|The company had a police force larger
than the city of Bethlehem's and a full-service kitchen in its main office
building with a staff of more than 60. It had a host of landscapers, electricians
and carpenters at the executives' beck and call. No expense seemed to be
spared, even when it came to training for the female elevator operators,
whose primary duties were to operate the elevators and escort visitors to
"They had a model come in from New York to teach us how to walk and sit properly. Then we took classes to learn how to apply makeup properly," Zsitek said. "It was a prestige job. I made over $100 a week, which was good money in those days.
Lunch each day for upper management at the headquarters building along Third Street was equivalent to a four-star dining experience. Each department had its own dining room on the fifth floor, and each executive enjoyed a five-course meal. Marie Gawlik, a waitress in the company's executive dining room from 1950 to 1983, described the elegant scene:
"There were long, beautiful wood tables with linen tablecloths. We served them with silver water pitchers, silver coffee pots and silver salt and pepper shakers. The men paid $1 a day for their food, and they each tipped us 50 cents a week."
"Nothing was brought in from the outside. We had a chef, sous-chefs, a baker who made the rolls and the cinnamon buns and a woman who baked the pies. The only thing that was delivered to the Steel was the sliced bread for the sandwiched." Gawlik spent some of her time waiting on members of the board, which not only had its own dining room, but a separate menu and kitchen staff.
On weekends, Gawlick said, the executives would raid the company's immense freezers and hold lavish dinner parties a their homes. It was an unwritten rule that company waitresses served at those parties.
One of Gawlick's most memorable experiences was serving at Grace's 50th wedding anniversary: "Everything was gold--serving dishes, chandeliers, everything. Inside they had Gypsies dancing around the table playing music, and outside they had detectives who made sure nobody walked out with any gold."
Robert C. Wilkins, a former senior vice president at Bethlehem Steel who is now a business administrator for the City of Bethlehem, recalled the privileged life at the top. "The plant patrol would shovel the sidewalks or mow the grass, anything that needed to be done," Wilkins said. "And say you wanted a piece of furniture refinished--they employed some of the most skilled craftsmen in the world."
Wilkins and others insist that executives paid for a large majority of the services they enjoyed, and stress that everyone, not just upper management, benefitted from the company's generosity.
Up until the 1940s, the company's industrial work force had reasons to dispute an assertion like Wilkins.' Wages and working conditions in the plant had been historically oppressive. And when workers walked out, the company would call in billy-club-swinging mounted state police troopers to quash picketers. John Waldony, one of the union's first organizers, recalls brutal working hours, bribery and favoritism in the 1930s. "We worked six days a week, double shifts and had no vacations," said the 81 year old Wadolny. "And you would see guys bribing the foreman with chickens and pigs for a chance to work."
In 1941, the numbers and determination of Waldony and his fellow workers during a bloody strike finally overcame the company's anti-union policies. In 1942 the new United Steelworkers of American negotiated the first union contract. It was the beginning of the modern era of union-management relations. During that era, Bethlehem Steel and the nearby communities provided a textbook example of trickle-down economics.
According to Strohmeyer's book, when grumblings were heard from the rank and file about the luxurious Saucon Valley Country Club, which was largely subsidized by Bethlehem Steel, the company donated the money for a land swap and underwrote the professional expertise that gave the city the public Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course.
The company also paid for expensive engineering, traffic and urban renewal studies that formed the basis of center-city planning, redevelopment and the Route 378 expressway link to interstate Route 22, according to Strohmeyer's book. Lehigh University, alma mater of Grace and many Steel vice presidents, was a prime beneficiary. The faculty doubled to more than 320 in 1957 from 119 in 1924. The university's endowment reached $13 million in 1957, up from $3 million in 1924. And the company would donate $5,000 for every management trainee the university produced.
Today the campus is dotted with buildings bearing the names of former Bethlehem Steel executives.
More than 50 years after Graces' golf course prediction, Wilkins, sitting in his office at Bethlehem's City Hall, made a similar understatement about his former company. "It was just a hell of a nice place to work."
These pages originally appeared in the Morning Call in 1995
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