Freedom Fighters in Steel
Struggle For Democratic Unionism
quarter century ago, when mid-western cities were still ringed
by the glowing hearths of steel mills instead of their
post-industrial rubble, dissident steel workers were on the
march. Their champion then was Ed Sadlowski, a critic of the
union establishment who was campaigning, unsuccessfully, for
president of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA).
"Oil Can Eddie" was a product of the union's
Chicago-Gary district, where blacks and whites united to build
the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the "old
left" working class milieu vividly described in Ruth
Freedom Fighters in Steel.
before bumper stickers appeared on Volvos urging us to
"Celebrate Diversity," Sadlowski tried to do just that
when he assembled his "Steelworkers Fightback" slate.
In addition to himself, a Polish-American, it included a
Serbo-Croatian, an African-American, a Chicano, and an American
Jew. This rainbow coalition covered all the political bases
except Canada—a fatal omission in an "international
union" that has since elected two Canadians as president!
In 1976, however, the emergence of a black candidate for the
USWA executive board—Oliver Montgomery—was big news indeed.
In the four decades since the USWA's founding, no
African-American had ever made it to the top ranks of America's
second largest industrial union.
the 1960s, continued discrimination in the mills and exclusion
of blacks from the union leadership and staff triggered a
rank-and-file revolt, led by Montgomery and others.
undercut Sadlowski's appeal to minority workers, based on his
alliance with this civil rights veteran, incumbent officials
quickly created a new USWA vice-presidency for "human
rights." They then found a safer African-American candidate
for the job—a union headquarters loyalist who was "not
part of the black protest movement."
partial victories are a re-occurring feature of the
anti-discrimination fights recounted in Needleman's steel union
history. . . .
book is] thus relevant to current debates about reviving the
labor movement — particularly through recruitment of more
women, immigrants, and other "minorities" who together
constitute a new majority in many workplaces.
being wooed by "progressive unions" now are already
learning the truth of Frederick Douglass' famous 19th century
axiom—"power concedes nothing without a demand"
(which applies equally to industrial relations and internal
union politics). In today's AFL-CIO, grassroots participation in
the pageantry of Justice for Janitors campaigns or the Immigrant
Workers Freedom Ride is highly-prized—just as the CIO once put
a top priority on African-American support for unionization in
involvement can be more problematic, however, when initial
organizing or contract fights are over, labor-management
relationships have become institutionalized, and union
bureaucracy is far more entrenched than rank-and-file power.
Needleman observes, "without membership initiative and
organization, without debate and opposition, unions lose the
spirit and substance that makes them work." . . . .
anchors her analysis in oral history, focusing on the moving
personal stories of five Steelworkers whose union involvement
spanned more than sixty years.
overlapping careers of George Kimbley, William Young, John
Howard, Curtis Strong, and Jonathan Comer add up to a collective
profile in courage. Although differing in their handling of
"racial conflicts and individual prejudice," all
played "instrumental roles in establishing a union in
steel, implementing fairer workplace standards, and forging
alliances with community, civil rights, and women's
organizations." Behind labor's official support for
"civil rights," there has always been a more complex
reality, even in left-led unions.
organizing in the 1930s broke with the AFL's tradition of craft
union bias, creating integrated working-class organizations that
had little precedent in a society long segregated, at all
levels, in its housing, education, and employment.
. . . notes that CIO leaders backed "anti-lynching and
anti-poll tax legislation, fair employment practices, fair
housing, and voting rights." Yet the legacy of past
employer discrimination--and persistent racism on the shop
floor—cast a dark shadow over the functioning of individual
unions like the United Steel Workers. Using collective action
and the threat of workplace disruption, black USWA pioneers
helped curb many of the worst abuses by lower-level management.
inequality on the job had a structural dimension. As Needleman
explains, "the steel companies established segregation
through their industry wide pattern of hiring; blacks and
Mexicans were channeled into the worst jobs in the coke plant,
open hearth, and blast furnace, or into the labor gangs in
predominantly white departments." Even within departments,
jobs were arranged in white-dominated promotional
"sequences" or groups, "segregating the better
jobs from the worst ones." When minorities challenged this
system, the resistance was greatest where white workers saw
their higher-paying positions—and seniority—being threatened.
course, the "seniority rights" they defended, with
union backing, were neither plantwide nor departmental but
rather "seniority within sequences"—not exactly a
color-blind application of the principle.
the 1940s, black USWA members themselves—aided by white
leftists—began to chip to away at this edifice of injustice.
How much help they got from their local unions—and how much of
a "melting pot" the USWA actually became—usually
depended on the success of joint campaigns with fellow activists
who were Communists.
conservative defenders of the status quo--in the plant or at the
union hall—the political equation was clear: "black plus
white equals red." The subsequent elimination of many Party
members from positions of local union influence after passage of
the Taft-Hartley Act—and the ferocious attacks on left-led
unions expelled from the CIO in 1949—undermined
anti-discrimination initiatives in the steel industry and
the midst of the great purge, a columnist for the Washington Afro-American
lamented the CIO's retreat towards "America's traditional
policy of segregation and Jim Crowism." . . .
the McCarthy era, two of Needleman's subjects—Young and
Strong—took brave stands in defense of white radicals facing
persecution within the USWA.
the interests of their own survival, other African-Americans
distanced themselves from one-time political comrades and
causes. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s spawned a new
alliance within the Steel Workers, among black activists
themselves. They formed a rank-and-file caucus called the
"National Ad Hoc Committee," which launched a renewed
legal, political, and public relations assault on discriminatory
by the NAACP Labor Secretary Herbert Hill, Ad Hoc members
ultimately used the battering ram of Title 7 of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 to overcome promotional barriers. Nearly a decade of
litigation involving major steel makers and the USWA resulted in
a controversial industry-wide "consent decree." It
provided little back pay but did "open up jobs and
apprenticeship programs previously off limits to
African-Americans," plus increased the number of women and
minorities hired into the industry.
black steelworkers gained access to better-paying,
higher-skilled jobs just in time to see much steel making work
deindustrialized out of existence. By the mid-1980s, half the
work force in East Chicago and Gary had been eliminated, due to
mill closings, new technology, foreign imports, and corporate
legacy of equal opportunity that Needleman's "freedom
fighters" hoped to "pass down to the next generation
vanished." Now stranded in devastated urban communities,
their "children and grandchildren would not even have
access to low-paid, dirty jobs in the mills." Despite this
tragic denouement, Black Freedom Fighters contains
important lessons for workers trying to rebuild multi-racial
unions, inside or outside the rust belt.
the basis for a concluding chapter, Needleman assembled a group
of past and present USWA activists, male and female, for a
free-wheeling discussion of their experiences. The participants
noted that blacks were not drawn to the union simply to gain
rights on the job but also as "organization that would
protect their social and political rights." As one former
Ad Hoc member observed, when organized labor put "social
justice concerns aside in the name of business unionism, many
black activists lost interest" and "black
participation started its downward slide."
make membership voices heard again and promote social movement
unionism, the book's "freedom fighters" agree that
workers need "self-organization"—independent clubs,
caucuses, and networks that can raise issues, stimulate debate,
and hold labor leadership accountable. . . .
the example of black activists in steel—who soldiered on, even
when shorn of many left allies--demonstrates the power and
potential of rank-and-file initiative in a labor movement still
top-heavy with staff and officials wedded to the status quo.
* * * *
Source: Steve Early is a Boston-based organizer who has aided union
democracy movements in the Mineworkers, Steelworkers, and Teamsters.
* * * *
Ruth Needleman, professor of Labor
Studies at Indiana University since 1981, has been engaged in
labor and civil rights struggles for decades. Beginning in 1969
Ruth taught Latin American literature and studies at University
of California, Santa Cruz. In the early seventies, she left UC
to work for the United Farmworkers Union, writing and
distributing their bimonthly newspaper El Malcriado. She
co-authored the book Los gremios nacionales, which deals
with the right-wing counter-revolutionary strikes in Chile, and
published by Allende's Quimantu. She also organized as a rank
and file Teamster in a New York plastics sweatshop and later at
UPS in Detroit.
For two years (1990-92) Ruth served as
education director for SEIU. In 1993, back in Gary, she founded
Swingshift College, a customized college degree program for
workers. She has collaborated with the Steelworkers since 1981,
teaching district and international programs, including their
4-year leadership program. Her publications address issues of
race, class and gender, from her articles/chapters on leadership
development, coalition-building, and women and unions, to
articles on the importance of caucuses and independent
organization within unions. Her recently published book is Black
Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism.
She is beginning a project on race relations and
strategies for solidarity among working women.
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updated 3 November