Steelworkers Local 2610, with one-third of its 7,500 members out of work, turned its basement over to a food line yesterday, but the dried beans, canned vegetables, potatoes and frozen pizza did little to lift the spirits of the 250 discouraged men and women who waited silently for up to an hour in the dingy hallway.
"I am humiliated. I hate this," said Barbara Fleishell, 30, holding her 17-month-old daughter on one hip. Her husband, Bill, an electrician with Bethlehem Steel for the last 12 years, was laid off in April. "We need the food." she said.
This is the second time in as many months that the union has organized a food giveaway, raising money from collection buckets at the plant gates and local bars.
As desperate as their members are now, at least 600 from this union alone will be in worse shape on Dec. 1, their first anniversary of unemployment, when they will have exhausted all state and federal jobless aid. Barring any last-minute government action, thousands of former workers in Maryland and nationwide are fast approaching an end to the minimal unemployment payments that are keeping them, and their families, afloat.
With five weeks until his $140 weekly unemployment checks end, Chris Glinos, 24, and his wife, Pat, a housekeeper at a Baltimore furniture store, will give up their apartment this weekend and move into the basement of his widowed mother's house.
"I try to keep a smiling face, but I'm afraid it will affect the marriage," Glinos said, as he waited in the food line. "I can't get any work." He said he has been turned down for more than 20 minimum-wage jobs because local employers are reluctant to hire steelworkers, knowing they will return to the higher-paying mills at the first opportunity.
"I'm not proud for myself that I'm here," Glinos said. "My wife hopes I come home with some food. Everyone's barely making ends meet," he said, adding that he had to sell his car in July. "The country's falling apart."
Many of the steelworkers expressed confusion over whether the federal government is willing to help them. President Reagan's decision to limit foreign steel imports on Thursday was cheered, but Treasury Secretary Donald Regan's blunt advice to steelworkers to "forget" their jobs still rankles.
"We'll say the same thing to him," vowed Peter Wray, 31, chairman of the food program. "He can forget his job in two years."
Others who concede that they may have to switch careers are frustrated by their inability to change their lives to that degree. "If you don't have a job, how do you save up to go to night school?" asked Don Irvine, president of the local. "Sure there's an electronics apprenticeship at Sparrows Point the site of Bethlehem Steel , but half of those people are laid off, too.
"Management and the government will have to face up to their responsibilities," Irvine said. "We have young college students who can't get a job selling hamburgers."
But retraining is a long way from the minds of many of the jobless. The lure of the high steel mill salaries and a work routine that's familiar remain a strong attraction for many of those living chiefly on hope. "I love that job," said Michelle Reed, 27, a laid-off sewer cleaner at Bethlehem Steel. "I've worked there nine years and I'd go back in a minute."
She hoisted a bag from the sea of groceries covering the scuffed linoleum. "Someone's got to make steel here in Baltimore. We can't all just blow away. Somebody's got to do something for us."
Yesterday, the only assistance for the steelworkers came in two brown paper bags, a temporary effort to stave off hunger for some and to let others save $10 or so in order to pay their soaring utility bills.
"Thanks, man," was the gruff response of one steelworker as he reached for the groceries from a union volunteer, after a long, embarrassed silence. "It was getting pretty rough. You know how it is."