Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee

Whatever Happened to Steelworkers Fightback?

Sadlowski Campaign: The Lessons Learned


First Published: Unite!, Vol. 4, No. 4, March 15, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the windows and on the walls in South Chicago, Birmingham and Pittsburgh, the old campaign posters can still be seen: “Sadlowski Steelworkers Fight Back!” It has been a little over a year since Ed Sadlowski lost the election for President of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to Lloyd McBride. Today there is little left of the Steelworkers Fightback. It is a hollow organization which is scarcely heard from even on issues on which it campaigned, such as against the ENA. The Steelworkers Fightback took up the struggle against the ENA and for the rank-and-file right to ratify contracts in order to win an election for Ed Sadlowski, and not to mobilize and serve the interests of the steelworkers.

The working-class movement can learn many lessons for future struggles from this campaign. During the campaign Sadlowski played up his image as “oilcan Eddy”, the beer-drinking buddy of steelworkers. His main issue was opposition to the “never strike” Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA). McBride played this up in order to cut Sadlowski off from the 2/3rds of the union which is not under the ENA. Sadlowski won in almost all of the big steelmills that are under the ENA and McBride took the rest of the union.

Within the workers’ movement various trends took different positions towards the Sadlowski campaign. What was the correct-stand and what stand should workers take towards future “rebel candidates”? In order to answer this question we must first analyze who Sadlowski was and what group he represented.

Sadlowski came from the labor aristocracy in the steelmills, from among’ the skilled craft workers in the maintenance shops. He was president of Local 65 at U.S. Steel’s Southworks and district director of District 31 (Chicago-Gary). Sadlowski did oppose the more outrageous policies of I.W. Abel, like the ENA and the lack of rank-and-file ratification of contracts. But he did not challenge the basic ideology of the USWA or the AFL-CIO. He did not oppose the concept of workers and capitalists working together in peace.

As district director he failed to carry through the promises made to Black steelworkers that he would promote them to positions in the union. In the campaign Sadlowski did not organize the rank-and-file steelworkers to fight for their interests. He did not rely on the masses but on the liberal Democratic Party and the revisionist Communist Party, USA.

What is clear from all this? Sadlowski did not represent the masses of steelworkers. He sought to use the discontent of the vast majority of steelworkers to replace the Abel bureaucracy with one of his own making.

Why then did so many steelworkers vote for Sadlowski? The majority of steelworkers in basic steel voted for him because he promised to give them back the right to strike and the right to ratify. Many knew that he was not the solution to all the problems, but he was obviously a better choice than McBride.

In this election there was clearly no candidate who would truly fight for the interests of the working class and not just for themselves. So it was a question of which candidate would objectively aid the struggle of the steelworkers. Because Sadlowski’s program included opposition to the ENA and the right to ratify contracts by the rank and file, the MLOC correctly called for steelworkers to vote for Sadlowski. However, we did not form an alliance with Sadlowski. Forming alliances is a tactical consideration which must depend on the relative strength of the forces involved. Communists must not form alliances with reformists, such as Sadlowski, unless they have a strong enough base in the working-class movement to guarantee their political independence.

As the MLOC was in many ways just beginning to work in steel, the feasibility of this alliance did not exist. We were not in a strong position to make any gains for the working class by such an alliance.

But the MLOC made an error in the work on the elections. We called on workers to vote for Sadlowski in the elections. But we discouraged workers from actively working in the campaign.

This represented a clear vacillation on our part. We correctly identified Sadlowski as a reformist who could not solve the problems of the steelworkers. Once in office Sadlowski would have betrayed the interests of steelworkers just as Arnold Miller has in the United Mine Workers of America. However, as communists we do actively fight for greater democracy for the working class. It would be a good thing in the USWA if workers had the right to strike and the right to ratify. Inasmuch as Sadlowski would have allowed for greater democracy in the USWA, we should have actively worked to have him elected.

Our task as communists was not to discourage workers from actively working to have him elected. Our real task was to educate workers about the nature of reformism so that there would not be any illusions about what Sadlowski represented and what he would do.

There were other organizations which did make alliances with Sadlowski – the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the CPUSA. The CPUSA allied with Sadlowski hoping to ride to power on his coattails or gain some concessions from him after the election was over.

Having given up the class struggle long ago, these revisionists also preach reform as an end in itself. They also do not mobilize the masses of steelworkers to fight for genuine fighting unions. They instead want to take over this leadership themselves from the top down. This is why so many of them are found in the labor aristocracy from which the vast majority of the trade union bureaucrats, like Sadlowski, come.

The RCP also gave uncritical support to Sadlowski. Although they did criticize him in their paper, “Revolution”, their practice in the steelmills was to tail after him. They were afraid to raise criticism of Sadlowski because they thought that workers would not understand.

The RCP in turn hoped to be able to use the Steelworkers Fightback in order to build their National United Workers Organization. During the entire election campaign their primary piece of agitation was around the formation of this organization. They hoped to prey on the movement of the rank and file to promote this organization.

The Communist Party (ML), known then as the October League, called for a boycott of the elections. This was very consistent with their practice in the trade unions – they bad mouth the trade union bureaucrats and leave the capitalists alone. These opportunists failed to support the movement for more democracy in the USWA which would have helped put the steelworkers in a better position to wage struggle against the capitalists and smash their agents, the trade union bureaucrats.

Out of this election the workers’ movement can learn some very important lessons. These can aid all workers in the struggle to take back control of their unions and set them on a course of class struggle.

1. Develop a Fighting Program:

Steelworkers need a fighting program of demands which are in the interests of all rank-and-file workers. The program cannot be based just on a single issue like opposition to the ENA. Nor can a program be built primarily on a personality, such as Ed Sadlowski. Based on this program, workers can judge whether or not a candidate should be elected, or whether to accept or reject a contract. Recognizing this need of steelworkers, the MLOC is currently working on developing a fighting program for steel.

2. Rely on the Rank and File:

The working-class movement cannot rely on rich liberals for money and support. A genuine rank-and-file movement will succeed because it is built among the masses of workers, and fights for their interests.

3. Organize and Fight in the Mills:

The basic organization of the rank-and-file movement must be built right in the mill. It will be built by actually taking up the day-to-day struggles in the shops. The movement will gain strength in these struggles. The fight for steelworkers’ demands will be won on the shop floor and not primarily at bargaining tables or in Washington D.C.

4. Fight for the Final Aims:

All of our demands can be met fully only with the final emancipation of the working class and the establishment of socialism.