First Published: The Worker, for Hawaii, Vol. 2, No. 4, March 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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While it’s still too soon to analyze all the returns from the February 8 election for the presidency of the United Steel Workers, it’s been announced that the pro-company machine of I.W. Abel and his hand-picked successor, Lloyd McBride, beat challenger Ed Sadlowski. But while the rank and file failed to defeat the Abel machine, through the course of the battle that took place around the election the rank and file made important gains, so that even though the election was lost the campaign was a success in that the rank and file has become more organized, more aware of what it’s up against and better able to put up a fight.
In basic steel (the mills) where Abel’s company unionism has taken the form of no right to strike over national contracts nor even the right to vote on them and a thousand and one company attacks unhindered by the union leadership, Abel’s man McBride was voted down. Abel used the power his machine has built up in the more isolated steel fabrication shops and other branches of the union, where the issues aren’t seen so sharply, to pull together the votes to win the election overall. But both in terms of dealing some heavy blows to the machine in basic and in terms of breaking down isolation and building unity among all steel workers, the rank and file has come out of this election stronger than when it went in.
McBride couldn’t even run on the issues because he was on the wrong side on every one of them–from jobs, working conditions, dues increases, the Abel machine’s dictatorial rule over the rank and file, the no-strike deal (ENA), and the phony Consent Decree against discrimination to the whole question of company unionism. The challenger in this election, Ed Sadlowski, ran a campaign that took a stand, though often wishy-washy, on most of these issues and to some extent tried to draw strength from the growing anger of the rank and file.
The campaign was a battle. In every division of the USWA local officials were forced off the fence on the crucial issues facing the rank and file. Many plant managers and foremen harassed workers posting Sadlowski stickers at the various plants while they made plans for union elections on company property in the many small locals where McBride looked strong. In the mills much discussion and struggle took place, sparked by the campaign. “What good are strikes in rough times anyway? Can we workers ever control our own union? Do we have to cooperate with the companies and sacrifice for their benefit in order to save our jobs and everything we’ve worked and struggled for?”
Rank and file steel workers entered the campaign with big questions and aspirations for change. But the campaign often limited their role to vote getters, contributors and poll watchers. The Sadlowski campaign formed Steelworker Fight Back committees in many areas. For the first time in years numbers of workers in basic steel, can and aluminium sat together in the same room making plans for kicking the company out of their unions. Some of these committees were quite active in getting out literature and spreading the word of the campaign. But overall they were not rank and file committees. The Sadlowski staff wanted to build its own machine, relying on local officials including well-known opportunists to lead these committees because that’s how they would “get the vote.” In one can local the Sadlowski staff discouraged workers from putting out a newsletter tying the campaign to local conditions in their plant, because it would “be divisive.”
Many active rank and file steel workers, including those who look to and use The Steelworker national newsletter as an organizing tool, took an active part in the Sadlowski campaign in order to break up the Abel machine, while at the same time trying to keep the initiative in the hands of the rank and file. From the beginning, there was a struggle against the way in which the top leadership of the Sadlowski campaign wanted to limit things to ordinary campaign politicking.
People around The Steelworker and other rank and file forces were starting from a different point of view–that the rank and file had to be mobilized to take up this campaign as part of fighting for the workers’ own interests in general. Otherwise, the campaign would be weaker and the rank and file would stand to gain little. To reach out to the broadest number of workers possible, the most active workers had to organize themselves to take action.
This approach, where it won out over the opposite approach of the Sadlowski staff, was successful in winning votes for Sadlowski and even more importantly in laying the basis for the rank and file to move forward no matter what happened in the election. In Milwaukee, rank and file workers controlled the local Fight Back Committee, putting out their own literature as well as the official Sadlowski leaflets. Even though Sadlowski’s strength was in basic steel, and McBride carried non-basic overall, in Milwaukee where there is no basic steel at all Sadlowski won anyway. In Chicago some workers from the mills picketed outside a McBride dinner, exposing his pro-company brand of unionism.
The strongest advances for the rank and file came where the campaign to elect Sadlowski and bust up the Abel machine was directly tied to linking up the relatively isolated struggles of various steel mills and shops. This helped to develop among the workers a sense of an overall movement building up against the companies and their henchmen. Early in the campaign a picket of 100 steel workers was held at USWA headquarters in Pittsburgh sponsored by members of Local 3059 and The Steelworker. The picket demanded that Abel and the International free this militant local from receivership. This successful picket, combined with taking up the Sadlowski campaign, helped make possible the forming of the District 27-28 Organizing Committee in the Cleveland-Northeast Ohio area. In Chicago similar developments led to the forming of the District 31 Organizing Committee. New organizations consolidated on the basis o advances made in the campaign can play an important part in future battles.
Despite what so far seems to be a defeat for Sadlowski, the rank and file won a lot in building a movement of steel workers to fight the companies’ attacks, company unionism and to advance the interests of all the working class.