Women of Bethlehem Steel Series: Spotlight on Iris Linares 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 Iris Linares.

Family and Childhood

As a child, Iris Linares’ family was deeply entangled in Bethlehem Steel and union organizing. These childhood elements influence her career and the many ways she worked towards workers’ rights throughout her life. 

Linares’ father started working at Bethlehem Steel in the 1950s. He had been a soldier in the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico, during World War II, but afterwards could not find any sustainable work in Puerto Rico beyond laboring in sugar cane fields. Linares’ father went to New York to find a job, and eventually found work at Bethlehem Steel, moving his family up from Puerto Rico in 1952, according to Linares. She was 5 years old when she came to Bethlehem from Puerto Rico, and only spoke Spanish. Linares remembers how daunting it was to start school, but also how lucky she was that they moved in the spring, so that she had the entire summer playing with local children to begin to learn English. Linares’ father, at the beginning of his employment at the Steel, could only work unskilled positions, since at that time minorities were not allowed to hold skilled positions at Bethlehem Steel because of institutional racism and bias. Eventually, the Consent Decree of 1974, which among other things required the Steel to increase minority representation in skilled jobs, would change that dramatically for him, since being Puerto Rican now did not block him from achieving higher pay and skilled work. From where they lived in a rooming house, Linares grew up seeing, smelling, and hearing the fire and smoke of the Steel plant. Many Latinx steelworkers lived with their families at this rooming house, and Linares remembers them living and working together like a family, as an incredibly tight knit community. 

Iris Linares’ mother worked at a sewing mill and was a part of the garment workers union there. Similarly, her father was very involved in the United Steelworkers of America Union. Linares recalls her father participating in the strike of 1959. He had to get a landscaping job to get by without the pay from the Steel. He took turns with the other men to do his “picket duty” and stand in the picket line of the strike. Linares felt well taken care of as a child, and credits much of the family’s security to the benefits at the Steel and the strength of the union to negotiate and protect its workers. When it was her turn to enter the workforce, Linares thought: “When it’s my turn, I want to work at a place that has a union.”

Linares’ Career: The Path to Protecting Workers’ Rights

Linares began her working life at Dunkee Foods. Within 6-months, she was part of the union there, and soon, she would serve as a shop steward, and later as recording secretary for the legislative committee of the union for many years. Fighting for better wages, she remembers one particular strike that coincided with the dramatic events of Watergate. Like her father, Linares put in her picket duty time, but she was also always at the strike to support with food and coffee, or to record the progress and reactions to the strike. Though Linares clearly has pride in doing this kind of organizing work, she also did not romanticize it. Though she valued strikes and union work, it was grueling. The strike during Watergate was a devastating 13-weeks long, when normally strikes would last 3-4 weeks. Despite the difficulty of strikes, Linares felt called to this fight for worker’s rights. She would later serve as the Vice Chair of the Northampton Democratic Party, and worked on the negotiating committee when Dunkee foods was bought and the worker’s contracts were being negotiated.

Importantly, while the Consent Decree of 1974 increased minority representation, increased wages for women workers, and opened up the kinds of jobs that women could work, Linares provides insights into the ways the Decree did not help workers. The Decree introduced regulations such as 6-week maternity leave limits that actually constricted the freedom of many women to take as long as they needed without losing their jobs. Linares in fact took a year off after having her child without losing her job, before this Decree went into effect.

Ultimately, the company which Linares had worked for years chose to close the Bethlehem factory, and for Linares and the workers there, it felt like betrayal. In the process of negotiating with a new parent company, Linares and the union had bent over backwards to not only protect their own wages, but to find alternative ways to solve the parent company’s needs. After all of that, the workers lost their jobs. Linares was unemployed for a time, but ultimately found a place at the Dislocated Workers Center, where she again got to work supporting the needs of workers. At the Dislocated Workers Center, Linares helped workers recently laid off from Dunkee Foods and Bethlehem Steel to apply to jobs, prepare for interviews, and gain the lay of the land in a rapidly changing job market. Some of Linares most important work through the center was dealing with the emotional toll of unemployment. Many of the workers faced depression, alcoholism, and debt, and the Dislocated Workers Center hosted workshops and seminars to provide these workers with the resources to combat these challenges. Interestingly, Linares notes that though the workers who had previously worked at Bethlehem Steel were often quick to get new jobs, since their work had been skilled and those skills were often transferable, the steelworkers were often the most hard-hit by depression and alcoholism. Linares ascribes this phenomenon to the transition from secure benefits and strong wages to less secure forms of employment. Her insights along these lines should point listeners of her story to the concerns and realities of the unemployed today.

Linares’ final stop in her rich career was at Peter Angelo’s law firm, which specialized in asbestos litigation. Once again, Linares found herself making sure that corporations took care of their workers in some form or another, and many of the firm’s clients proved to be steelworkers and their spouses, having tragically developed various cancers or mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos during their working lives. In each iteration of her work, Linares found herself protecting the health and well-being of workers, who, without fighting for their own rights, might not receive protections from corporations simply interested in making a profit.

Then and Now

Iris Linares’ story reflects the need for and power of traditional and nontraditional labor organizing. Linares participated in a union to great effect, but she also found other avenues to fight for labor justice through nonprofits and legal advocacy. Though positive attitudes about union work and labor organizing started in her family, Linares career shows how this was not simply a matter of self-interest, but a life-long commitment to justice. Linares’ insights into her experiences reflect on some of the labor concerns that can be too often forgotten in our political conversations that today focus on numbers of jobs, rather than quality of jobs. Through her work at the Dislocated Workers Center, Linares’ story highlights that though it is crucial to aid the unemployed facing desperate times in this pandemic and economic crisis, we also need to consider how we can support unemployed community members as they struggle with depression and other potential emotional challenges. Too often, our society reproduces a narrative that the unemployed are lazy and thus deserve their lack of work; yet this narrative serves to further bias, prejudice, and narratives of superiority, rather than addressing the economic causes of unemployment. In addition, Linares’ work shows that Bethlehem already has a template for how we can support unemployed workers.

In a similar way, the health of workers cannot be an afterthought. Though asbestos litigation is a necessary move to righting the past, such damaging work environments can be prevented in the first place, if corporations and employers take the health of their workers seriously. In the heightened space of our pandemic world, the health of workers is of increased importance. Linares’ oral history then sheds light on poignant questions for our present moment: How are we taking care of the mental health of the unemployed? How are we protecting the long term health of workers, and going above and beyond what is standard at the time? Ultimately, Iris Linares also offers us her life as an example of what personal passion for workers’ rights can look like, and how a daily commitment to justice can truly make a difference in our community.

Watch Iris Linares’ full oral history here!

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