Pioneering panelists share experiences at BAPL
“Memories of Steel: Women of Bethlehem Steel” featured three women who shared memories of their involvement with “The Steel” during its heyday and decline in the Lehigh Valley. A collaborative effort of the Steelworkers’ Archives and Lehigh University, the event was held March 7 at the Bethlehem Area Public Library on Church Street.
Steelworkers’ Archives board member Jill Schennum, moderated the event. Former steelworkers Jeanne “Honi” Brugger and Donna Kucsan described their groundbreaking careers in a male-dominated work environment. The daughter of a neighborhood grocer, Tine Richie, shared her memories of working at her father’s store when it was patronized by steelworkers and their families.
Several generations of Jeanne “Honi” Brugger’s family, starting with her great-grandfather, worked for Bethlehem Steel. She started her career at “The Steel” in 1964 in the accounts payable office. In 1973 Brugger was given the opportunity to work in the plants, since management wanted to put a woman out there. She said she was told, “It’s all numbers. You’re going to be setting rates.” Since it came with higher pay, Brugger accepted the assignment.
Fitting into gear that was designed for men was nearly impossible for Brugger, including stuffing socks into the work boots to make them fit. “I wasn’t well received,” she said, “especially when they found out I would be setting their rates for what they were earning on that job,” Industrial engineering, the department she worked for, was a non-union concession and the workers were immediately hostile to her. “They put water in my hat, oil in my shoes. They filled my sandwich up, what I had to eat for lunch, with Ex-Lax …” she said with disgust. “It was so juvenile! You walk through the gate and something happens to your mentality.” she continued, “There were tons of guys who were really helpful and there were tons of guys who were real a-holes.” In 1975 there were no women’s restrooms in the plants and Brugger had to fight for them through labor relations. She had to fight to get women employees access to safety training. Being non-union, she also had to battle management to get paid the same as her male counterparts.
Donna Kucsan related her experience of landing a job as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel in 1979. This employment opportunity was a result of the 1974 Affirmative Action Consent Decree. By chance, her first work assignment was in the blast furnaces where her father, nicknamed “Smutz” which was German for “kiss” also worked. Kucsan was given the nickname, “Little Smutz.” Of her treatment by her coworkers, she said, “I didn’t have any problems with any of the men up there. If you went up there and you pushed the wheelbarrow, you shoveled like they did, you fitted in.” The feisty steelworker, who didn’t let fear of the molten iron and dangerous working conditions faze her, eventually married her coworker, Steve. As a union worker, Kucsan said, “The money was good at the time.” She received the same rate of pay for the same work as her coworkers. It was, she declared, “The fairest thing ever!”
Tina Richie talked about working as a teenager at Gasdaska’s Food Market on Thomas St., owned by her parents, during the 1960s. Founded in the 1930s by her grandfather, a part-time worker for Bethlehem Steel, the Southside establishment primarily served steelworkers and their families. Although illegal, they also served beer and allowed their customers to play “the numbers” at the store. Ritchie said, “Those in charge looked the other way.” She also spoke of how her family extended credit, charging no interest, to the steelworkers’ families to help them get through hard times, especially during the strike of 1959. Of the tight-knit Slovak neighborhood where she grew up, “Everybody kind of helped each other,” said Richie.
The Steelworkers Archives is actively seeking more women to interview for this ongoing project funded by the LU Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative. If interested, call: 610-861-0600.
For information about programs at Bethlehem Area Public Library, visit www.bapl.org.
For information about the Steelworkers Archives, visit steelworkers www.archives.com.