As a child of a union leader, 10th Ward aldermanic candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza used to get up at the crack of dawn to join her brothers and sisters outside the U.S. Steel plant leafleting workers coming through the gates.
I’m not talking union brothers and sisters either, but actual siblings, mustered out of bed by their father, Chicago labor icon Edward Sadlowski, to play their part in “the struggle.”
Back then, the significance of what her father was doing — extending the fight for “working people” into a movement to bring democratic reform to the unions themselves — didn’t really register with Garza.
It wasn’t until she was assigned to write a college paper on somebody she admired that days of combing through the archives at the Chicago Historical Society educated Garza about her father’s historic 1977 run for the national presidency of the steelworkers union.
“All of a sudden, it was like this light bulb moment,” she told me last week in an interview at her campaign office, her father’s old campaign poster looming from the wall above us. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god.’ I remember I went to a pay phone on North Avenue, and I called him and I was actually emotional, because I said, “God, I didn’t realize this is what you did.”
Garza, 55, is now engaged in her own struggle — trying to oust 16-year incumbent Ald. John Pope in a runoff election. Pope took 44 percent of the vote to 24 percent for Garza in a seven-way race on Feb. 24, leaving a slim opening for her to unite the opposition on April 7.
Pope is known mostly to me as loyal vote on the City Council for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and for Richard M. Daley before him, and that may be what many residents of this Southeast Side ward prefer. For those looking for a change, there’s Garza.
It would be neither fair nor accurate to say Garza is running on her father’s name. She’s her own person — a school counselor in the ward, a neighborhood activist who started an award-winning anti-bullying program and more recently, a leader in the Chicago Teachers Union.
But it’s not by accident she is using Sadlowski as part of her ballot name, the family connection still carrying some juice in this area despite the departure of the steel mills decades ago and her father’s defeat in that long ago union election.
Garza’s married name doesn’t hurt either in a ward that is now 66 percent Hispanic. Husband Raul Garza is an ironworker for the city. They have four adult children and two grandchildren.
“My Dad instilled a lot of really good values in me: always stand up for the working class, always be on the right side of the fence,” Garza said.
Still, the relationship between father and daughter was not without its tensions.
“It was not easy growing up with my dad,” she said. “I’m going to be very honest: My dad was very stubborn and staunch in his ways. And he was somebody you didn’t want to cross. That’s for sure. But now that we’re older, his name still does resonate with a lot of people down here. He left a legacy in this neighborhood. He really did.”
Ed Sadlowski, now living in Florida and suffering from serious health problems, is due back in town this week.
Despite his influence, Garza called herself a “lackadaisical” union member until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Emanuel combined to change that.
Walker’s move against the collective-bargaining rights of teachers in Wisconsin, where Garza’s brother was a negotiator for the teachers union, motivated her to travel there every weekend to protest. Emanuel’s tough talk about union teachers “giving kids the shaft” incited her to take a leadership role during the 2012 strike.
“I saw Sue politically grow during the strike. It stirred a fire in her,” said Janet Each, one of many teacher friends at a Friday fish fry campaign rally where the candidate led the crowd in a chant of “No hope with Pope.”
“I’m to the point where I’m tired of the people who are shoving these policies down our throat,” Garza told me. “I think it’s time for the average person to be the policymaker. We need a voice, especially down here. The 10th Ward is the forgotten stepchild of the city.”
She’s her father’s daughter, even if it took 55 years to fully emerge.