Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist)

Debate on Sadlowski

First Published: The Communist, Vol. III, No. 2, January 27, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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We welcome the letter in the adjoining column (see below – EROL] for it speaks from the shop floor to conditions in steel and proposes a policy for the election February 8 to replace I.W. Abel as president of the United Steelworkers of America. The candidate of the Abel machine, Lloyd McBride, is challenged by the “progressive” director of the Chicago-Gary district, Edward Sadlowski. The letter says we should give critical support to Sadlowski.

We disagree fundamentally with this conclusion and the reasoning behind it. Lenin says that “to belittle socialist ideology in any way, to turn away from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.” In effect the letter fails to draw a clear line between the politics of trade unionism and communist politics. The correspondent bows to trade union strivings rather than showing the way to divert those strivings on to the path of socialist revolution.

We are told that it is to our advantage to support Sadlowski, even though in the long run Sadlowski is not enough. The basic argument here is that the Sadlowski campaign can break the Abel machine creating relatively more favorable conditions for trade union work. In addition, according to the correspondent, the advanced are in Sadlowski’s campaign and our support for his candidacy is important to the task of winning the advanced. If we do not give our support we will be “irrelevant.”

Other organizations which call for critical support for Sadlowski use essentially the same logic. For example, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) emphasizes the importance of breaking the Abel machine and adds that taking up the Sadlowski campaign can advance and develop the struggle of the rank and file.

These arguments confuse the issue. The fundamental question is not between the short run and the long run or between machine unionism and rank and file unionism. The basic question is the difference between trade unionism and Marxism-Leninism.


Sadlowski is not the source of the threat to the Abel machine, but a product of it. The challenge to Abel and other old guard trade unionists is an immediate and direct by product of intensified capitalist crisis. Boyle, Meany and Abel, etc., Inc. sent the best of the working class to fight in Indochina. As a result, they no longer have any hold over steelworker veterans who will fight in no more imperialist wars. Under conditions of continuing crisis, these same trade union reactionaries draw the salaries of corporation executives, yet every steelworker sees his real wages cut each week. The old guard lives as high as ever but does not deliver the goods. In short, the domestic and international crisis of U.S. imperialism has led to widespread rank and file disaffection with the leadership of trade union reactionaries like Abel. The bourgeoisie needs a new breed of trade union bureaucrat to maintain hegemony over the trade union organizations of the working class.

And in the effort to bring forward “open collar” bureaucrats like Sadlowski, the bourgeoisie is supported by the revisionist party which takes up the fight against the reactionary old guard in an effort to substitute a fresh version of the liberal labor alliance.


In fact there is not much confusion on this point. Our correspondent points out that with the exception of the attack on the Abel machine Sadlowski has sidestepped every important issue in steel. He gives the impression of opposition to the Experimental Negotiating Agreement but has not said straight forwardly that he opposes it. His record in District 31 is not even that of a good trade union militant. He has implemented the Consent Decree and used union goons to prevent anti-Klan mobilization. His record on grievances, health and safety, layoffs, etc. is poor. He tells us in fact that his idea of union leadership is cutting the workforce in basic steel from 400,000 to 100,000. (See his interview in the January 1977 issue of Penthouse magazine.)

There should be no confusion on this either – Sadlowski is as open in his collaboration with the capitalist class as Abel ever was. His campaign has picked up all the liberal, humanist and anti-working class trash of a warmed over McGovern campaign. As a third generation steelworker, he thinks he can get over. But his ideology is anti-working class and anti-communist. His so-called “leftism” is nothing more than a classic form of reactionary petty bourgeois socialism that wants to reform society by making the distribution of wealth more equitable without touching the ownership of the means of production. Sadlowski, a representative of the bribed strata of the working class, thinks that it is plant work which “alienates” a steelworker, not capitalist property relations, and he thinks that it is 40 hours in a factory which “drains the lifeblood of a man,” not capitalist exploitation. He thinks a doctor is more socially useful than a steelworker forgetting that the usefulness of a surgeon depends on instruments of steel.

But we know that Marxist-Leninists can work with even the most reactionary trade union leaders under certain conditions. Why do we not make use of Sadlowski in the short run to break the Abel machine? (or if we are light headed and fainthearted, why not vote for him even though we refuse to build his campaign (MLOC)!


To begin with, it is a revisionist strategy to mobilize rank and file disaffection with Abel only. Our aim is to mobilize the rank and file against capitalism and the trade unionist politics that go with it. We do not become “irrelevant” by opposing Sadlowski as well as McBride. We become irrelevant by tailing the trade union movement, tailing Sadlowski’s campaign, and by giving trade union politics priority over communist politics. We intend to mobilize not those who have had enough of Abel, but those who have had enough of trade union politics.

This is what determines the method we choose to attack, the corrupt bureaucratic machine that dominates the Steelworker Union. On this point three basic policies have come forward:

1. The first is the policy of the revisionist party. The revisionists attempt to break the Abel machine by electing Sadlowski to the union presidency. Their reliance on the emergence of a “new militant left trend” in the trade unions comes down to a reliance on one trade union bureaucrat against another–with the support of the liberal bourgeoisie.

2. The second is the policy of the economist trend in our movement which wants to break the Abel machine not by relying primarily on Sadlowski, but by relying on the militancy of the rank and file. While it gives critical support to Sadlowski, it refuses to accept the limits of the Sadlowski campaign but strives to mobilize the rank and file around trade union issues Sadlowski all but ignores. While this is the politics of militant trade unionism, it is still the politics of trade unionism. It is necessary to insist: the politics of rank and file militancy is not yet Marxism-Leninism.

3. The third policy is to prepare the party organizations in steel–factory nuclei–which can enable us to give revolutionary leadership to the trade union struggle. This involves first of all assuring the security of our work. It means taking up broad propaganda and agitation and the protracted struggle to create the necessary conditions for exercising day to day leadership.

Because the election campaign heightens the attention of every steelworker to trade union issues, we take short run advantage of the election campaign in order to intensify our propaganda and agitational work. In this our primary purpose is to lay a line around which the advanced can rally in order to further a party style of work in steel. Without consolidating the advanced into factory nuclei, we cannot hope to give revolutionary direction to the day to day struggle or to win the broad masses to our side on the basis of revolutionary politics, not trade union or rank and file militancy.


We use this election campaign to stretch a line around which the advanced can rally. Anti-machine politics is not enough for that. We need to show that Sadlowski’s politics, every bit as much as Abel’s, is the politics of class collaboration and narrow trade unionism, Sadlowski will not “most likely” sell out the rank and file in steel – he certainly will. This is not a matter of guessing at the future but of class stance. Sadlowski is a capitalist agent in the working class. Our goal is not more militant trade unionism but replacing the politics of trade unionism with revolutionary politics in the trade unions.

Stretching a line around which the advanced can rally means drawing a line between trade unionism and Marxism-Leninism. The slogan “Don’t Vote” can help to draw that line. We put it out to divert the advanced from trade union strivings to revolution and the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. But obviously, taken alone, it is not enough. In the hands of a trade unionist, it can be nothing more than a call to more thoroughgoing trade unionism, a means to expose Sadlowski ’s glaring weaknesses as a trade union leader or limited to a call for more militant rank and file action around important trade union issues raised in the campaign.

In order for the call to boycott the February 8 election to draw a line between trade union politics and Marxism-Leninism, we must unfold with it broad political propaganda and agitation, educating steel-workers not only to narrow trade union issues, but also to the political struggle of the proletariat and the ultimate seizure of state power.


It is the economist perspective from which our correspondent evaluated the Sadlowski campaign that leads to the incorrect call for critical support. When he says that “thousands of rank and file steel-workers are actively involved in the struggle against the capitalists for better contracts, etc.” he narrows the subject to a trade union focus. What he says is true, but hundreds are also striving for a way to struggle not only against capitalists in steel, but also against the capitalist class and against the government that supports it.

The correspondent also says that we must struggle with those progressive workers who want to create a fighting union–yes, but we do not measure the advanced by trade union militancy. There is a more fundamental question of openness to communism and the independent political struggle of the working class.

“We must make workers understand,” the comrade says, “issue like health and safety, grievances, racism and sexism and others” – yes, but these are trade union issues – even national and sexual oppression in this framework – and are nothing but the “thin gruel of economic politics” Lenin talked about in WHAT IS TO BE DONE. We must take to steel the need for socialism, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the final abolition of the wage system and the need for the revolutionary science that charts our course.

“It is only,” the comrade says, “strong rank and file organizations that can steer our union in a consistently progressive, direction.” WRONG! It is only a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party that can steer our union in a progressive direction, a revolutionary party that gives leadership to the trade union struggles of the working class It is a long standing and fundamental economist error to substitute building strong and militant rank and file organizations for developing the leading role of the party. It is this basic economist perspective that led our correspondent to confuse the active trade unionist with the advanced worker and to raise short run trade union advantages while neglecting the independent political interests of the working class.


We face the growing danger of imperialist war. Our work in steel is crucial to the tasks of preparing for war. It is of the utmost importance to prepare the stable conditions for giving revolutionary leadership to the steelworkers struggles. Trade union work, if confined to the fulfillment of immediate aims, will divert us from the path of revolution to the path of reform. Our task is to divert the working class from trade union politics to the Marxist-Leninist politics of revolution.

* * *

Letter to the Workers Congress

Steelworkers have been undergoing escalating attacks from the capitalists over the last few years. Our wages have been reduced relative to both what other American workers make and to what we can buy with them. We have been sped up to such a an extent that thousands of jobs have been permanently lost (63,000 jobs were lost between 1973 and 1975) and steelworkers constantly face the threat of layoffs. These productivity drives by the steel corporations have likewise resulted in a huge increase in industrial accidents. Similarly, the attacks by the companies against minorities and women have continued. The Consent Decree basically paid off some minority workers a few hundred dollars for past discrimination and gave these companies a legal right to continue these same discriminatory policies in regards to hiring, promotions, and transfers. Blacks, Latinos and other minorities continue to work in the dirtiest, most dangerous, least skilled and lowest paying jobs...

What has been the reaction of the United Steelworkers Of America (USW) to all these attacks? I.W. Abel and the other top bureaucrats of the USW have totally collaborated with the company’s attacks on steelworkers. They have signed the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA) which bans strikes in basic steel until 1980. This makes the union powerless in the face of the capitalist offensive. Likewise, the Abel group has signed the Consent Decree and has consistently displayed a total unwillingness to take up the just demands of minority and women, workers. And Abel has been more than happy to sign productivity agreements with the steel companies whose effect has been a loss of jobs and an increase in accidents.

Ed Sadlowski has decided to run against Abel’s hand-picked successor, Lloyd McBride. Sadlowski has been director of District 31–the Chicago-Gary area–for the past 2 years. Sadlowski is running, on a platform of fighting back against the steel corporations. He wants the USW to become a more democratic union where members can vote on contracts (which we don’t have the right to now) and where the rank and file can determine the union’s policies.

Many people think Sadlowski’s program is vague. It is. Sadlowski has not taken unequivocal, clear positions on the issues. He says that steelworkers should have the right to strike and that he would let the rank and file vote on the ENA, but Sadlowski has not said he personally opposes the ENA Likewise, Sadlowski has said little about racism and sexism in the steel industry. He has not openly opposed the Consent Decree. In general Sadlowski pushes a militant, progressive line against the companies, while specifically he is quite vague.

Thousands of rank and file steelworkers are actively involved in struggle against the capitalists–struggle for better contracts, struggle for better safety and health conditions, and struggle against racism. These workers think Sadlowski is on their side and will help them. It would be wrong for us to try to convince workers that Sadlowski’s election will make no difference at all. In the short run he will make the union more democratic and more of a fighting union. Although Sadlowski’s positions are vague and leave much to be desired they are better than the stands of McBride and Abel. Whereas Sadlowski’s organization is called “Steelworkers Fight-Back”, the Abel-McBride team openly stand for class collaboration. While Sadlowski is vague about the ENA and the Consent’ Decree, McBride is for these reactionary policies.

But it is more important for workers to realize that it is only our own organization that will change things for the better. Many of the union activists who support Sadlowski know this. We must struggle with those progressive workers who want to create fighting unions but who put their faith in men like Sadlowski. We must make workers understand that Issues such as scrapping the ENA and the Consent Decree, a health and safety program that protects our lives, grievance procedures that work for us, a real struggle against the companies racism and sexism, and others are far more important to fight for than winning any particular election. And we must convince people that we must do more than just fight for reforms as Sadlowski would have us do. We will only be able to deal adequately with issues like unemployment and layoffs in the steel industry (and in fact all issues) if people have an understanding that Capitalism is the cause of these problems and the education and organization of the working class for revolution is the only solution. Sadlowski says the key to improving the union is his election. So he has not taken clear stands on many important issues for fear of alienation of some workers. For example, Sadlowski never says anything about racism because he doesn’t want to lose the support of those white workers who have racist ideas. But this is just the type of issue that has always held our union back by dividing us. We must confront these issues head on. If Sadlowski won’t take clear stands now, we can’t expect him to be better in the future. It is only strong rank and file organizations that can steer our union in a consistently progressive direction. But because Sadlowski depends so much on these local organizations he will have to be receptive to their ideas. This is another reason to be in the Sadlowski movement.


As Communists we know that in the long-run, social-democrats like Sadlowski will hold the workers movement back. He will most likely sell-out militant rank and file actions (as Miller did to the mineworkers). With the danger of imperialist war growing, our propaganda must point out that social democrats like Sadlowski will either support US imperialism or will push for detente (because of the revisionist influence of the CP in his campaign). Neither of these lines will help US workers unite with anti-imperialist efforts all over the world to oppose the war-like efforts of both superpowers.

As communists we realize that our main task in this period is to build a party and win the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism. I would argue that the most active and conscious of these advanced steel workers are already struggling in their mills and union locals to develop organizations that can effectively fight capitalism. These advanced workers think that Sadlowski may help their struggle in the short run, but that in the long-run we need our own workers organization and can’t rely on Sadlowski. Our job is to win these advanced workers over to Marxism-Leninism, the science of the class struggle. We must do this not only to direct the steelworker movement in a conscious, planned way so we can develop plans and programs for our struggles and not merely react to events. But more importantly we must win people to the idea that only through socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat will workers be able to assure themselves decent lives.

To win these advanced workers we cannot stand outside the movement which they see as progressive (and is tied to Sadlowski) and criticize it. This will make us irrelevant and will allow these advanced workers to be led down revisionist and opportunist paths. No, we must give critical support to this steelworker movement and to Sadlowski. This means that in the organizations that are forming to fight around the most important issues to steel-workers (to fight the ENA and the Consent Decree, for example) we must be consistent hard workers. When leaders, such as Sadlowski, are unclear or backward on certain issues we must thoroughly expose them. We have to always be principled in our struggle around key issues and keep in mind our main purpose in this period–to win the advanced to Marxism- Leninism.