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Steel industry has changed, but Ed Sadlowski’s style of union activism lives on

Ed Sadlowski, the former United Steel Workers of America leader, fought to bring democratic reform to labor unions. Sadlowski campaign poster at a steel mill | UPI Photo

The death of Chicago union leader Ed Sadlowski is a reminder of an era when union leaders captured public attention – a time when newspapers still had full-time labor reporters covering the struggles of working people on a regular basis. His emergence as a forceful leader in the 1970s brought back some of the militant spirit that animated Chicago labor battles of the 1930s.

OPINION

Sadlowski’s supporters included survivors of the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel, like Mario Manzardo and George Patterson. Reform Chicago Alderman Leon Despres, who had investigated the death of ten steelworkers shot by police, became one of Sadlowski’s lawyers. Author and radio host Studs Terkel helped bring media attention to his cause.

Sadlowski was a labor leader from a young age and narrowly lost a campaign for international president. | Sun-Times file
Sadlowski was a labor leader from a young age and narrowly lost a campaign for international president. | Sun-Times file

The 120,000 member United Steelworker district that Eddie was elected to lead in 1974 stretched from the Chicago area to South Bend, Indiana, then the most industrially concentrated area in the world.

The early years

Eddie was only 26 when he was first elected to represent the US Steel South Works local on the far South Side on Lake Michigan. His energy and activism inspired a powerful loyalty among the ethnically diverse group of steelworkers there – Eastern Europeans, African Americans and Latinos – who became the core of future campaigns for district director and later international president.

Sadlowski in East Chicago, Indiana 1975. | George Settle/NYTimes
Sadlowski in East Chicago, Indiana 1975. | George Settle/NYTimes

As a young union activist who later wrote about labor issues, I was drawn to Sadlowski’s efforts to democratize the union. Fraudulent elections were a recurring problem and union members in the basic steel industry were unable to vote on contracts negotiated by the leaders. In 1973, Ed lost a fraudulent election for district director by 2,000 votes, but with the help of Washington Attorney Joe Rauh, the elections results were overturned and a new election ordered in 1974. I was asked to be an organizer on the Indiana side of the district for that campaign, and with the labor department monitoring the polling sites, Sadlowski won the re-election by a two-to-one margin.

Sadlowski challenged status quo

Sadlowski’s criticisms and efforts to expose fraud did not endear him to top leaders of the union who controlled resources and staff for his district. In 1977, he decided to challenge the union’s leadership by seeking the international presidency of the 1.4 million member union covering the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. Because Sadlowski spoke of unions as a force for social justice as well as economic advancement, he attracted contributions from people like consumer advocate Ralph Nader and folksinger Pete Seeger. Union volunteers poured in and out of his campaign headquarter above a pizza joint at 93rd and Commercial, and they fanned out across the country and into Canada. One union member campaigning for Ed in Texas was shot through the neck, but fortunately survived.

Official results showed Sadlowski losing the hard-fought election narrowly, but an analysis by the Association for Union Democracy suggests he would likely have won – had it been a fair election. The study showed that where Sadlowski had poll watchers, mostly in the large basic steel locals, he won by an average of 55-to-45 percent. Unfortunately, his campaign could not monitor the more than 5,000 polling sites. Scores of locals without poll watchers showed unusual patterns – not only 100 percent of eligible members voting, but also voting that indicated unanimous support of Sadlowski’s opponent Lloyd McBride. Despite a legal fight that reached the US Supreme Court, Sadlowski was unable to overturn the election outcome.

The lasting impact of his union activism

Sadlowski’s legacy is now carried on by his daughter, 10th ward alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza, a member of the progressive caucus of the Chicago City Council. She passed out his campaign leaflets at plant gates as young girl.

While the steel industry has been sharply downsized by disinvestment and a union membership decimated by automation, the voice of workers seeking economic justice is being heard elsewhere – in the “Fight for 15” by fast food workers demanding a $15/hour minimum wage; by the statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma; and by women and minorities seeking equality in the workplace.

Protesters in favor of a higher minimum wage march outside the McDonald’s headquarters in the West Loop on May 21, 2018. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
Protesters in favor of a higher minimum wage march outside the McDonald’s headquarters in the West Loop on May 21, 2018. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Sadlowski spent his latter years donating labor history books to libraries to educate a public often unaware of the role that unions have played in securing living wages, due process, job safety, overtime pay, vacations and other benefits that are often taken for granted.

After retiring to Florida with his wife of 60 years, Marlene, Eddie remained in touch with labor activists throughout the US. He may have faded from public view, but he was never unavailable to union activists who sought him out. Above all, he understood that the fight for fairness in the workplace must be fought again by each new generation.

Sadlowski died June 10, 2018 at the age of 79. George Bogdanich served as Ed Sadlowski’s campaign press secretary. Bogdanich is currently completing a documentary on the government takeover of the Teamster Union.