Women of Bethlehem Steel Series: Spotlight on Kathleen Mills by Hannah Provost

Southsider’s series focused on the Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection from the Beyond Steel Archives gives our readers the opportunity to explore the stories of women in our community who worked in the steel industry. Each article in the series will feature an introduction to one oral history, a link that allows our readers to listen to her oral history, and analysis of the major themes that the speaker addresses. This week we are honoring Kathleen Mills.

Kathleen Mills was the first woman hired in the law department at Bethlehem Steel, and she would ultimately be one of the last employees to work there as the Bethlehem plant finally shut down in 1995, the company went bankrupt in 2001, and finally dissolved in 2003. Her reflections on labor law, the decline of Bethlehem Steel, and being a working woman and mother, help modern readers imagine the kinds of companies we want in our present and the economic structures we need to create in order to support women workers. Her insights about the expectations of women during her education and 30 year career at Bethlehem Steel reveal some of the residual attitudes and expectations that limit women in the workplace even today.

Kathleen Mills as a Young Woman

Kathleen Mills was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and was the oldest of four sisters. Her father worked for Mine Safety Appliances, and her mother stayed at home with the children. When reflecting on her childhood, Mills shared stories specifically about going to Catholic school with no air conditioning, and how through the open windows she could always hear traveling vendors hawking wares like fresh blueberries or ice. Her Catholic education was particularly formative for her because Mills was deeply impressed by the ethic of giving back to the community that all students learned through a required number of hours volunteering each year. For Mills, volunteering represented giving back to a community, which had shaped her opportunities and successes through her education and supportive upbringing. She would go on to Duke University Law School from 1966-1969 and become a labor attorney.

Mills began working at Bethlehem Steel as a labor attorney in 1973. During her extensive time there, she worked on employee benefits, civil rights, audits, consulting, and environmental safety. Initially, she had been worried about working there because of the Steel’s vast influence over the town and the male-dominated work environment. However, she reflected that employment at the Steel was the best decision she ever made. Mills felt adamantly that Bethlehem Steel was a company that wanted to do the right thing for its employees. In the legal department, she felt like she was able to make change and fight for the little guy from inside the corporation. From her perspective, this kind of internal evolution towards better labor practices was way more effective than “beating on the walls from the outside.”

A photograph from the 1950s entitled “Switchboard Operators at Bethlehem Steel Corporate Office” from the Beyond Steel Archive.

Mills felt from the 1970s to its dissolution, the Steel provided extensive benefits to workers, generous pensions, stable working conditions, and respectful engagement with the Steelworkers union. For Mills, a company that valued taking care of its workers lives and wellbeing over profit was worth committing to for her entire career. And Mills cites instances where that reciprocity and understanding was well understood by workers as well. She illustrates this two-way street of trust by relaying a point in the later years, when the Steel was in financial trouble, that they cut worker pay by 10%. As Mills relates it, there was an overwhelming feeling of dutiful sacrifice by the workers, since they recognized that this measure was necessary to try to keep the entire company afloat. In a similar way, Mills believes that during the bankruptcy court hearings, Bethlehem Steel fought tooth and nail to ensure that their workers received adequate severance packages. Other oral histories in the Beyond Steel Archive, like Judy Hoffert’s narrative, instead point toward the company’s privileging of executives and disregard for employees in the final days of Bethlehem Steel. These contradictions in the archive reveal a crucial point for study. Why is there a discrepancy between how executives and the law department experienced the end of the Steel, and the workers who were often laid off only months or days before completing their 30 year service deadline to receive their pensions? By listening to oral histories with different perspectives on the final days of Bethlehem Steel, our community is invited to engage with divergent understandings of the corporation’s treatment of steelworkers and their families. The strength of the Women of Bethlehem Steel oral history collection is the powerful way that listeners are called to address different narratives about the decline and ultimate closure of the Steel.

The End of the Steel

According to Kathleen Mills, it was eerie to realize that something so big could fail. She attributes the fall of Bethlehem Steel to a declining structural steel industry, a collection of poor decisions regarding new machinery and technology, and a conflagration of  accidents that hit the company hard financially. There was a fire in a coal mine which burned out of control and could not be stopped just as three other mines flooded. Another plant had a fire and was uninsured, and finally, two transport ships ran into each other in the middle of the ocean, creating massive damage and high financial cost. Far from blaming the union for the company’s decline, Kathleen argued that the market in the U.S. did not support the salaries, health benefits, and pensions, which unions fought hard to provide laborers. For her, there was “no malice in it, no carelessness or ill will” in union organizers lobbying for workers and implied that the kind of labor rights and conditions, which she so highly praised in the Steel’s policies, did impact the company’s bottomline during a time period when accidents and disasters also plagued the company.

Women that Work

Kathleen Mills’ reflection on her experiences as a working woman is largely a story of triumph. But there are moments in her story where she experienced attitudes and pushback that are still familiar to us today. Mills remembers her father resisting her wish to become a lawyer at first. But when a university rejected her application, her father became an ardent supporter, because no one was going to tell his little girl what she could or could not do. In a similar way, in her early career, she experienced attitudes that suggested that a woman shouldn’t be involved in labor law because it was a masculine domain. In response, she simply made herself indispensable in the field, and she found that in this way she could combat the bias she faced. Mills’ willfulness and persistence allowed her to succeed, but why did she have to exceed expectations in order to do so? What would it look like for women workers to have the same bar for workload and expectations as male employees?

A photograph entitled “Women in Data Transmission Office at Bethlehem Steel,” from the Beyond Steel Archive, features more working women from the Steel’s history.

Mills also describes being a mom in the 1970s as being surrounded by the conception that the house was the woman’s responsibility, and that the answer to white women beginning to work more frequently outside the home was the Supermom complex—the expectation that work was simply added to household labor, rather than other family members picking up household labor to balance expectations. For Kathleen Mills, the worst part about being a working mother was “walking in the door at night and going straight into the kitchen.” While she was married, Mills also reported feeling like she was expected to socialize with her husband’s friends, rather than her own. But after her divorce, she describes a strong female comradery between the other women that worked in the law and other departments at the Steel. Mills also remembers progress for working women during her life with reflections upon her incredibly successful career. During her tenure, the Steel hired two women coal miners in Kentucky, “the first in the country to go underground” and mine. Previously, many miners had held that women were bad luck underground.

Then and Now: Reimagining Employment 

Kathleen Mill’s extensive education and legal career at Bethlehem Steel is a powerful story in women’s labor history. Her experiences as a working mother deeply resonate with many of the struggles of working women today. Though increasingly policy is supportive of working women in various ways, there are elements of culture that still maintain attitudes about divisions of labor in parenting and in the household, that keep a grip on us even when they don’t feel deeply tangible.

Finally, listening to Kathleen Mills reflect on her 30 year experiences at Bethlehem Steel reminded me of what companies could be if our economic structure and culture supported and truly valued workers and unions, not just nominally, but in fact and deed. Kathleen Mill’s narrative about Bethlehem Steel reveals a tension between her belief that legal departments within corporations should work to protect workers and to support workers’ benefits even as she acknowledges that safe working conditions, pensions, and healthcare impact profits, and thus impact the actualization of these values. Still, it is clear that she believes corporations should not view this expenditure as wasted money, but instead an essential, and even a moral, investment in the well-being of workers who make corporations run. While other oral histories of workers who were denied pensions or felt betrayed by the Steel in its bankruptcy proceedings are critical of corporations, Mills offers listeners a vision of corporations that invest in workers’ benefits and safe working conditions. When we look beyond the different accounts of the Steel’s treatment of workers in the oral history collection, the vision of the Steel that Kathleen Mills shares here points to something that workers and communities desire from companies and employers: investment in workers’ well-being, long term financial security, strong wages, and healthcare. According to Mills’ narrative, the Steel at one time did invest in workers in response to union organizing and her vision of fairness and compassion is one that many people seek, but do not always find in the companies for which they work. Instead, to this day, our economic system privileges profit over benefits, comprehensive healthcare, and retirement accounts or pensions. Mills feels that corporate commitment to labor has been lost, but her story makes me believe that she has important insights for our contemporary moment. For me, Mill’s story reveals a template for altered company attitudes and values that privilege the safety, wellbeing, and financial security that can be part of our future if workers fight from the inside of companies for benefits and outside of companies for legislation that bolsters unions and labor rights.

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