A mill's closing puts a steel grip on many hearts


Here they are, standing in the chilly morning sunlight at Linwood and Eastern avenues: Sam Assaro, also known as Sam the Hoagie Man, and his brother Frank, also known as Frank the Soon-to-be-Unemployed.

"After 35 years," says Frank, shaking his head disbelievingly.

"You give your life, and for what?" says his brother.

Across the generations, they are the kind of people who are the heartbeat of Highlandtown. Sam, for the last 30 years, selling his legendary hoagies; and Frank, a steelworker for Continental Can in an era when the steel business seemed as if it would last forever.

In the good times, when Continental Can was supplying more than a billion can lids a year over the East Coast, no one imagined an end like this. A few years ago, Crown Cork and Seal took over several dozen Continental plants. Now, in the Duncanwood Lane factory here that once employed 2,500 people, they're scheduled to shut down at the end of this month and thus end the jobs of the last 58 people who are working there.

"It duplicates other operations," explains Bill Gallagher, out of Crown's Philadelphia home office. "It was OK when Continental had it, but we bought 30 or 40 of their plants, and this one just offers duplication."

Those working on Duncanwood Lane, off Erdman Avenue, are buying none of this. They see Crown wanting no part of union relationships, and of valuing sheer financial numbers over people whose lives, and the lives of their neighborhoods, were tied to the company.

"They won't say it's to get rid of unions, because that's illegal," says Dave Wilson, director of District 8 United Steelworkers of America, in the 3700 block of Eastern Ave. "But you see leaves falling off a tree, you don't need to be told winter's coming."

On Wilson's office wall is a photograph of steel mills when all was well. About 20 years ago, he says, there were maybe 28,000 steelworkers in the Baltimore area; now, about 12,000.

When he says winter's coming, he's a little late. In much of East Baltimore, it's arrived: the coming demise of Esskay's old plant, shops along Eastern Avenue from Dundalk to Fells Point closing down, people with less money to spend on a shrinking number of neighborhood businesses.

"I've never seen anything like it," Sam Assaro says. He's behind the counter of his shop, constructing a cold-cut hoagie that could feed a platoon. "All along Eastern Avenue, closing Goldberg's, Epstein's, Fotomat, one store after another. I've been selling sandwiches for 30 years, and I ain't never seen anything like this."

The troubles at Esskay have already hit him; the closing of Continental Can will hit him again.

"We're the last of the breed," his brother Frank says now, meaning those who have worked at his side. "And I don't like the way they're doing it. Somebody ought to smack these people."

Fear does a subtle dance here with fury. Frank Assaro is about to be 55 years old, a little late in the game to be establishing a new career. The steel industry is locked in furious competition. A world is shifting here, in which working people are paying a terrible price.

"Look, these people can make cans as good as anybody," Dave Wilson says. "There ought to be some pressure to treat them like human beings, but that doesn't count for anything anymore. If the company's making 25 cents on the dollar, they want 28 cents. And they don't want to make concessions."

Frank Assaro sits across from Wilson and hears his words, but they don't entirely satisfy him. He wants to hear more outrage, not numbers from a page. He wants it understood that he labored 35 years for the company, and never imagined for a moment that the company wouldn't be there for him.

"They bring in these experts," he says with a sneer. "These guys who didn't come up digging ditches with me. They came out of Harvard, and they're cruel. They didn't come out of no 10th Ward.

"They say we're not producing as much. Of course we're not. How do you do that when they keep taking people away from you? Ask the company to explain that."

From Philadelphia, the company line is simple: too much duplication. From Baltimore, it's a little different. Dial the plant, at 563-7600, and you get a recording, advising you to call a number: 563-7600.

In other words, callers go in circles -- which is precisely how Frank Assaro is feeling, in the final days of a 35-year run he thought would never end like this.

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