Does SteelStacks Have Its Head in the Sands?

Bethlehem Steel
Image by Marty.FM via Flickr

Yes. Yes it does.

The skinny:

Once upon a time, Bethlehem Steel built something called America.  It also won some wars. Later, Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt and a lot of people got screwed. Around here, this is no footnote to the decline of American industry.  This is the whole sordid tale writ large in the Steel’s iconic blast furnaces, now owned by Las Vegas Sands, who also owns and operates Bethlehem’s Sands Casino on the former Bethlehem Steel grounds.

The blast furnaces are one of the biggest unprotected pieces of American history I can think of.  The feds don’t own them, nor does the Commonwealth nor some historical society or the city itself.  They’re owned by the casino corporation and not the people.  As such, they’ve been a big bargaining chip for the Sands.

We’ll give you access to your precious furnaces.


If what, exactly?

The usual.  You’ll see. 

Being the very picture of corporate beneficence, the Sands sold land to the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority (that’s another way of saying “the people,” or “the public,” isn’t it?) for $1 so the city could develop its plans for an arts and cultural center.  That arts and cultural center, SteelStacks, continues to come to fruition.

But here’s the catch, reported by the Allentown Morning Call: Under the terms of the $1 sale, public fomenting of anything disagreeable to the casino is not permitted, including, say, labor rallies and public debate about the efficacy of casinos as economic incubators (or dire social externalities).  From the Morning Call piece:

In the 15-page deed signed last week, the Redevelopment Authority agreed that labor unions can’t organize on the property. There also can’t be activities that would promote “a theme” that a “reasonable casino operator” would consider “offensive.”

Similar restrictions were written into the deals with nonprofits ArtsQuest and PBS39 for their properties at SteelStacks.

According to the Call, PBS39 (the P stands for “public”) has said their deal will not interfere with  programming and editorial choices.  That sounds like shorthand for “we’ve got an army of lawyers and a ton of cash you don’t know about,” which, of course, they don’t.  I wonder who at the Sands has the job of monitoring 39’s broadcasts?  Do they get nervous when Bruce Springsteen concerts from the 70’s run in the wee hours of the night during pledge campaigns?

As the Call points out, any talk of unionizing the Sands workers is prohibited on SteelStacks grounds by the terms of the casino’s “generous donation.”   My, how history repeats.  Just over a hundred years ago, labor toiled under management with similar attitudes and political muscle on this very spot.  This isn’t ironic, friends.  It’s Orwellian.

I should point out that many people blame part of the Steel’s downfall on the eventual excesses of power-hungry union heads. This narrative has been applied across all sectors of American industry and with reason. But it’s also the case that before the unions came, the hands that built America had no protection, no voice, and no organizing strength. The same is true for the casino’s workforce on these grounds even now.  And if you’re inclined to believe, as the numbers show, that casinos in low-income areas like South Bethlehem do more economic harm than good to people on the margins, this is all the more egregious.

Give us your tired and your poor so we can bilk them.  

Give us your jobless so we can bilk them, too.  

Give us your free-speech so we don’t scrap your history.

In the freest country in the world, what kind of choice is that?