Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee

Struggle in Steel: Class Warfare in United Steel Workers Union

First Published: Unite!, Vol. 2, No. 6, December 1976-January 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Tremendous changes are taking place in the ranks of the steel workers and the United Steel Workers Union (U.S.W.A.). The struggle against the union bureaucrats who control the U.S.W. is stepping up, as steelworkers prepare for the union election in February and contract negotiations later in the year. The sharpening struggle around the union elections and fundamental rank and file issues is a reflection of the fact that since the last national steel strike in 1959, the capitalist class has taken increasing steps to try to ensure that the steelworkers and the U.S.W. remain reliable and loyal wage slaves. But the strangle-hold on the U.S.W. by the capitalists is beginning to break down, and the struggle in steel is getting hotter by the day.

The present election struggle in the U.S.W. between the old bureaucratic forces of I.W. Abel and Co., now represented by Lloyd McBride (Director of District 34, St. Louis) and the reformist forces headed by Ed Sadlowski (District Director #31 Chicago-Gary), while offering no genuine choice for the steel worker has sharply underlined the growing contradictions within the union and the entire trade union movement.

But the question of the upcoming election is only part of a much larger question facing steelworkers – that of how all the capitalists, revisionists and reformists can be driven out of the unions so that the unions may be reestablished as real organizing centers for the proletariat in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. Our struggle is to drive the labor bureaucrats out of the unions and to fight for genuine working class control of the trade unions. This is a pre-requisite for the emancipation of the working class and the establishment of socialism.


The steel industry, along with auto and coal, forms the backbone of the capitalist economy the very legs on which the imperialist bourgeoisie must stand in its drive for world hegemony. The bourgeoisie needs steel for ships, for auto, machinery, trucks, planes, and for construction. And the bourgeoisie needs steel to wage imperialist war. For the ruling class the maintenance of steel production is of vital importance as imperialism’s general crisis places greater and greater strain on capitalism – economically, politically, and militarily.

As an outgrowth of the strategic importance of this sector of the economy, the U.S.W.A. has been a prime target for bourgeois subversion since its founding in 1942. Through agents such as I. W. Abel, the bourgeoisie has spared no effort to divert the militant struggles of steelworkers along the path of peaceful reform, and to use its successes in steel as a precedent for other industries and unions. Through such steps as the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (E.N.A.) and the establishment in 1971 of joint Committees on Productivity the bureaucrats of the U.S.W. have spearheaded the bourgeoisie’ offensive and collaborationist drive to increase the exploitation of the working class. The reactionary influence of such actions can be plainly seen in mining where the Miller bureaucracy has increasingly opposed wildcats, and in auto, in Leonard Woodcock’s acceptance of auto industry layoffs coupled with speed-up on the assembly line. Through such activities the U.S.W. bureaucrats have become the pace-setters for the bourgeoisie’s scramble to “save” capitalism at the expense of the working class.

The U.S.W.A. is fast approaching a turning point. As the crisis of capitalism finds expression in the sharpening of class contradictions, the United Steelworkers’ Union will undoubtedly be a major battlefield of class struggle. Such struggle, both against the bourgeoisie and against the opportunist forces of the labor aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy is nothing new for workers of the steel industry.

In response to the 1959 steel strike, the longest in history, the bourgeoisie and their agents stepped up their drive for “industrial peace” in steel with the establishment of a Human Relations Committee (HRC) which David MacDonald, then U.S.W. president, openly declared would hopefully eliminate strikes in steel “forever” by substituting continuous negotiations for the “needless disruption of production”. Because of the sell-out contracts negotiated through the HRC, MacDonald was ousted from his seat. as U.S.W.A. president in 1965 by steel workers who were sick to death of the open collaborationist treachery which was eating away at their wages, jobs, their right to strike, and democracy in their union.


Today, under I.W. Abel, steelworkers are faced with the continued loss of jobs to mechanization, increasing health and safety hazards in the mills and plants, and racism. And they have been robbed of the right to strike until the contract negotiations of 1980.

In 1973 when Abel’s Experimental Negotiating Agreement was put into effect, without ratification or debate by the steel workers rank and file it was lauded to the skies by bourgeois hacks as the only solution to the ills of the steel industry; as a new approach to settling disputes “on the basis of reason rather than muscle”. The ENA is supposed to allow the U.S. steel industry to compete more favorably with foreign producers and to boost industrial expansion by eliminating the “costly stockpiling” of steel which the bourgeoisie moaned was costing $80 million yearly. By creating more favorable “stable” conditions for the industry it was supposed to eliminate the problem of lay-offs and allow for greater wage increases and “prosperity for all”, etc., etc. Steelworkers have learned from their own experience that nothing could be further from the truth.

When Abel entered office on the tails of MacDonald’s defeat it was on the basis of promises that he would return the united Steelworkers to the rank and file. Since then, steelworkers have received nothing, while the bourgeoisie has been given free reign to increase productivity at the expense of the workers. The introduction of Basic Oxygen Furnaces (BOFs) and electric furnaces and continuous casting and direct reduction procedures have cost steelworkers 100,000 jobs over the last 20 years, 50,000 of which have been lost in the three years since the introduction of the ENA. In Pittsburgh at Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation alone, 2,000 jobs have been lost. At the same time, the productivity of those workers remaining has been pushed sky high. In 1956 the industry employed 509,000 workers producing 83 million tons of steel annually. By 1974 the workforce had been reduced to 393,000 while production rose to 110 million tons.

In the face of this the ENA has left steelworkers essentially defenseless in waging struggle against the Big Bourgeoisie of the steel industry. According to the ENA all contract issues not resolved through collective bargaining are to be submitted to binding arbitration. National steel strikes are expressly forbidden. The right of particular locals to call a strike exists only under the following conditions:

(1) The local issue giving rise to the strike must not be covered by or inconsistent with the basic steel contract and must not be an arbitratable grievance;
(2) The strike must begin after the expiration of the basic steel contract and on the day and time specified by I.W. Abel and shall be confined to the plant where it originates;
(3) The strike must be approved by I.W. Abel.

Clearly, even the right of locals to strike is presently nothing but a myth in the U.S.W.A.! Even when locals do manage to meet the above conditions and do manage to have strike action approved by I.W. Abel, the idea of one local taking on U.S. Steel, or even Bethlehem, is ludicrous. It allows the bourgeoisie the advantage of monopoly power and organization while effectively neutralizing the industrial strength of steel workers.

The effects which this sell-out has had are even more enraging when combined with the U.S.W. bureaucracy’s approach to safety and the oppressive national chauvinism of the companies. At U.S. Steel’s coke works in Clairton, Pennsylvania coke workers are waging a life-or-death battle to clean up cancer-causing oven emissions in opposition to the present agreement with the company which blocks any real improvements for the next 12 years. Meanwhile, coke workers over-all continue to be exposed to a risk of cancer 10 times greater than workers in the rest of the industry.

On the question of hiring, firing, and promotion, the implementation of the infamous Consent Decree has, in effect, institutionalized the racist practices of the companies while seemingly granting significant concessions to women and. minority workers. This agreement, which covers approximately 340,000 workers in basic steel of whom 52,545 are Black, 7,646 Latino, and 10,175 women, objectively cancels out Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act dealing with the right to file suit against job discrimination. Under the Consent Decree, workers charging discrimination must wave all right to file future job bias suits in order to receive back-pay awards. What’s more, if a worker refuses back-pay and files suit, the Decree states that the Justice Department will intervene in favor of the industry. On the question of seniority, the Decree upholds the right of minority workers to transfer out of lower paying and dangerous jobs without loss of seniority but skirts completely the practice of separate seniority lists for white and minority workers which assures that the actual opportunities for transferring into better job openings are few and far between.

The ENA, Consent Decree, and so on, all reflect the fact the U.S.W. like all the other major unions in the U.S. have, through actions of the trade union bureaucracy, become extensions of the capitalist state. The I.W. Abels have proven themselves better defenders of the capitalists than the capitalists themselves.

For these bureaucrats the U.S.W. is no small plum to pick. With 1.4 million dues paying members and total assets of $116 million, the interests of the Abel machinery is firmly rooted in the almightly dollar. Out of a total yearly payroll of $36 million Abel himself gets nearly $87,000 while 28 district directors each receive $35,000 plus expenses. In serving the capitalists these bureaucratic forces plainly serve themselves and will stop at nothing to ensure their absolute control over the union.


A perfect example of the bureaucratic manipulation of power within the U.S.W. was given at the recent constitutional convention. The 18th convention of the U.S.W. held in Las Vegas at the end of August completely sidestepped the many pressing issues facing steelworkers and instead focused on one single major purpose – the further consolidation of bureaucratic power within the steelworkers union. If any service was performed at this convention for the steelworkers rank and file it was to demonstrate once again the absolute bankruptcy and class collaboration of the trade union bureaucrats and assorted reformists who assembled, on workers’ dues, to enjoy the hoopla and degenerate culture of the Nevada gambling casinos.

From the outset it was clear that Abel – and his hand-picked successor, Lloyd McBride, had a firm hold on the convention. Abel opened the meet with a classic attack on all progressive elements of the union and a traditional red baiting campaign. The convention was stacked with an estimated 800 staffers alone – to guarantee absolute control of the business of the convention. One Sadlowski supporter even managed to snap pictures of McBride supporters forging credentials – but was beaten and had his film taken from him. From the beginning to the end, all business of the convention was skillfully managed by Abel and his cronies.

Many of the U.S.W. thought that Sadlowski would attempt to take on Abel at the convention, in preparation for his presidential candidacy of the union. However, Sadlowski managed his Fight Back organization with little more skill than a cub scout pack, failed to mobilize any serious opposition to Abel on the floor, and was consistently defeated on any floor business. Sadlowski distributed no literature at the convention, held few meetings, and acted as the perfect straight man for the Abel-McBride forces to consolidate their hold over the vast resources of the U.S.W. While Sadlowski took the floor several times, each time he focused on his own self-defense rather than the basic issues facing steel workers.


The real question of the upcoming election is not who should be elected, but first, whether or not to rely upon the rank and file, and second, the necessity to smash the existing bureaucratic union structure and replace bureaucratic leadership with genuine working-class leadership. The recapture of the trade unions by the proletariat will never be achieved through election campaigning alone, and especially not through the election campaigns of reformists like Ed Sadlowski.

Union elections, if they are to have full significance for the rank and file, must be a part of, and develop out of, a broad struggle against the capitalist class while fighting to uproot the reactionaries in the union itself. This can only be achieved by working inside the unions and fighting for genuine working-class leadership on every level, from the shop, the plant, the local, the district, and the International. This is the basis on which true proletarian leadership will rise and be tested – in the struggle against the companies, the trade union bureaucrats, and the capitalist class as a whole. It will not be brought to the union from the offices of the international headquarters, as Sadlowski plans.

The demand of the working class for leadership has arisen on the basis of necessity. The electioneering of Ed Sadlowski does not respond to this demand. Ed Sadlowski is not a worker who has come forward in the class struggle against capitalism. The Fight Back Organization he has put together in District 31 has gained little support from the rank and file because it has not boldly advanced a program of struggle which represents the rank and file. Instead, the Sadlowski forces hope to win the union election in the same way that Jimmy Carter won the presidency – by demagogically and falsely appealing to the need and desire for change in the U.S.W. for the sole purpose of promoting himself over the interests of the working class. Sadlowski has not built the power of the rank and file; Sadlowski has built Sadlowski.

Karl Marx, the greatest teacher of the working-class movement, pointed out that the historic task of the trade unions is to fight for the complete emancipation of labor from capital. Sadlowski, on the other hand, advances a program designed to keep workers shackled as wage slaves, but simply better-paid wage slaves:

Organized labor’s future depends on a movement toward the fundamental goal of the labor movement’s winning an equitable share of the nation’s wealth for the people who produce that wealth by their labor. (The Nation, 9/6/76)

The reason for this is clear. Sadlowski is a reformer, a militant trade-unionist and nothing more. He represents a new generation of labor reformists who see themselves consciously following in the footsteps of Arnold Miller and the Miners for Democracy movement in the United Mine Workers. Sadlowski runs on a program of union democracy, he opposes the E.N.A. and the Consent Decree, and has stated that as president, he would not ratify a contract without rank and file approval. But for Sadlowski, and all reformists like him, such things as union democracy, the right to strike, etc., are goals in themselves rather than simply means for the complete emancipation of the working class from capitalist exploitation. For this reason, Sadlowski is unable to provide genuine working class leadership to steelworkers.

A good example of the limitations of such leadership as Sadlowski would provide can be seen in his stand on the question of coke emissions. At a recent gathering of workers for District 15 in Clairton, PA., the heart of the struggle in the coke industry, Sadlowski simply stated that the exposure time of coke oven workers to cancer causing gases be reduced from eight to six hours! Rather than dealing with the question of why it is that under capitalism workers are killed for the sake of profits and what should be done to eliminate such hazards, Sadlowski offers nothing more than “eight hours pay for six hours work”!

At the same time that reformists like Sadlowski must be exposed for what they are, we must support any move toward the extension of democracy, any small opening that allows communists to agitate toward greater consciousness and organization of the working class. To the extent to which Sadlowski objectively assists the struggle for union democracy, he should be supported. Steelworkers should vote for Sadlowski. But what must be built is not Sadlowski, but the consciousness and organization of the workers’ rank and file. This does not mean that we do the work of the reformists themselves.


Some revisionist groups, such as the “Communist” Party U.S.A. and the Revolutionary Communist Party openly promote Sadlowski and actively build his campaign. This is the stand of class collaboration which marks the unity of revisionists and reformists. In the DAILY WORLD (“C”PUSA) and THE STEELWORKER (RCP) Sadlowski is praised and rarely if ever criticized. At the recent USW convention the reactionary influence of these revisionist forces was plainly evident. On the convention floor, no less than eight official “reporters” from the “C”PUSA created a substantial presence and proved themselves better defenders of Sadlowski than Sadlowski himself.

At the sane time, outside the convention (and outside the union), the RCP set up a picture display and sought to get THE STEELWORKER, their “rank and file newspaper” into the hands of steelworkers, with little success. Rather than waging a fight inside the convention (and inside the union), the RCP tried to pull steelworkers into their national steelworker organization. Rather than waging a battle in front of the workers in the convention against Abel and Sadlowski, they managed to “confront” Abel in a gambling casino and politely present him with an “open letter”. At the same time, the RCP consistently supported Sadlowski and made excuses for his poor performance inside the convention. Both the “C”PUSA and the RCP joined hands in trying to mislead the workers into believing that Sadlowski would represent their interests against McBride. This is the stand of the reformers themselves, not the working class.

There definitely will be genuine working class candidates that emerge in the course of the class struggle, and they must be supported. But Sadlowski is not such a candidate.

At the same time, there will emerge reformers with whom we will form a bloc in order to gain access to the working class masses, to enlighten them as to the reactionary character of their political and trade union leaders, to sever from the reactionary leaders the sections of the working class that are moving to the left and becoming revolutionized, and consequently, to enhance the fighting ability of the working class as a whole.

It is for these reasons that the great proletarian leader Joseph Stalin pointed to the necessity to, at times, form blocs with reformist leaders, or for the party to form a bloc with a reactionary trade union.

Comrade Stalin, however, clearly pointed out that two conditions must be met in order to pursue this course of action, “that we are ensured freedom to criticize the reformist leaders, and that the necessary conditions for severing the masses from the reactionary leaders are ensured.” (ON THE OPPOSITION, p.358).

Today, in the absence of a vanguard communist party, in the absence of a strong rank and file organization within the union, we are unable to fulfill these two conditions, and therefore we should not form a bloc with Sadlowski. We do not work in his campaign actively or build his campaign actively, as does the “C”PUSA, “C”LP and RCP. To do so is to do the work of the bourgeoisie itself, to hand over the workers to the laps of the reformists and revisionists.