Altogether, the three African-American Steelworkers talking about the bad old days worked more than a century down at the Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point plant.
Worked. Labored. Through long years of disdain and discrimination and disappointment.
"See, they had two jobs down there: white jobs and black jobs," says Earl L. Fields, 73, who spent 39 years at the Point.
"All the dirty jobs," he says. "Unload cars with shovels. Plain, hard labor. The worst jobs, the dirtiest jobs, the nastiest jobs, you name it. In other words, they were black jobs."
Earl Fields and his old friends from the Point, Francis Hayward Brown and James W. Langley, are talking about the work life they also describe in a nationally broadcast documentary, "Struggles in Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers," which airs at 10 p.m. tonight on Maryland Public Television.
They're among the 70 Steelworkers from Baltimore, Birmingham and Pittsburgh interviewed in the hourlong chronicle of working men and women who had to battle the prejudice of both management and their union.
Produced by Independent Television Services, the film had its genesis in the outrage of Roy Henderson, one of the directors of the documentary. He was shocked when a local television station report on the closing of the U.S. Steel plant in Duquesne outside Pittsburgh did not feature a single black worker.
An African-American, Henderson had worked for 18 years in the plant. He was head of the union's grievance committee and board president of the local NAACP for 12 years. He knew African-Americans had worked in steel around Pittsburgh for 100 years.
"They don't realize," Henderson says in the film, "we had to fight to work hard."
Henderson sought out Tony Buba, a white high school friend from Braddock, Pa., and an award-winning independent filmmaker who had documented Pittsburgh steel's decline into rust. With funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and others, they made "Struggles in Steel."
Ironically, among the steel mills shown being blasted into dust is the Duquesne plant where Henderson worked. Perhaps more poignantly ironic is the sad fact that the belated ascent of African-American Steelworkers to something like equality coincides with the decline of the steel industry in America.
Brown, Langley and Fields appear in the film talking with Henderson on a white marble stoop near Brown's home on Wolfe Street in East Baltimore.
Brown, 67, worked 37 years at Sparrows Point. He's a lean, elegant man who comes to the union hall on Dundalk Avenue wearing a kofu, a kind of fez, embroidered with a cross. James Langley, his brother, a remarkably fit 73, spent 34 years down at the Point. He's a devout Catholic who's on the pastoral council at St. Francis Xavier Church in East Baltimore. He served at the altar for the pope's mass at Camden Yards.
Thick, solid and chunky, Fields looks like a guy who, if a truck hit him, it would bounce off. With a toothpick more or less permanently fixed in his mouth, he talks in a kind of sardonic rumble.
On a recent morning in the office of Burt Dixon, the president of the United Steelworkers Local 2609, the trio recall their lives of labor. An African-American, Dixon symbolizes how far blacks have come since Brown, Fields and Langley began work in a plant where even the water fountains and toilets were segregated.
All three eventually became active in the union. Fields and Langley were shop stewards. Brown was the union's minority representative for the last 15 years he worked in the plant.
'Pick and shovel'
Fields and Langley started at Sparrows Point soon after serving in the Army in World War II, Brown after Korean service. They all began as laborers.
"You weren't going anywhere but laborer when I was there," Langley says. "First job that they had for me was laborer. Everybody started as laborer. Us, anyway.
What did "laborer" mean back then?
"Shovel!" exclaims Fields. "Pick and shovel."
"We're talking about people who came out of four years in the service trained to be craftsmen," Brown says. "But when we went to Sparrows Point to get jobs, they didn't look for anything like that, and you better not ask for anything like that."
Fields was a combat engineer who operated cranes and bulldozers during the war.
"So when I went to the Point, it was only a matter of orientation on a piece of machinery, nothing new," he says.
But that didn't cut it at Sparrows Point.
"Even though you had a piece of paper that showed what you'd done in the Engineers, the people said, 'Ah, you didn't do this.' "
He started working at the Point in 1947, for "a dollar and one cent an hour." He didn't become a crane operator until about 1965.
In a painful sequence in the PBS documentary, a Duquesne Steelworker named Henderson Thomas is moved to tears describing his two-year struggle to become a crane operator.
"By me eating, sleeping, praying, I became as good as anybody," Thomas says in a choked voice. "I was determined and I did it."
Training their bosses
Black job seekers routinely downgraded their skills and education levels so they would get hired, a study showed, while whites inflated theirs so they'd get better jobs.
"Most blacks," Brown says, "understood [if] you went down to Bethlehem Steel for a job and you're a smarty, or an educated person, they didn't want you. They want somebody does exactly what they told you to -- and nothing else, nothing else."
James Langley remembers African-Americans would break in a new white worker, then find out a couple of weeks later that he was their boss.
"Not only that," he says. "You would break him in and then when there was reduction in forces, you would go and he would stay."
"I think they went out in the woods somewhere and got those white fellows and brought them in and made them foremen," Earl Fields says. "The employees that were there taught the foremen to be foremen! Then all of a sudden he got so he know more than you.
"Foreman one day gave me my lineup to go ahead and do a job, and he told me, 'This is the way I want you to do it.'
"So I laughed at him.
"He said, 'What's funny?'
"I said, 'Can you run this piece of equipment?'
"He said no. I said, 'How the hell are you going to tell me how to run it if you can't run it?' "
In 1974, after African-American Steelworkers filed a series of civil rights lawsuits, nine steel companies and the union brokered a consent decree that established goals and timetables for hiring and promotion of women and minorities. The decree offered $30 million and a remedy termed "line of progression" for past discrimination.
Twenty-four years later, Francis Brown is still indignant about that solution.
"They said we're going to give you guys $30 million, shared among all of you, and you can take it or leave it," he says.
Brown's share came to about $600. He didn't take it.
"When I ask for my rights to a job you denied me, I want the damn job," Brown says. "I don't want you to put me in line for something that I get 20 years from now, or when things look better for the company, or you as a politician."
What: "Struggles in
Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers"
When: 10 p.m. tonight
Pub Date: 2/02/98