For Sparrows Point workers, many questions, few answers

About 1,500 Sparrows Point workers overflowed a union hall Monday with urgent questions about the future of the recently sold steel mill — questions that mostly don't have answers yet.

The Baltimore County complex's $72.5 million sale to a redevelopment firm working with a liquidation company was approved by a federal bankruptcy judge last week. Benefits for the mill's roughly 2,000 employees are about to end.

The meeting came shortly after RG Steel, saying payment obligations under union contracts "are simply too much … to bear," disclosed in court papers that it had come to an agreement with the United Steelworkers of America on an end date.

If the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington agrees, medical benefits will run out at the end of this month. Supplemental unemployment pay and contributions to the Steelworkers' Pension Plan would end retroactively, as of Aug. 10.

"I've got to find another job," said Sharon Pritchard, 59, who worked as a guard at Sparrows Point. "Don't know where I'm going to go."

The results of the August auction came as a shock and a blow to the workers, who had counted on a steel company winning the bidding and putting them back to work. Though several steelmaking companies registered for the Sparrows Point auction, none bid.

Joe Rosel, president of the Steelworkers Local 9477, urged members at the standing room-only meeting — the first since the sale — to see the situation as a war for Sparrows Point's future rather than a death knell. The buyers told the court that they hope to find an operator to restart the idled plant.

Rosel said the auction, held 10 weeks after mill owner RG Steel filed for bankruptcy protection, didn't give steelmaking companies enough time to prepare. One in particular asked for a two-week delay, he said, but that was denied.

"We were this close and didn't get it done," said Rosel, speaking from the stage of the hall in the union's Dundalk Avenue building. "But … we lost a battle; we didn't lose the war."

He drew applause when he added, "Let's stick together and make sure Sparrows Point survives — are you behind that?"

There was ample frustration, too.

"Like most people here, I'm trying to get answers," said Chris Ober, president of Local 9477-21, which represents railroad workers at Sparrows Point. "I feel I didn't get anything today."

The back of his shirt expressed his general frustration: On it he wrote the name of his employer — spelled "Steal" rather than "Steel."

"It's a terrible situation," said Tyrone Sharpe, 57, who was laid off in July and received a single supplemental unemployment check. A maintenance worker, Sharpe figures he can find something else, but he worries about co-workers in other areas.

As part of the deal with United Steelworkers, the company would set aside $6.5 million to cover medical services and prescription drugs received by the end of August, along with $210,000 for employment-related claims. RG Steel argued that the agreement was in both creditors' and employees' best interests, given the circumstances.

"The results of the auctions have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of the Debtors' operations will not be restarted in the near future," the company's attorneys said in the court filing late Friday.

To workers upset with the agreement to end benefits, Rosel said that, under bankruptcy law, the company simply could have had the court vacate the contract, terminating benefits immediately.

"There's a lot of leeway for bankrupt companies," he said.

RG Steel idled the mill after filing for bankruptcy-law protection in May — a little more than a year after parent company Renco Group formed it to purchase steelmaking assets. It was Sparrows Point's fifth owner in the last decade.

Mike Lewis, financial secretary of the local union, said he's optimistic about the potential for getting a new owner to run the plant, rather than dismantle it. He hopes potential buyers recognize how invested workers are in Sparrows Point — many, him included, have family history there. Lewis' grandfather and uncle both worked at the complex.

But optimism aside, Lewis said, it's an anxious, uncertain place that all the workers find themselves in.

"We believe in the American story — that if you worked hard, you played by the rules, you wouldn't have anything to worry about," he said. "And that part of the American dream is being snatched away from us."

Workers started arriving more than an hour before the 4 p.m. meeting. The line to get into the hall snaked out of the building, down the stairs and around the sidewalk.

Once inside, men and women peppered union leaders with questions about benefits, about potential owners, about how RG Steel failed so rapidly. Asked about the future, Rosel said steel industry consultants are telling the union that finding a new operator "can be done."

Some of the steelworkers at the meeting already are done — they've retired. Randolph Williams of Baltimore signed up Friday, the last day of a small window to qualify for a $10,000 retirement bonus.

"There's nothing definite right now," said Williams 64. "After 45 years, I've had enough."

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