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 or were connected to 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 Judy Hoffert.
Judy Hoffert: Life as a Steelworker’s Wife
Judy Hoffert grew up on the north side of Bethlehem. Her father owned a small meat market and butcher shop, and she would help with the family business as a child, working the register, and going on rounds to drop off deliveries. Judy Hoffert met her husband Jeff and started “going steady” with him when she was fifteen. Jeff also worked at her family store, and Judy Hoffert would later decide not to go to college to stay nearby her partner. Jeff and Judy married in 1974. Jeff had gotten a job in the blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel the year before they married. According to Judy, the feeling was that “if you got in there [Bethlehem Steel] you were set for life.” Unfortunately for Judy and her family, those promises of security would prove not to be true.
Judy Hoffert left the workforce in 1975 when she had her first child. As a mother and a steelworker’s wife, she recalls having some resentment about the loyalty and commitment the Steel demanded of their workers. Jeff worked the swing shift, and according to Judy, that meant that “no day was sacred.” From Judy’s perspective, if the Steel had work for Jeff to do, he had to go in to work. She says, “we were supposed to be grateful he had a job, we weren’t supposed to question why he had to work on holidays.” This sometimes resulted in Jeff missing important moments in his children’s lives, like one time when he missed his son’s baptism. Yet Judy also reflects that Jeff had a strong loyalty to the company as he wouldn’t have dreamed about missing work. Jeff even walked 5 miles in a snowstorm one time to make sure he could get to work even when the roads were closed. And family events ultimately were organized around Jeff’s schedule. Bethlehem Steel truly shaped their life, and they believed, secured their future.
Later in life, Judy Hoffert would learn how dangerous her husband’s job was working the blast furnaces. The one time she was able to visit his work, she recalls the space being freezing cold and very dangerous. During his time at the Steel, there had been an explosion at the blast furnaces that killed two men, though Jeff had not been there at the time. Another time, Jeff had witnessed a man almost die when he got run over by a truck. As more and more of these incidents happened, Judy says her husband became increasingly reticent, keeping these traumas to himself so that she did not have to worry about him, or ask him to change jobs. The security of their pension and excellent benefits were on the line. Judy also notes however that Jeff was often her only source to learn about these accidents because the Steel kept most accidents quiet unless there had been a catastrophic loss of life. For the Hoffert family, the Steel meant financial and health security, but working there also had many hidden risks.
The Fall of the Steel and the Impact on Families
Bethlehem Steel shut down the “hot end,” or the blast furnace, in 1995. Judy says all of the steelworking families were horrified, and they felt like it was impossible that Bethlehem Steel, a titan in their lives, could be struggling so much. Judy’s husband was there for the last cast in the blast furnace in Bethlehem. For the Hoffert family, it was a crisis. They had depended on the finalization of Jeff’s pension when he completed seven more years of service. At Bethlehem Steel, workers became eligible to receive a pension after 30 years of service to the company, and Jeff had several years left before the pension contract was fulfilled. So ultimately, when the Steel offered Jeff a transfer to Sparrows Point in Baltimore, the family decided to move in order to complete the time needed to secure his pension and retain his benefits.
During the time her children had been in school, Judy went back to college in her 30s in order to work as a surgical assistant to an oral surgeon. The first year of her husband’s transfer to Sparrow Point, Judy stayed in Bethlehem to allow her son, her middle child, to graduate from his senior year of high school. Their youngest daughter, Laura, would end up spending the rest of her high school years in Baltimore. This year of separation was really hard on Judy, but the years living in Baltimore were also a culture shock. The family felt like outsiders as the Sparrows Point steelworkers were unwelcoming, and moving to a big city after living in such a small close-knit town for so long was a hard adjustment.
During their years in Baltimore, the Hoffert family had planned to return to Bethlehem, so they continued paying rent on their family home as well as simultaneously putting two kids through college, banking on being able to recoup the money when Jeff received his pension. They were going to retire when they returned to Bethlehem. Jeff worked in Baltimore 6 years, 11 months, and 10 days, when Bethlehem Steel let him go and cancelled his pension deal. The Hoffert family missed securing their entire future by only 20 days. As Judy tells it, one man they knew had only one more day of work before his pension was secured, and yet Bethlehem Steel refused to give it to him. According to Judy, the Steel knew the start dates of workers they had hired nearly 30 years ago who were soon to crystalize their pensions. It was clear to her that the Steel pushed the sale through quickly to ensure that they did not have to pay these pensions because of a clause in the contracts that enabled the executives to renege on this promise if the Steel was bought out. For Judy and many others who saw the extreme loyalty of the steelworkers, it felt like an utter betrayal. Everything they had been promised, that they had sacrificed for, was all for nothing.
Ultimately, when Jeff turned 60, he was awarded one third of his promised pension. The family was not able to retain any of its medical benefits and was never able to fully financially recover from paying the extra rent all those years. Jeff wasn’t able to retire when they had planned, and Judy describes discrimination Jeff faced as he attempted to get hired again as an ex-steelworker. According to Judy, people thought the steelworkers didn’t work hard enough, and their laziness was what drove Bethlehem Steel into the ground. This narrative would only protect the executives which walked away with huge bonuses, and further harm the ex-steelworkers.
Then and Now
One of the most striking results of Judy’s life experiences is the ways that the narratives around unions that she combated then, still persist today. Jeff was a union worker, and Judy remembers having to defend against arguments from everyday people who were constantly jealous or suspicious of the unions. She recalls that on the streets, the attitude was that unions were bad, that they broke up companies, that they demanded too much of companies and brought down businesses. But she also recalls that what was really happening was that executives at the Steel were putting money into country clubs and lavish vacations. Everyday people would criticize the great wages won by the union, or the 13 weeks vacation, because they could not conceive of a world where they themselves could deserve those benefits and those rights as workers too. The working culture then and now did not leave space for our society to fully embrace how important it was that unions were working to safeguard the well-being of their workers.
After the betrayal of the Bethlehem Steel, Judy Hoffert left feeling that money has perverted major companies, that companies no longer care about their people. Similarly, she has seen a significant loss in worker loyalty to companies. For Judy, telling her story, and the greed and betrayal of the Steel, which significantly altered her family’s life, is a way to ensure that history does not repeat itself. What Judy’s story reveals is the historical trajectory of the demonization of unions, and the life-altering effects of allowing power to coalesce in the hands of a few.