After waiting nine years for a measure of justice, nearly 300 people turned out yesterday afternoon at a Dundalk union hall to discuss how they would divide their share of the $415 million settlement of a national class-action suit against their former employer, Continental Can Co.
The settlement, announced a month ago, was reached after a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that Continental Can had violated federal law in the late 1970s and early 1980s by shutting down plants whenever too many employees were about to become vested in the company's pension plan.
"Give yourself a round of applause for kicking the daylights out of Continental Can," attorney John G. Jacobs told the former workers who turned out at the Dundalk Avenue union hall of United Steelworkers Local 2609.
The recovery settlement will be the nation's largest payout fora violation of federal pension laws. Yesterday Mr. Jacobs and other lawyers who represented members of Local 2609 met with the former employees to figure out how to distribute the money expected to be available in about six months.
Debating the merits of lump sums vs. annuities added to a decidedly upbeat mood akin to that of a school reunion. Many shook hands or hugged old friends they hadn't seen since they were laid off together and happily looked forward to receiving their fair shares.
However, money alone wasn't enough to remove the bitterness William T. Richardson and other former workers felt toward Continental Can.
"I think it's retribution," said Mr. Richardson, 61, who worked 39 years for Continental Can as a quality control inspector. "I'm getting back from them what I should have earned. I'm bitter. What they did to me and a lot of other people is an injustice."
His warm smile belied the tough times he had survived -- being laid off for lengthy periods twice by Continental Can, depleting his life savings while struggling to support himself and his family.
"I didn't get any sub pay or any unemployment from September 1976 until I was called back the first time in March 1978," Mr. Richardson added. "I was out on the street. I had to try to get out and try to hustle up another job. I had to try hard to make ends meet. I used up my life savings trying to take care of my wife and raise two kids.
"My kids were denied a lot of things then that I would have been able to offer them," he added. "Everything I had accumulated was gone."
Mr. Richardson and others talked about the confusion of being told the company was laying them off because its profits were declining, then watching non-union factories open. And then the laid-off employees were told they were too old or had worked too many years to get jobs or be retrained.
"I never suspected anything," said Charles Reed, 58, of Baltimore, who worked 23 years for the company. "We didn't know anything. We thought they were losing money. When you are on a steady job and then you've got a loss, you take what you can get."
Blondal Malone of Baltimore said she worked about five years before she was laid off and eventually found work as a bank teller. Looking back, she said she had doubts whether the can company had been forthcoming about its operations.
"I was angry at first," said Ms. Malone. "I thought we should have at least gotten something. I didn't think they were completely truthful with us."
Union officials said the settlement will serve as an important deterrent to other companies.
"This shows that if companies violate the law, they're likely to get caught," said Leon Lynch, an international vice president of the Steelworkers. "Unions and employees should be watchful that their benefits under any collective bargaining agreement are legally met. You have to press."