Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Steel Union Debate: How to Smash Abel Machine

First Published: The Call, April 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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How should steelworkers view the elections that will soon take place in their union, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA)?

Campaigns are underway across the U.S. and Canada to elect local leadership and delegates to the USWA International Convention, all leading up to a fight for the International leadership early next year.

Election time sets off a lot of discussion in the mills about the kind of program and organization steelworkers need in order to deal with discrimination, dangerous working conditions, layoffs and speed-up. Without fail, the candidates and would-be reformers come out of the closet to do everything they can to limit the discussion to one question–which candidate should we vote for. In this way they attempt to side track discussion away from issues of real concern.


The present sell-out leadership of the USWA, headed by I.W. Abel, has turned the union and the mills into a testing ground for reactionary policies such as the racist Consent Decree and the no-strike agreement. In response to this kind of leadership and to the worsening conditions in the mill, large numbers of workers have participated in spontaneous protests in Birmingham, Baltimore, East Chicago, and other steel centers.

In the midst of rising protest against Abel and his cronies two years ago, Ed Sadlowski announced his candidacy for Director of District 31, the largest district in his largest of industrial unions. He ran as an “alternative” to Abel in the 74 election–just as he is doing today.

Included in his ’74 election platform were many issues on the minds of steelworkers: the right to ratify contracts, curbs on job elimination and job combination, upgrading of wages, pensions and insurance and greater union democracy. Many workers braved goon squads and sub-zero weather to speak to the issues raised in his campaign. Sadlowski won the election over Abel’s handpicked candidate, Sam Evett, in a landslide vote. But what has he done since? Sadlowski has raised no opposition to the no-strike agreement. He supported the racist Consent decree. With 40,000 workers out of 135,000 in the district laid off, his office has no accurate statistics, no break down by mill, department, nationality or sex regarding the layoffs. Most importantly, he has offered no program to get people back to work! Not one word has come from him calling for steelworkers to organize to fight against the layoffs.

An example of Sadlowski’s stand toward discrimination and the inhuman conditions in the blast furnaces came out around the case of James Jackson, a Black steelworker from the blast furnace at Youngstown in East Chicago. Jackson was imprisoned for rebelling against the conditions, for shooting his foreman. Workers in the local wanted to support his case and at the same time expose the working conditions in the mill. When they tried to raise it on the union floor, the meeting was adjourned and workers were threatened. Sadlowski’s boys kept silent. When asked to intervene and stop that kind of mistreatment of union members, Sadlowski turned a deaf ear.


With International elections approaching, however, Sadlowski is again putting himself forward as the main challenge to Abel’s rule. He has begun organizing “Steel-worker Fight-Back” groups around the country, with the aim of bolstering his own position. While these so-called “Fight-Back” groups have been focused largely on criticism of dues and union salary increases railroaded through at the last International Convention, Sadlowski views them as local centers for his election campaign. This is certainly not the kind of organization that will fight for steelworkers. As for Sadlowski, the last two years have shown that he is no real alternative to the class collaborationist policies of Abel.

The roots of class collaboration-ism rest in the imperialist system itself. Out of the vast amounts of money the imperialists receive from the exploitation of workers around the world, particularly the third world nations and people, they are able to bribe a small section of the workers in this country. Abel’s $80,000 a year salary and all the privileges that the imperialists have awarded him make him a member in good standing of this corrupted section.

In addition to direct bribery, the imperialists corrupt a number of workers who aspire to obtain influential positions in the union and government bureaucracies. These workers, too, share the same outlook as the imperialists and spread their ideas and influence.

The reformism that Sadlowski pushes is precisely one way by which the imperialists try to maintain control of the workers’ organizations. His conscious attempt to focus the movement on electing class collaborationist individuals rather than building class struggle rank-and-file organizations is a real service to the steel bosses and the imperialists. This reformism disarms the workers and is nothing but a disguised attack presented as a “genuine alternative” to the already exposed reactionary policies of men like Abel.

Two years ago when Sadlowski ran for district leadership, communists along with large numbers of other workers were active in the campaign. A broad movement was developing that activated many forces among steelworkers whose aim was to break up and throw out the whole Abel machine. Many workers believed that simply by electing Sadlowski, power would be returned to the workers. In the course of months of struggle and debate, those who worked to build a strong opposition to Abel were also laying the basis for a genuine rank-and-file movement within the USWA.

The participation of communists was of great importance. In addition to speaking to the issues raised directly by the campaign, communists worked to link the immediate struggles and issues to the need for a strong rank-and-file organization within the USWA, independent of reformist elections and candidates.

Two years of Sadlowski has demonstrated concretely that he is no alternative to Abel. With election time coming up once again it is clearer than ever that to overthrow the traitorous Abel machinery, an industry-wide rank-and-file movement needs to be built.

Elections and positions of union leadership are always component parts of the battle to oust the labor aristocrats and make the unions fighting tools of the workers themselves. But steelworkers must build the kind of organization which will lead this battle year round, not simply pay lip service to it at election time.