On Sadlowski By William Kornblum

Ed Sadlowski died June 10th after a long life as a labor activist.  His rank-and-file campaigns – a movement for union democracy in the United Steelworkers – started when both Ed and AUD were very young with AUD working intensively to make the elections fairer.  Although Ed is no longer with us the history of those campaigns is.  The poster below still hangs on our office wall.  The upcoming issue of Union Democracy Review will be devoted to those days and those efforts at union reform. Below is William Kornblum’s tribute to his union brother and close friend; 

William Kornblum is a retired Professor of Sociology, AUD Advisory Board Member and longtime ally and friend of the late Ed Sadlowski. Kornblum has been fighting the good fight for union democracy for over forty years, particularly during his time with the United Steelworkers. He recounts his time with Ed and reflects on the contributions his union brother made to the cause of a more democratic unionism. Included in the rest of this issue are a number of papers relating to Ed Sadlowski and his political struggles in the USW, from the Association for Union Democracy archive at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library.

Edward Sadlowski Jr., leader of the most significant insurgency in the history of the United Steelworkers of America, died in Estero, Florida on June 10th, 2018, after a long and debilitating illness. He was 79. In 1977 Sadlowski lost a bitterly fought election for the USWA presidency. ”When Eddie lost, the labor movement lost the one guy who could have been as good as Walter Reuther,” attorney Joseph Rauh Jr. told the New York Times. Throughout his life, Ed remained a stalwart defender of union democracy and a generous supporter of the AUD.

At age 26, Eddie, as he was known to all his friends, became the youngest president of U.S. Steel’s South Works, then a major basic steel mill with about 12,000 union members on Chicago’s Southside lakefront. In Chicago labor circles, he offered everything one could ask for in a rising star of the industrial working class, the “genuine article.” In addition to his own steelworker father, Ed Sr, a lifetime union activist, his heroes were pioneers of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee and the C.I.O., including his friends George Patterson, John Sargent, and progressives like Studs Terkel and independent Chicago Alderman Leon Despres.

Although Ed had dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade, he was a passionate reader and collector of books about labor and history, in the venerable tradition of the working class autodidactic. Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan observed that the young firebrand “could talk in the language of the founding fathers … of Lewis, of Debs, of men he seemed to know as members of his own family.” But he was “sixties and hip” and “uncannily good, on TV.” Nor did it hurt that he had the rugged good looks of a movie star like John Garfield. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Sadlowski opposed the machine politics of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley and led the first demonstrations in favor of Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott on Chicago’s industrial Southside.

In a classic move to coopt a young maverick and potential rival, in the late Sixties Steelworker District 31 Director Joseph Germano appointed Sadlowski to a staff organizing position. Ed insisted on remaining in his home Subdistrict of South Chicago where he represented locals that included his own U.S. Steel South Works. By far the largest district of the steelworker’s union, District 31 had over 120,000 union members working in about 270 different locals. It spanned a vast industrial landscape that stretched from South Bend, Indiana to Gary and much of northern Indiana, included all of Chicago and Cicero, and extended to Joliet and Aurora Illinois. As a union staff man, Ed refused to be silenced and continued to be critical of the union’s drift toward less rank and file democracy. When Germano announced his retirement as Director of District 31 in 1972, he appointed his longtime assistant, Sam Evett, to be his successor. Although the District leadership was decided by a nominal rank and file election, in fact no opposition candidate since 1947 had succeeded in even getting on the ballot to oppose Germano. With the solid backing of rank-and-file activists, especially from South Chicago, Ed took on the challenge.

The first and tallest order for Sadlowski and his allies was to win enough local union nominations to get on the ballot. The second greatest challenge would be to recruit hundreds of union members as volunteer poll watchers on election day. Sadlowski stunned the union leadership by getting on the ballot to oppose Evett, who had never actually been a steelworker. The union then did everything possible to conceal the location of polling places and to red-bait Sadlowski and his supporters.

Throughout the winter of 1973, the insurgents ran a strong campaign, but on election day they lost in the official count by close to 2000 votes. There had been many voting violations and even outright ballot stuffing in one of the key Gary locals. Ed appealed to the AUD for legal assistance. Herman Benson successfully enlisted the support of Joseph Rauh Jr. who agreed to take the case to the U.S. Department of Labor where he had recently defended insurgents in the Mineworkers Union after the murder of Jock Yablonski. Finding in Sadlowski’s favor, the DOL ordered a new election to take place in February 1974. The AUD agreed to help the insurgents organize a more comprehensive election day observer project. AUD Legal Director Judith Schneider came to Chicago to help direct this effort. On election day Sadlowski won the new vote by a crushing two-to-one margin and became Director of Steelworker District 31.

For two frustrating years, the leadership under President I.W. Abel froze Ed out of any influence as District Director on union affairs. In 1976 Abel decided to retire and to confer union leadership on Lloyd McBride, a member of the union’s “Official Family” as it openly called itself. Believing it was “now or never” for the insurgency, Ed challenged McBride for the International Presidency. He ran on issues of union democracy, including the “radical” idea that rank-and-filers in basic steel should have the right to vote on their contracts. After a grueling campaign during the bitter cold winter of 1976-77, the insurgents again lost the official count. Ed won handily in the giant basic steel plants on the outskirts of Birmingham, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, the Minnesota Iron Range, and Hamilton, Ontario. Today these decrepit steeltowns form the “Rust Belt,” but back then the big mills, with their hotly contested elections for local union office, were crucibles of union democracy as well as steel. The insurgents lost largely because of extremely lopsided results in Texas and Quebec where intimidation and machine politics made it almost impossible to campaign effectively or place election day observers.

After his defeat, Ed persisted for a few years in a union staff job as the union lost thousands of members to the effects of automation, foreign imports, and stock manipulation. The national leadership resolved to squelch further insurgencies by prohibiting outside financial contributions to union candidates. Ed challenged that decision, but it was upheld in 1984 by the United States Supreme Court (United Steelworkers v. Edward Sadlowski, 1984). Ed retired from the union some years after this decision. When he disbanded Steelworkers Fight Back, the dissident campaign organization, he drew criticism from the Left. Ed’s defense was based on principles of union solidarity: he had no interest in being seen as a “dual unionist.” He nonetheless continued to support union dissidents in their local campaigns. Eventually the International union leadership became more progressive and his relations with current USWA President Leo Gerard remained cordial.

By far the most important supporter of Ed and the movement he created was Marlene, his wife of over sixty years and now his beloved widow. From the mid-Sixties until 1977, their home on South Chicago’s East Side was open day and night to innumerable, often raucous groups of rank-and-file steelworkers. While raising four children and holding down a job in the Illinois Attorney General’s office, Marlene kept up morale and even some semblance of order. Marlene and Eddie had eleven grandchildren and two great-grand children. Their son Edward A. Sadlowski is Deputy Director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and in 2016 spoke in Herman Benson’s honor at an AUD gathering in New York City. Their eldest daughter, Susan Sadlowski-Garza, is the Alderman and Democratic Committee Woman of Chicago’s Tenth Ward. The entire Sadlowski-Garza clan carries forward the progressive traditions embodied by Ed and Marlene.

I met the Sadlowskis as a graduate student from the University of Chicago in 1967. I had just moved with my own family into South Chicago to study civil and union politics in a steel community. Eddie became my Virgil of the satanic mills. Like many who will read this special issue of the UDR, I mourn the loss of my dear brother far more than mere words can ever express.

Some further reading:

David Bensman and Roberta Lynch, Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community, University of California Press, 1988

Thomas Geoghegan. Which Side Are You On? Trying to be for Labor When It’s Flat on its Back, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991

John Hoerr. And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline and Fall of the American Steel Industry, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988

William Kornblum, Blue Collar Community, University of Chicago Press, 1974

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2 Responses

  1. Every work of praise for Eddie make my heart hurt more. What a guy. I come from the mill in Granite City, IL that was Granite City Steel at the time (now USS). We had five local unions (we came from the AAISTW). Four of the five voted by large margins for Eddie. We paid the price for years as our staff rep was a McBride supporter and McBride had been our guy before that.

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