A BETH STEEL WORKER’S STORY:
On Asbestosis, Health Insurance, & Union Work
Thirty years ago, I was hired at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point, Md. Plant. I was 22 years old, a radical with a big mouth. After high school, I had attended college for one year in Washington, D.C., where I participated in the anti-Vietnam war movement. I worked a few blue-collar jobs before I joined the United Steelworkers of America.
I harangued my co-workers to support political changes like guaranteed health care and housing. Some of them said that I sounded like a “Commie”—even men like Smitty, whose locker was next to mine.
Smitty was a bricklayer, suffering from asbestosis. After the long walk to the locker room, he would sit on the bench, taking deep, wheezing breaths. After 15 minutes, he would start to change his clothes, stopping once or twice to gasp again before he was done. Smitty didn’t want to pay more taxes for national health care. He had “Cadillac” medical insurance, under our union contract. “Let the Company pay,” he said.
How times have changed. Smitty has passed on. I too have been diagnosed with asbestosis. I don’t yet lose my breath like Smitty, but my lungs are scarred. And I’m no longer considered a radical when I talk about national health care.
Bethlehem Steel, in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has announced that they would cease paying healthcare benefits to thousands of retirees and their spouses. Our retirees are terrified that they will no longer be able to afford the medications and doctors which keep them alive. Men and women with “Cadillac” health insurance are joining the ranks of the “underinsured” millions.
The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation has terminated Bethlehem’s underfunded pension plan. Thousands of retirees, especially those not eligible for Medicare, will see their pensions cut, making it more difficult to afford a decent health care plan. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers are feeling the same pain.
Our unions are responding to this health care crisis. On February 4, 2003, steelworkers joined 3,700 delegates from several industrial unions at the founding of the Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO. The Council was developed to lead the fight to revitalize American manufacturing. We talked about the alarming rate at which U.S. factories are moving to China and other countries where wages and environmental protections are practically non-existent. The flight of capital is aided by “free trade” pacts which our unions opposed. We predicted the drain on jobs, pensions and health care.
Leo Gerard, president of the USWA, introduced a workshop on the Canadian Healthcare System. A union researcher outlined how the low administrative costs of the Canadian Single-Payer Health Care system help to finance guaranteed basic health care for all citizens. He said: “When we look at the healthcare crisis in America, we Canadians just scratch our heads .Our system is not perfect, but you don’t see any politicians running for office on a platform of privatizing health care ..You Americans spend more and get so much less. Don’t you realize that the exorbitant costs for private healthcare make U.S. companies less competitive against firms in countries which have national programs?”
Thousands of industrial unionists then traveled to Capitol Hill, where we lobbied for reforms in health care, pensions and trade. Several active and retired steelworkers visited Congressman Wayne Gilchrist’s (R-Md.) office. We spoke with Andrew Smarick, Legislative Assistant. He said that there were hundreds of Congressmen who wouldn’t give National Health Care a moment’s consideration. We asked Smarick how many of them have any problem with their own health care insurance. We said that Gilchrist and other members of Congress could show immediate support for their constituents by separating themselves from President Bush’s plan to force seniors into sub-standard Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO’s) in return for a prescription drug benefit.
Some folks still say that they don’t want to pay more taxes for National Health Care. Well, it’s pay now or pay later. If I had my choice, I’d put some of my payroll check up today for National Healthcare so that, if I get sick, struggling for each breath like Smitty, I won’t end up being terrorized by the costs of illness and medications.
This big-mouth radical is ready to fight again. When we take to the streets for National Healthcare, we’ll have the vast majority of Americans with us.
Len Shindel writes from Baltimore. He is Secretary of the Grievance Committee, Local 9477 USWA. Shindel, 52, began work at Sparrows Point in 1973 in the Roll Shop. “I am deeply and personally affected by the crisis in the industry,” he writes. “I was planning to retire in April, 2003 with 30 years of service. I am enrolled in the B.A. program at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. and hoped to seek other employment in the labor movement. On December 18, 2002 the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation terminated Bethlehem Steel’s Pension Plan. Now I cannot receive my pension until I reach age 62....My troubles are nothing compared to the retirees who spent even more years of their lives at ‘The Point’ and now face cuts in their pensions and termination of health care. It’s this disgrace which has me writing again.”
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This story was published on March 5, 2003.