The bags of free food lining the basement of the Steelworkers Local 2610 hall were only half-filled today, as about 700 of the 5,000 out-of-work steelworkers arrived to claim them.
The bags, stocked this month by an ad hoc effort of two Baltimore dentists and the employes of The Baltimore Sun and Schmidt's bakery, represented Christmas dinner for many of the steelworkers' families, several hundred of whose government unemployment benefits end this month.
The union has been organizing monthly food giveaways, but its money is nearly exhausted, said Peter Wray, in charge of the union's food committee. "Only the generosity of other workers helped us give this much," he said of the scantily filled grocery bags adorned with stick-on bows in an attempt, along with tape-recorded Christmas carols, to give a holiday atmosphere to the grim spectacle of a food line.
Jobless workers who brought along their childrens' birth certificates got $8 coupons for toys. Parents also could select an item from a nearby folding table holding new and used toys that had been given. Other people rummaged through boxes of household goods stacked in a corner.
For Carolyn Gardner, 31, a boiler handyman laid off for 15 months, the meager provisions provoked tears. The mother of two children, Robert, 13, and Tiffany, 11, she was recently laid off from a part-time cook's job she had found seven weeks ago.
"We had to move in with my mother and I lost my car this month," she said. "I got arrested for a bad check. I pray a lot and believe in God, but I just don't know when this will end."
She said a friend was taking her to Owings Mill this afternoon to chop down a Christmas tree on property where she's been told there are free trees. She's unsure that the tree-chopping is legal, and she said she didn't plan to ask. "I'm going to get a Christmas tree for my kids," she said. "I hope we don't get locked up."
Another woman, Doris Struve, 42, the mother of three sons, expressed an unfocused anger common to those here seeking food. "I hope whoever is responsible for this has to endure what we're going through," she said, choking back tears. A former truck driver at the Bethlehem Steel Plant, she was laid off a year ago Dec. 5 and has not found other work. "I've been borrowing from my parents, but they're both retired.
"We're going to have a very skimpy Christmas this year. I'm not even going to do any baking, because I can't afford it."
The tales of unemployment are similar. Families are doubling up, losing their cars, spending their savings. "We moved in with my mother and father last month," said Sandra McCaffity, 31. Her husband, William, is a laid-off railroad worker for Bethlehem Steel, and they have two children, Sonia, 8, and Natalie, 7 months.
"We're staying in one room and Natalie sleeps with my sister," said McCaffity, as she received a coupon for a turkey -- 250 of which were given by Baltimore Sun workers and 50 of which were given by the Baltimore dentists. "The food problem is the worst. I tell Sonia, 'This is the Christmas we do without.' "
Several steelworkers complained that the government isn't doing enough to help them. "When there's no jobs, the government's got to help us," said Wray. "We've been deserted."
The union is working with several Maryland legislators to introduce a "Bill of Rights for Unemployed People" this session, a measure that will prohibit many home foreclosures, evictions and car and furniture repossessions for jobless Marylanders.
Meanwhile, a Bethlehem spokesman said production at the steel plant, which once employed 17,000 people, is at its lowest point since the Great Depression.
"The need here is enormous," said Darlene Blaisdell, a classified ad saleswoman at The Sun who gave $500 she won in a lottery to buy food for the steelworkers. "We're trying to feed people on what we made on flea markets. It's just never enough."