The star of Bethlehem Steel sits atop a towering smokestack, brightly lit and visible at night for miles around as a harbinger of the holidays and, workers say, of hard times.
"It's almost like a sign: When you see the star, it's time to go," said Lawrence Vaughan, 24, a steelworker for whom this symbol of the season has taken on special meaning. "It's the only thing that glimmers."
Steelworkers traditionally take a week's vacation around Christmas time, when many of the finishing mills close or lay "dormant" for repairs and maintenance. This year, however, 6,100 workers at the sprawling Sparrows Point plant outside Baltimore face a second week without pay.
With 1,400 more now laid off indefinitely, more than 40 percent of Bethlehem's work force of 17,500 will be idled, and union officials predict the two-week "furlough" could continue into 1982. A barometer of the national economy, Bethlehem is the largest employer in a state whose unemployment rate has climbed for 11 consecutive months to 7.4 percent in October, the most recent month for which figures are available.
It is no wonder then that from the mills to the union halls and up and down North Point Boulevard, where they gather in a string of bars, liquor stores and go-go joints, the steelworkers are worried as never before over economic news that is hitting increasingly close to home.
From Gail's Go-Go to the Hiding Place, Ivan (Ray) Sullivan was making the rounds the other day. He had just picked up his first pay check in six months and his last for weeks to come. Sullivan, 27, had been back at work for just a week following a six-month layoff when the bad news came.
"They say I won't be back for another month at least -- at least," said Sullivan, a man with a moustache and collar-length hair, two small children and a wife who has been cleaning other people's homes to help make ends meet.
"It hurts my pride. I feel less of a man myself," he said as go-go girls gyrated behind the bar. "My wife feels she should stay home with the kids while I'm working. We have little fights about it. It's rough. It's depressing."
And it could get worse. After his last layoff, Sullivan is eligible for only four more weeks of unemployment compensation, a maximum of $140 a week in Maryland. "I been trying to find odd jobs painting houses, paneling, but it's difficult to find anybody with a little extra bucks to paint their house. What am I gonna do?"
He has not told his children. "You try to hide it from them. They don't know about it." While he was laid off, his brother worked, repairing the steel furnaces, but now he, too, is unemployed, and the woman with whom he lives is trying to find a job.
"There ain't no jobs to find," Sullivan said. "If it wasn't for my wife, we never would've made it."
It is the men with young families and little seniority who are hurting the most. A Supplemental Unemployment Fund (SUB), which, combined with unemployment compensation, allows furloughed steelworkers almost as much as their salaries, has run out for those with less than 20 years "at the Point." So the older men, sipping beer at Costa's Inn, speak of their sons and daughters instead of themselves.
"I started in 1945 and I've never been laid off; I'm one of the fortunate ones," said Ed Gietka, 54, with 36 1/2 years seniority. "It's the young ones going through hell." One daughter, a crane operator in a blast furnace, has been laid off from Bethlehem for five weeks. She is pregnant and her husband is a construction worker whose income these days is at best erratic.
Another daughter is married to a steelworker who has been laid off. "They have a big mortgage on their house and will probably wind up losing it. Nobody cares." His only son, meanwhile, has been unemployed since his layoff four years ago from General Motors. He is a Vietnam veteran.
"I feel for the younger ones, scrimpin' and scrappin' and still they're getting knocked down," said Gietka, an eyewitness to economic cycles right here at Costa's. "A few years ago, there were all older guys here, then things were booming and you saw younger faces. Now all the young ones have disappeared again. They're all gone, the young faces. What they're doing, I don't know. I'm looking forward to the day I can retire and give my job to somebody else. The young ones catch hell. I feel for 'em."
Who do they blame, these blue-collar workers whose whole lives are spent in the steel mills or on layoff from "the Point"? Increasingly, they blame the man many say they voted for in 1980, Ronald Reagan.
"That's two mistakes I made," said David Mann, a 35-year-old father of five who fears for the future. "I voted for Carter, too." But Reagan is his current target: "He's not taking away from the big people. It's the little guys who helped him the most who are getting stung."
At Micky's Game Room & Lounge, a mile north of Sparrows Point where black steelworkers, mostly, cash their checks between shifts, recent events seem only to have confirmed anti-Reagan sentiments most already had.
"They say this administration is supposed to induce business to create more jobs, but all I see are jobs being lost, none being gained," said Mike Lewis, 21. "You won't see us down here for a couple of weeks," he said. "We just picked up our last hurrah. . . . To be honest with you, I don't expect to be back until April or May."
John Robertson also was there -- to "meet former coworkers." He had been laid off the other week from the mill where they make 56-inch coils of tin from sheets of steel. Indefinitely. "I done got used to it," he said.
"You live from Thursday to Thursday," said Lewis. "That's the day the schedule comes out. You don't know what you're doing. Till then, it's just speculation."
"You can't depend on s---," Robertson said.
"There is no relief from Washington," declared Lawrence Vaughan. "There is no train in sight."
Nearby, a diminutive woman wearing a wool cap was handing out a green sheet called the "Spark Steeler." It attacked "THE BOSSES REAGAN SERVES" and attempted a biblical analogy:
"The cruel innkeepers in the ancient city of Bethlehem are supposed to have told Joseph and Mary that there was no room in the inns. 1,982 years later, the keepers of Bethlehem Steel are telling us that there's no need for us in the mills. Apparently, this is their way of saying 'Merry Christmas.' "
Up at Costa's, the check-cashing line extended almost the entire length of the oblong-shaped bar. David Mann, who had moved from the hollows of Appalachia and the mines of West Virginia to the streets of Baltimore and the mills of Bethlehem, waited his turn.
With a wife and five children ranging in age from 15 months to 12 years, "very little" savings and $1,000-a-month in bills to pay, two weeks of layoff was all he could take. "Anything longer than that, I go down the tubes," he said. "We're right on the edge. My wife? She's anxious like I am."
And if the layoff lasts longer? "I'll just pack my bags and be gone, because I don't have no plans to stay." Go where? "Where things are a little better, if there's any such place."
Another day, another line. This time, it's at the union hall, Local 2609, United Steelworkers of America, a two-story building with a leaky roof in East Baltimore. The workers file in to fill out forms for unemployment compensation. A state official surveying the scene grumbles she has only 80 workers to handle all the claims, compared to 137 workers a year ago.
"Thanks to Mr. Reagan," she says.
As they enter the hall, workers pass a table of leaflets that include the local's newsletter, with these stanzas by shop steward Len Shindel: Later on, man . . . Who knows when? Big Daddy Bethlehem Don't need us again. Furlough, "off schedule" It's all the same. You're out on the street. That's the name of the game.
Not counting the holiday layoffs, Bethlehem has 9,200 workers laid off indefinitely at seven steel plants across the country. The company is hedging on when the workers will be recalled. "We can't really predict what our level of operations will be," a spokesman said, blaming a flood of underpriced imported steel along with the "present economic climate."
Bethlehem's chairman of the board, meanwhile, reaffirmed his support for Reaganomics the other day. "We believe the administration's economic program is a sound one," Donald A. Trautlein said in a statement. "We urge resistance to increased pressures to modify the program out of short-term considerations. We remain convinced the program should succeed if the administration holds firm to its present course."