Free trade as fighting words


MIAMI - Eddie Bartee Jr. practically has molten steel coursing through his blood: He grew up in Sparrows Point. His father spent 26 years as a leader of the United Steelworkers local at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s sprawling plant at the mouth of the Patapsco River in eastern Baltimore County.

And when Bartee began working at the factory three decades ago, he joined more than two dozen other family members already there.

But since Bethlehem filed for bankruptcy protection last year and its shrunken Baltimore plant was taken over by International Steel Group Inc. of Cleveland, Bartee has seen many of those relatives struggle with the loss of pension and health care benefits in retirement.

So the third-generation steelworker felt it was his duty to fly to Miami this week to demonstrate alongside opponents of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Trade ministers from 34 countries begin negotiating here today on a plan to lift tariffs in the Western Hemisphere.

The proposed pact would extend the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between, Mexico, Canada and the United States throughout the Hemisphere - except for Cuba.

The reason these steel companies went out of business is that the government had allow cheaper foreign imports, said Bartee, 48. "If the government continues to go on the path that they're going at this point, it forces American jobs out of the country."

Organized labor will play a prominent role in a demonstration expected to draw at least 35,000 participants here today.

The rally is drawing comparisons to other major, sometimes violent, protests over international finance issues in recent years in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Cancun, Mexico.

FTAA advocates say that the agreement would create jobs by opening markets now closed to U.S. companies. The agreement must be negotiated by participating countries and be approved by Congress and President Bush for it to take effect in the United States.

Opponents contend that the FTAA would cost millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, essentially by expanding NAFTA to every country in the Western Hemisphere and enabling companies to more easily pursue cheaper labor abroad.

Union protesters

Union workers from around the country, including Baltimore, have come to Miami to express their views and hold educational sessions on the pending trade agreement.

In Baltimore today, opponents of the trade agreement will also hold their own rally and parade at 4 p.m.

The march will begin at the statue of Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban writer for social justice, at Broadway and Fayette Street in East Baltimore.

Participants in costumes depicting industries that have left the area will parade south on Broadway to Broadway Square for speeches and "street theater," according to Jodie Zisow, a spokeswoman for the Coalition Against Global Exploitation.

In Miami yesterday, the rallies already had begun. Hundreds of union workers filled the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts downtown to hear a panel of workers speak on the topic after remarks by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.

'Stop it cold'

"Our mission very simply is either to radically rewrite the Bush Free Trade Area of the Americas or stop it cold," Sweeney said as the crowd applauded.

Chaos broke out before the AFL-CIO event as police officers lined up a group of pedestrians against a storefront as though they might be arrested for causing a public disturbance. Other workers began pumping their fists, shouting: "Let them go."

Police pushed back the crowd, barricading off sidewalks with their bicycles. Officers searched several bags of passers-by, one of which contained a gas mask, but no one was arrested.

Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney stopped by on his bicycle to visit the union workers, who later marched to a reception at a Hard Rock Cafe with police escorts.

About 2,000 steelworkers, many in T-shirts with the blue and gold colors of their union, are expected to join the events in Miami, including at least three dozen from the district that covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

"What we're trying to do is obviously bring awareness to the rest of the country on the issue of free trade," said Jim Strong, sub-district director for the United Steelworkers of America in Baltimore.

The trade pact could hurt workers beyond the steel plant, he said, because when a plant shrinks or closes, the impact ripples to suppliers as well.

"At one time, on a Saturday afternoon, you couldn't walk in Highlandtown," said Strong, recalling the 1960s and 1970s when steel paychecks fueled the economy of the east side of Baltimore County and the city.

"It was like New York City. It was wall-to-wall people. That neighborhood has evaporated compared to what it was."

When Bartee was a boy in Sparrows Point in the 1960s, his grandmother and uncle, also a steelworker, lived down the street - one of only two streets where African-American families lived in what was essentially a company town.

Residents routinely left homes and cars unlocked. Children left toys scattered in their front yards. Friends seemed more like relatives. It wasn't uncommon to wander into any neighborhood house at any time just to visit, Bartee recalled.

"I really didn't realize what we had as a community of Sparrows Point until we left," said Bartee, whose family moved to the city's Northwood section when he was 17.

On Jan. 16, 1974 - about two months after he turned 18 - Bartee began working at the mill. He still works at the factory, now owned by International Steel Group, as a crane operator, shipping coordinator and transporter, moving large coils of steel between buildings.

Decent life

Though his pension won't be as large as he once expected and he will have to delay retirement, he said the job, in spite of the industry's troubles, has afforded him a decent life.

Bolstered by his side business in lawn care and his wife's job selling cars, the couple have put one daughter through college and have two more in college now. They have bought three cars, a truck and a three-bedroom house in Northeast Baltimore, and vacationed in Las Vegas, Ocean City and Williamsburg, Va.

When Bartee was elected financial secretary of the Steelworkers Local 2609 a few years ago, he felt pride at following in his father's footsteps. His father, Eddie Bartee Sr., led the civil rights movement at the Sparrows Point plant before he retired seven years ago after 42 years on the job.

"The things that my father did made it easier for me to come through the steel mill," said Bartee, before joining a meeting of steelworkers at a Marriott hotel in Miami. "And if we fight the government to keep our jobs here in the U.S. with a decent pay wage, then it should be easy for our kids to have a decent future."

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