Two Decades at Ryerson Freaking Steel


A young man by the name of Erik Hartmann graduated from Evergreen Park Community High School in Evergreen Park, Illinois in June of 1976 without having a clue of what to do beyond that. He had played sports in all four of his high school years and was quite the physical specimen. He was about 6’1″ tall and weighed about 180 lbs. and had very wavy auburn hair. He had no ambition for college or a direction in life, so he attended Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Heights, Illinois directly after high school. He soon found out that alcohol and females held much more of his interest and his grades were nothing to be proud of either. He had a blue 1969 Z 28 Camaro, which needed money to be rebuilt, not to mention the cash needed to bail him out because of his hotrod antics. The car had a high performance engine that he rebuilt himself and an M22 rock crusher transmission. This was a professional drag racing transmission and very costly.

His girlfriend at that time was Betty, the blond blue-eyed socialite that was and is still popular. Betty was bubbly and demanding. She could say, “Eat this pile of yuck,” and the pinhead would do it. She liked the nightlife, so he quit school and got several jobs in succession to afford all of the above. None of these could support his car and girlfriend, and one day he awoke from a bender to find the prized car junked, his steady girl gone, and no education and in debt.

Now the realization set in that he had no direction in life, no car and no girl, and was broke and living in his parents’ basement at 22 years of age.  Yes, Erik’s head was where he sat, but it popped out, and the rush of fresh air cleared his mind — he focused for the first time in his hazed memory.

A neighbor offered him a job where he worked, so, with nothing to lose, Erik went down to the hiring office to give it a go. The butterflies in his stomach brought him down to Ryerson Steel at 2558 W. 16th St., Chicago, Illinois on September 4th, 1979 at 9:30 AM. It was in an industrial neighborhood and not one that Erik was familiar with, but he went anyway. This company took up two square blocks and actually still is most of the neighborhood.

The HR director inquired as to what he wanted to do in the steel mill. Erik hadn’t a clue about steel making, so, using all of the wit he could muster up, he said, “Anything.” The HR person was not impressed with Erik in the least but the reference made the difference. Erik had had no idea that the good-hearted neighbor was so high up. He was hired on the spot.

The steel mill is always a hot and extremely loud place. If you’ve ever been in a muffler shop, stood close to someone using a cutting torch to remove a muffler, smelled the burning steel, and watched the sparks fly, then you’ve just scratched the surface.

Some of the machines were so loud that the noise and vibrations would work your lunch right out of you if you didn’t have adequate hearing protection. There is noise everywhere, and the first few weeks are nerve-wracking because you’re looking all over trying not to get injured. The smoke from the burning machines was so thick that you couldn’t see the overhead crane operators that were 50 feet above you and they couldn’t see you either. You had to trust the noise and distinguish the good noise form the bad noise. If someone were hurt over 10 feet away from you, you wouldn’t notice it until you looked right at them. Then you heard their noise. It was the bad noise.

The overhead cranes have warning bells on them, just so you could hear them coming towards you over the noise of all of the other machinery. They sound like a claxon that the military uses for submarines. It is so very loud and necessarily so. This is a good noise.

When you hear the warning bell, you look up and get out of the way because if the steel falls and you’re in the way, that’s all she wrote. The popular saying was that if the steel fell on you, all that rescue people would have to do was push a layer of dust over you and declare you buried because there would be nothing left. A load of steel being moved by an overhead side-traveling electric crane was called a “lift.” A lift could weigh as much as 70 tons, so it was up to you to not be under a lift at any time. There would be no chance of survival if a lift fell on you. This happened on Erik’s shift twice, and it took one poor fellow 8 agonizing years to finally die from the injuries. He had broken nearly every bone in his body from the mid-chest down. In the other incident, a loader wasn’t watching what he was doing, and a pile of steel fell over on him, severing his leg just above the knee. He lived. The amount of blood was terrible. Thank God that the loader passed out.

Stitches were a daily thing at the nurse’s office, and broken bones, although not as frequent, were commonplace. Erik had the bad fortune to need to use the nurse several times. He had stitches twice and a broken leg once, he sprained his left ankle twice, and once a 55-gallon drum of thinner exploded — drenching him and burning his skin.

Since his workstation was nearest the door, he was pressed into ambulance duty on occasion. This involved loading the injured party into a company pick-up truck and beating cheeks to the aid station or the hospital for the critical cases. The latter was most upsetting because these were Erik’s friends and all he could think about was their families and their new grief that they’d experience in short order. Sometimes they were screaming in agony from pain and fear. He took it upon himself to tell the families the news. This was done with the permission of the injured party only.

It had been a small number of years since Erik hired on, and the work was hard but he liked it. To be truthful, the sense of danger was a big part of it, too. He could look at buildings, heavy equipment, and for a time the Pullman Palace Cars, and identify what he had fabricated to bring these inanimate objects into existence. This was pleasing to Erik. Things were going good on the job, and he was progressing to be a master burner. This is a job that was greatly sought after and a very highly skilled and paid capacity. He would look at and study the blueprints, take a hand-held torch, and cut shapes in steel to the customer specifications. Sometimes, the thickness of the steel was paper-thin, in which case he had to cut fast, sometimes 20 feet in five minutes. Other times, the steel was up to 24 inches thick, and it would take an hour to cut a one-foot line with three feet to go.

The cutting process is not as hard as it looks. The hand-held torch heats up the surface of steel. This, called a pre-heat (similar to pre-heating an oven), can be as much as 700 or 800 degrees. Then you depress the lever on the bottom of the torch. It adds a high-pressure stream of oxygen, which heats up the flame to about 2,400 degrees and blows out the steel, forming the cut. It’s a controlled melting. To do this in a straight line and within print specifications takes years of learning and practice and is very much a skill.

Once you start to cut, there is no stopping for any reason. This is because the point that steel is melted and blown out from the cutting torch is “soft” and can be fabricated because its surface temperature is hot. You can literally see the steel melting and dripping off the material through the slot that is just cut. It pools on the floor and resembles a lava flow. Remember that it’s about 2,400 degrees at that point.  The sweat is pouring off you even in winter, and you’re usually standing in an awkward position along with listening for the good noise.

Once you stop the cut, the steel forms an extra thick layer right at the point of cutting, not unlike a scab on the skin. Then, it’s like trying to bite into a hot dog that has been on the grill too long and had its outer skin burnt. When you bite it, the hot dog tears. If you try to start the cut again, it will deflect the flame, pushing it away from your design, and cause you to ruin the piece. The high-pressure flame must go in a straight line through the material to be done right whether it is at a 90-degree angle or at a slant degree called a “bevel edge.” If you cut into an undetectable pocket of air, then the flame would shoot back up at you and shower you with sparks, and the continual rapid-fire explosions of molten steel become deafening. Yes, your clothes would be on fire — the special safety equipment would save you from most burns, but after the first explosion, you’ve already dropped the torch, hit the emergency gas shut off switch, and only then put out the fire on your clothes. This string of events takes literally 2 seconds at most, but it feels like minutes. The other burners would come by to check on you, and then the ribbing would start. It happens to everybody, and some of these guys have pools on this very happening. It was all part of the day.

You have to either set up the cut and do the restroom break before you start or go without till the task is completed. It is like doing fine art when things go as planned.

Although Erik was in no way a master painter or sculptor, this did enable him to see just a little of how the great masters felt. He was proud to be a steelworker and used to sign his name on the items that he completed because of that pride.

Mostly, the foremen were of the highest caliber and were there to instruct as well as to get the job done. However, there was no avoiding one foreman by the name of M. Cephalic. The “M” stands for “Micro.” He was a bastards’ bastard. He knew all of the tricks since he had once been on the floor with the regular workers till he went on to become a foreman.

There existed two popular thoughts as to how he got promoted. One was that you keep your friends close but your enemy closer; and the other was that if the moron is on their side then the management staff don’t have to worry about him. Either way, it spelled misery for the workers, but his bosses liked the idea.

One day it became Erik’s turn for Micro’s unwanted attention, just in case there wasn’t enough to think about. Micro was about 10 years older than Erik and was the second generation there. Micro’s father was equally a jerk by all accounts. Micro was the carbon copy of his father according to the older members of the mill.

Micro was chin-challenged and grew a very thick beard to cover it up. If you were to look at his profile and eliminate the beard, he’d look like a light bulb, and this is what they called him, light bulb head. He was about as bright as a burned-out bulb at that. He had no manners, no class, and no couth. He was not much more than a troll with an extra bad case of the “why me?” attitude and could combine cuss words that baffled and startled an ordinary person.

Micro stood just short of 6 feet tall and was slight of build except for his beer belly. It was so big that it could almost qualify for its own zip code. His spine was filled with puss or so it would be if Erik believed the rumors. The multiple hues of his teeth would delight a Renaissance master painter or probably give some color value inspiration at least. Erik thought of sunsets over a tar river with rotting animal flesh strewn hither and yon guarded by Stonehenge when this buttmonkey smiled. The stench from his pie hole would knock a buzzard off of a shit wagon at 50 paces. That was secondary to his BO since he had no particular affinity for soap and water. He leaned more towards after-shave.

Micro had a thing for other people’s lunches. No one knew how he was able to chew since his choppers were loose, but if you wanted overtime, which Micro assigned, you didn’t squeak when he took your lunch. Try to imagine a one-year-old baby trying to chew a dog’s raw hide bone, and you get the picture. He’d wait till you started one of those long cuts and then raid your lunch. Some of the guys would bring extra food for themselves while others fought back and some went without.

Erik chose another avenue.

Erik’s mother would make Lutefisk for dinner when he was young. This is a Scandinavian delicacy, which his father loved, and they ate it sometimes to remind themselves of the old country.  Erik and his two brothers would rather eat raw dog than that when they were kids growing up. What it is is codfish soaked in lye to soften it up and then placed in milk with a sparse few seasonings, served at room temperature. It didn’t delight his palate. Erik and his brothers called it rotten fish in spoiled milk and even wore buttons that said, “Just say no to Lutefisk,” to his parents’ chagrin.

He asked his mother to make some up for him, and she was thrilled that maybe he’d come around after all this time. His reply was that he’d like to try it again just to see. She’d have been less thrilled if she’d known the real plan for it.

He brought it to work and set out the Tupperware containing the bait for Micro to see. Micro thought Erik was busy, took the lunch, and looked at it in disbelief. He tried some, threw it on the ground, and said that this was terrible. Erik looked at him and with a wry voice said, “I know!”

During this time, there was a union organizing drive of which Erik was aware and supported. This was the fourth try in 14 years by the United Steelworkers of America to organize this particular shop. They wanted it very badly because there were about 1,300 employees and that would be a great union victory. It was about the time after the Lutefisk joke that Erik decided that the union needed his help — the first time that he got active beyond just signing a card.  All of the preceeding drives had failed, but the margin was getting narrower, thus giving hope to the organizers.

When the fourth drive failed, Erik changed jobs and took the job of truck driver with Ryerson Steel before the head-chopping ceremony began that always follows a union-organizing defeat. Erik was immediately in the Teamsters Union Local 705 and eventually became the shop steward. These trucks loaded the steel produced at Ryerson.

Now it was his turn to tell Micro where to go and how fast to do it. The loaders were still non-union and under Micro’s supervision. The loaders listened to Erik any time Micro came up to the loading floor.  Any suggestion or direction that Micro had was ignored, and the loaders would do everything in their power to help Erik screw with Micro. Micro had a great swath of persons that he made hell for. The bosses wouldn’t listen to complaints about Micro from the loaders, but when they saw any unsatisfactory performance, including Micro’s, they dealt with it harshly. If the loads were late leaving the shop, Micro would be in trouble. He could bet his bottom dollar that they were late every time he came up to the loading floor and gave the loaders trouble. The more Micro messed with them, the more time they’d take. The more time that the loaders took was noted in time studies — Ryerson’s Bible. Scientific management meant that slow was not good. Soon, Micro’s efficiency as a loading foreman fell, and his bosses took notice.

The fifth organizing drive by the Steelworkers had begun, this time in conjunction with the Teamsters. Erik volunteered his time and efforts. He was there at the plant workers’ drive meetings and leafletted at all hours of the day and night.  The loaders would ask him what they could do in the meantime, and the answer was always the same: sign a card and vote yes.

The vote came and the union was in by a three-to-one margin! For the first time since the company started in 1842, there was a union! Erik saw one of the HR persons. He couldn’t resist. He told HR of how this could’ve been avoided and how Micro was the reason that people voted for the union.

The HR staff would change on a regular basis as they got kicked upstairs. The new HR people usually saw Micro, thought that, since he smelled so bad and was such a foul creature, he must know what he’s doing, and left him alone. In reality, they were cowards and didn’t want to be soiled by him. But now Erik smiled as the light was lit in their minds and he knew that they knew.

Up until then, the bosses used Micro as a bully because he had control over the workers. Now all was lost and he failed to maintain control.  It meant his career was over and they rejoiced because it was Micro’s turn to cry.

Micro was used as a tool by the bosses to control the workers, and when his usefulness ended, they discarded him like so much dirty laundry and he was given the gate. As he left, he saw what he had become, how he was used, and that they didn’t need him anymore. Erik could sense that Micro was crushed and that he would never recover from his betrayal.  Good riddance.

Richard EgelandRichard Egeland is a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago and drives a gas tanker in and around the city limits.  He has been a vacation fill in business agent for his local and is the director of the volunteer tanker organizing corps.  He has been a steward for two different barns since 1994, one at Ryerson Steel in Chicago and the other at Mohr Oil in Forest Park, Illinois. Egeland did “6 years, 3 months, two weeks, and change” in the military (the Air Force and Air National Guard), which makes him “overqualified for the presidency.” He has also been a professional circus clown.  “Being a circus clown and a steward aren’t all that different,” says Egeland.

Egeland exhausted the Labor Studies Program at DePaul University School for New Learning headed by Emily Rosenberg and co-chaired by Bob Bruno.  He is currently doing his final research project to earn his bachelor’s degree from the National Labor College of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Springs, Maryland and is enjoying everything that he can learn.  It’s his plan to continue on to get an MPA in the future.  Egeland says, “I’ve been going to night school since ’97 and when I get home at 10 PM and have to get up at 3 AM for work, it’s a short night, let me tell you.”

Egeland has been married to his wife Dorothy for 25 years, and they have three kids: Rich, Jr is 23 and graduated Magna Cum Laude/NHS/Dean’s list from St Joseph’s College in Indiana; Anne is 22 and graduated with top honors from a local business college; and Julie is an honors student and senior at Queen of Peace high school in Burbank, Illinois.

This story was edited by Helena Worthen of the Chicago Labor Education Program.