memories.

The move has driven home something some of them admit they should have realized much sooner: They are no longer employees of Bethlehem Steel, no longer occupants of the vaunted Martin Tower.

They are merely survivors.

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