Musing About Country Clubs, Bosses and Labor Power

The Bethlehem Steel company was incorporated in 1904 and the Saucon Valley Country Club (SVCC), located near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1920, primarily (95 percent) by executives from Bethlehem Steel. The first nine holes of the golf course were named after Eugene Grace (1876 – 1960) an avid golfer who was president from 1916 to 1945 and Chairman of the Board from 1945-1957. Grace once told an interviewer that “Any man who does not talk about his business on the golf course doesn’t really care about his business. “ Worried that supervisory staff at the plant might one day be tempted to join a union, Grace built a second course just for them, the Steel Club, to encourage their identification with management. Later still, the company gave some of “their land” to the city to build a third course for the hoi polloi, the commoners.

SVCC is rated one of the top 100 private clubs in the world, boasting 850 acres, three 18-hole, championship courses, squash and tennis courts, four swimming pools, sumptuous indoor and outdoor dining and a thirteen bedroom 18th Century Guest House. But more on that later.

Prior to 1941, Bethlehem was the quintessential company town — everything from the Mayor and banks to property and the local press. Grace was scathingly for organized labor and vowed that under no circumstance would he ever recognize at union at his company. Conditions at the mill were brutal. Michael Scheffer recalled swinging a 2-lb sledgehammer for “40 cents an hour, six days a week, no vacations.” There were no pensions upon retirement. (The Morning Call, 9/2/91) On March 24, 1941, after a long period of turbulent labor management relations, the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) organized a walkout at the plant which at the time employed 18,000 workers.

Over a four day period, 50 cars belonging to company officers and scabs were overturned, many people were injured, including some police officers as the bloody strike escalated. Bethlehem’s mayor brought in 40 state police to defend the plant gates and soon the governor declared martial law and sent an additional 125 state troopers to the plant. Some arrived by train with their horses and the strikers immediately labeled them “The Cossacks.” Grace had previously armed the company’s police with tear gas, billy clubs, shotguns and machine guns. His goons had spied on union activists and the company tried to bribe picket captains with promises of “nice big checks.” They were summarily rebuffed.

On March 28th, Grace, who at the time was the second highest paid executive in the country at $522,000, bitterly conceded and the headline read “Bethlehem Steel Strike Settled.” Because the company owned all possible meeting sitess on the city’s South Side, the celebrating workers were forced to gather in a hall across the Lehigh River on the North side. A victory parade that stretched for several blocks set off for the South Side. At one point, they encountered the company’s toll bridge with its sign “One Cent for Pedestrians, Three Cents for Vehicles,” and blew right past it. One worker was heard to shout “Let them try to collect their goddam penny today!” In the fall of 1941, the workers formally joined the United Steel Workers of America.

In 1957, 9 Bethlehem steel executives were among the top 12 of the nation’s highest paid executives and CEO Arthur Homer topped the list with what would be the equivalent of $2 million today. That same year the company netted a record $191 million but Homer demanded the workers take a one year pay freeze.

Concurrently, the lavish and now legendary lifestyles for top management continued unabated. For example, each executive department had its own plush dining room serving 5 course lunches with engraved silver, the highest quality china and crystal glasses. Each table was adored with center bowls that reportedly cost $1,000. Because the executives wanted only the freshest steaks, Angus were raised on pastureland adjacent to the Country Club. Before heading off for an early afternoon tee time, executives dined on lobster and filet mignon prepared by top-rated company chefs. When Grace’s was about to depart for his 18 holes, Bethlehem’s police were alerted so all the green lights were synchronized and and no traffic jams would impede his journey. This deference to the chairman extended to board meetings where Grace would sometimes doze off and the room fell totally silent. No further business was conducted until he awoke, sometimes after an hour’s snooze.

Marie Gawlick, a waitress in the exclusive executive board dining room recalls, “The men paid $1 a day for their food and tipped us 50 cents a week.” Gawlick’s most memorable moment was being a server at Grace’s 50th wedding anniversary: “Everything was gold—serving ditches, chandeliers, everything. Inside had Gypsies dancing around the table playing music, and outside they had detectives who made sure nobody walked out with any gold.” (The Allentown Morning Call, 1995). Grace’s home on Bethlehem’s Prospect Avenue, was a virtual castle which he named “Uwchlan,” Welsh for “the land over the valley.” With a ballroom, 23 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms, three green houses, driving range and putting green, and an underground bomb shelter, the mansion was surrounded by a red brick wall and patrolled by Grace’s private security force. Maids, servants, cooks, butlers and under-butlers waited 24-7 on the family and lavish dinner parties were attended by New Yorkers and the likes of singer Bing Crosby, one of Grace’s golfing buddies. (The Morning Call, Nov. 24, 2003).

Money was also no object for company’s fleet of Lockheed Lodestar jets and the cost for pilots, mechanics, and hangers. Without question, it’s aviation wing was the gold standard for U.S. corporations. Personal use of the planes was the ultimate perk and whereas Grace would often be flown down to Sea Island, Ga., Homer preferred frequent trips to his getaway near Bar Harbor, ME. Grace also had homes in Aiken, SC, where golfing legends Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen were frequent guests, another in exclusive Southampton, Long Island and an apartment in New York’s Plaza Hotel. (Note: During the Great Depression the family ate very well and Grace had fresh oysters flown in from Maine every week).

Attractive young women were hired and trained as elevator and tour “escorts” at company headquarters, They could not exceed a size 12, Marilyn Monroe’s proportions. One important ritual involved a lookout on the plant roof who alerted the escorts of Grace’s approaching limousine. The young women then sprang into action, clearing the elevators to make sure Grace could ride in solitude to his sixth-floor office. Visitors stayed at the company-owned Hotel Bethlehem. (Forging America, Chapter 7, The Morning Call, December 10, 2003).

It all ended on Nov. 18, 1995, when Bethlehem Steel workers witnessed “The Last Cast” when the company ceased operations. The world’s No.2 steelmaker declared bankruptcy in 2001 and sold off its remaining properties in 2003. Former Chair and CEO Duane Dunham was given a $2.5 million severance package and his last year’s salary was $776,667. Robert Miller, hired to carry out bankruptcy proceedings was paid $900,000 and eligible for bonuses and several other executive received platinum retirement parachutes. Meanwhile, pension and health plans for workers were under-funded by $4.85 billion. (The Baltimore Sun, March 29, 2002).

Eugene Grace donated some of his immense wealth to nearby Lehigh University (his alma mater) and the campus is dotted with the names of other Steel executives associated with Lehigh. For example, Homer Labs, formerly Bethlehem Steel’s research facility, sit atop Lehigh’s Mountain Top campus.

The Grace family had its own pew at the First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem and upon his death in 1960, Grace was was buried under a huge stone memorial in Bethlehem’s Nisky Hill cemetery. It’s semicircular granite bench with seating for 20 at the site —which I walk by almost daily — overlooks the hulking, rusting remains of the imposing blast furnaces. Some of the property has been converted into an arts and cultural center and a thriving casino complex now owned by the Poarch Creek Indians from Almore, Ala.

Unsubstantiated stories persist that Grace was buried standing up, facing his mill, and the last four words on his engraved headstone do suggest an ambulatory ambitions:

What Does the Lord Require of Thee But to Do Justly and to
Love Mercy and to Walk Humbly with God.

And now back to golf: Since 1989, the top 1% of Americans have stolen $21 trillion in wealth while the bottom half lost $900 billion. The ultimate source of this wealth is the unpaid labor of workers. In whatever form, whether dividends to shareholders, rents, obscene levels of compensation and bonuses for Wall Street bankers, it’s all a result of uncompensated labor. This includes the care-free, luxurious life styles of business owners, with their yachts, private jets, multiple mansions, trust fund babies and yes, private country clubs. Capitalism is a system of organized theft. This exploitation will continue until it’s abolished by workers who take over the means of production, when, as Marx wrote “the expropriators will be expropriated.”

That said, my fantasy is to gain access to the exclusive Saucon Valley Country Club for an hour or so: Although I’ve lived in the Lehigh Vallley for 47 years and the club is less than ten miles from my house, I’d still need GPS to find it. I’d appear on a Monday, around noon, assuming fewer members are present and the staff preoccupied with preparing for the week. Attired in a Ralph Lauren, collared polo shirt tucked into belted and creased khaki trousers, I’d also be wearing a forward facing (not backward!) Titleist golf cap. Carrying a Harrow (never Wilson!) “Beast” squash racquet with a Dunlop all-pro bag, I’d attempt to exude what the club’s website proclaims as its member’s “high moral code.”

Already aware that the staff doesn’t check ID’s for fear of offending an important guest, I’d purposely head to the bar where I’d order a Tito’s martini (up with a twist) and after some good natured kibitzing with the bartender about my double bogie yesterday on 14, I’d move off towards the men’s room. On the way back I’d hang a plague in a prominent spot and take a photo of it. It would read: “One of Countless Coerced Gifts from Unpaid Labor of Generations of Steel Workers.” Then I’d pick up my racket, casually head to the parking lot, post the picture on Facebook and given club’s ubiquitous security cameras, await my summons for trespassing on “private property.”

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