Steel Fight Back: after the election
Interview with Jack Barnes
THE MILITANT/APRIL 8, 1977
Question. What has ·been the response to your tour?
Answer. So far I've been to Chicago,
Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and
Houston. The biggest meeting was in
Houston, where more than 150 people
turned out. The other meetings drew
from 80 to 125 people.
Unfortunately, I was in the Midwest
during the extreme cold spell-the
radio and TV were telling everyone to
stay home, not to go out on the roads.
What was best was that in every city
a number of steelworkers came to the
meeting because they were interested
in hearing what socialists had to say
about the Sadlowski campaign.
This was very useful. It enabled me
to have conversations with many
steelworkers in different cities and
different sections of the industry, to
find out directly what they were
thinking and their reactions to the
In addition, I found that among
these steelworkers it wasn't socialism
that was on the defensive, it was
capitalism. Our presentation on what
has happened in recent -years in this
country and in the unions fit into what
had happened in their lives.
For many of them the big question
was: how do you move toward social-
ism and how do their struggles in the
union and on the job fit into the fight
Of course, these were steelworkers
who had been thinking a lot about
Q. Based on your discussions and
observations, what do you think was
the effect of the red-baiting directed
A. I can't tell from personal expe-
rience, but I can tell what steelworkers
in each of these cities told me. That is
that the red-baiting was largely a
Of course it affected some older
workers, conservative workers. It
helped establish-especially in the
South-an atmosphere of intimidation
around the election.
But the steelworkers I talked to
believed that the red-baiting was a
fiasco for McBride and Abel-if the
ideas of Sadlowski were gotten out to
Every steelworker I met who was
active in the Fight Back movement-
and most of them did not yet consider
themselves socialists-insisted that
the reception they were getting con-
viced them that regardless of the red-
baiting, when the ideas of Fight Back
were gotten out, steelworkers in their
majority would vote for Sadlowski.
In some ways this was best ex-
pressed by a can worker in Texas who
had been unemployed for almost a
year. I heard him interviewed by a
reporter after he had cast his vote in
the election. This was a worker in his
forties. With his big cowboy hat and
boots on, he would have been a lot of
people's stereotype of a conservative
The reporter asked him, "What about
these rumors that Sadlowski's a com-
He simply said, "Well, if Ed's a
communist, I'm a communist. We've
had enough of this leadership."
He didn't believe the red-baiting. But
the main effect it had on him was it
made him more interested in socialism.
I think this was the overwhelming
reaction among younger steelworkers,
Black steelworkers, women, Chicanos.
Q. Do you think that your tour right
before the election-which underlined
the fact that socialists support Fight
Back-gave credibility to the red-
baiting and possibly hurt Sadlowski's
chances in the election?
A. To the contrary! A socialist going
around and speaking about Fight Back
didn't add credibility to the red-
baiting-just the opposite.
I'll tell you why: because everyone
had already heard a thousand times
that Sadlowski was a radical, a red, a
socialist, a communist, or something
like that. That had been spread around
by the Abel-McBride machine, the
news media, and the employers for
It was no surprise that socialists
were supporting Sadlowski. The people
who came to hear me wanted to hear
our ideas about what the Sadlowski
campaign meant and what its signifi-
The same holds true of the special
four-page supplement the Militant put
out on the steel election. Many of the
workers who came to my talks had
read it. Their thinking on it was very
Everyone knows Sadlowski's a
rabble-rouser, a red, or something like
that. But there are still a lot of workers
who don't know where he stands on
the big issues affecting them.
They believed that things like the
supplement gained votes for Sadlow-
ski, as well as making people interest-
ed in socialist views.
Ed Sadlowski must have understood
this, because he kept answering the
questions about red-baiting by saying
that red-baiting is the bosses' game.
It's a tool to divide the workers, used
by McBride to hide the real issues.
It was these issues-union demo-
cracy, the right to strike, the need for a
union that stands up against the boss,
and so on-that were decisive. Those
who tried to avoid this straightforward
answer and instead dodge the question
would just fall into the hands of the
Q. What do you think of the election
returns, which show a narrow victory
A. Number one, McBride got a big
chunk of his "victory" through ballot-
box stuffing and cheating. The whole
history of elections in the steelworkers
union teaches us that is standard
practice for the machine.
The fact that there were nearly a
quarter of a million votes for the
Sadlowski team that were counted
points to the real victory-the begin-
ning mobilization of thousands of
steelworkers in a fight to take back
their union. That was Fight Back's
But I would say there is one basic
reason why Sadlowski did not get
more votes, why he did not get enough
for a clearcut election victory.
That is simply that the Fight Back
campaign was not announced early
enough and was not organized in
enough places to get its ideas out
systematically to all members of the
union and to counter the red-baiting,
outsider-baiting, and other slanders
from McBride and the employers.
The places where McBride got his
biggest votes were the places where the
Fight Back campaign did not do
systematic leafleting of the workers.
That much is evident.
Even in the South and in Canada-
where McBride's supposed margin of
victory was amassed-Sadlowski could
have gotten a much higher vote if
Fight Back had been organized.
There were also a lot of myths about
the pattern of voting. One was that
Sadlowski would almost automatically
carry basic steel, but lose all the small
shops, and that the balance of these
two factors would determine whether
he could win. The results show this
was oversimplified, to say the least.
The way steelworkers divided was
not small shops versus basic steel, but
according to their relative privileges,
their age, and their political attitudes.
Sadlowski carried the vote in many
smaller shops-which have lower wage
scales, worse conditions, and worse
union representation than basic steel-
where the ideas of Fight Back were
Sadlowski apparently did win a
majority in basic steel-which is ex-
tremely significant as a vote of no-
confidence in the Abel leadership just
as it goes into the basic steel negotia-
tions. It's a vote to repudiate the no-
strike Experimental Negotiating
Agreement in basic steel. This repre-
sents a great victory for Fight Back.
On the other hand, Sadlowski didn't
win as overwhelming a majority in
basic steel as some observers had
expected. Some, I think, were counting
on a bigger "traditional" protest vote
from this section of the union.
What really happened was that
Fight Back carried the vote of the
younger workers, the Black workers,
the low-seniority workers-those who
But McBride often carried the most
skilled, high-seniority, relatively privi-
leged workers. That's the way it
divided-the way one would expect
when such basic class questions were
There's another phenomenon that
steelworkers active in Fight Back told
me about, and I think the vote bears it
out. That is that many fewer Blacks,
Chicanos, and younger workers in
general went to the polls than Fight
Back had hoped.
A big lesson of the election cam-
paign is the degree of skepticism-!
say skepticism, not cynicism-toward
the union that was shown by these
workers not bothering to vote.
They preferred Sadlowski, obviously.
McBride and Abel had nothing what-
soever to offer them. But the union as
they saw it, in their experience, had
done so little for them-it had almost
been an adjunct to the foreman,
another enforcer of the employer's
version of the contract, and of race and
sex discrimination in hiring and on the
job-that they simply weren't interest-
These are the hundreds of thousands
of steelworkers who don't go to local
meetings, don't take part in union
politics, becausee they don't see the
union as an instrument of change in
their interests. A lot of these steel-
workers didn't vote.
One of the big challenges to Fight
Back is to overcome this skepticism
toward the union that has· been built
up over decades by the bureaucratic,
pro-company policies of the official-
dom. Because these are the workers
who are going to revolutionize the
American labor movement.
I observed a couple of things related
to this. One was in Houston. There
Fight Back activists told me stories
about selling Sadlowski T-shirts and
sweatshirts to young workers, Chica-
nos, Blacks, who would buy them and
wear them on the job as defiance of the
boss and as a sign of solidarity with
their friends who were for Fight
Back-but who wouldn't join the
union! Texas, of course, is an open
shop state. That was how little the
union had done for them.
The second thing, which Fight Back
activists told me everywhere, was the
lack of literature dealing directly with
the problems of Black workers, Chica-
no workers, and women workers. I'm
convinced this hurt the Fight Back
Where the Sadlowski slate went and
spoke-and where Black, Chicano, and
women workers went and posed the
tough questions-they laid out pretty
They stood for equal representation
of minorities and women in the union
leadership and staff.
They supported a whole series of
specific steps against discrimination
on the job and in the union.
They said the union power should be
used to fight discrimination and segre-
gation throughout society.
But the lack of literature directly
addressing these needs, the failure to
put this appeal to the most oppressed
workers right in the forefront of the
Fight Back campaign-this hurt.
Fight Back has not yet become a
rank-and-file movement that mobilizes
the Black workers, the women workers,
the Chicano workers-and is in large
part led by them. That, I think, is the
biggest single weakness that must be
overcome to build Fight Back in the
Q. What was the sentiment among
workers you talked with about continu-
ing Steelworkers Fight Back as an
A. Every single person I spoke to
wanted to continue Fight Back. And
they felt that nearly all the key
Sadlowski campaign activists were
also determined to continue the move-
If the Sadlowski slate had won, they
were convinced-not only by the
speeches of the Sadlowski team but by
their own experiences-that new peo-
ple in office alone wouldn't solve a
thing in the steelworkers union. Only
the mobilization and organization of
the ranks would do this.
In some ways the most important
challenge before the Steelworkers
Fight Back leadership is their willing-
ness now to continue and organize in
the confidence that they can attract
not only the hundreds of thousands
who voted for them but the millions
more who they will reach.
What is important is to find a way to
continue a national focus. Up to
February 8 the national focus was the
election. Now the Fight Back leaders
have to find a new focus-a publica-
tion, a response to conditions in the
mills, a response to the bosses' offen-
sive that is going to keep coming down
around jobs, wages, conditions, and
victimization 'of militant steelworkers.
The direction of the movement is to
reach out to workers in other indus-
tries. A Fight Back movement is
needed in every union in this country.
This fight for union democracy, and
the fight for workers' interests against
the employers, will get a hearing as
more and more conflicts arise. The
conditions in this country, and the
incapacity of the employers to give the
kind of concessions that they gave in
the past, are going to make millions
and millions of American workers
ready to fight back.
We're not going into a period of class
peace and concessions by the capitalist
class, but a period more like the 1930s.
A period of attacks on the working
class. You see it in the cutbacks in New
York. You see it in the offensives9
against the public employee unions.
You see it in basic industry. We're
going to see it more.
These ideas of fighting back and
democratizing the unions will get a big
response, and a response way beyond
the steelworkers union.
I think if there's initiative from those
who led the Sadlowski campaign-and
from those who organized and built the
Fight Back movement across the
country-there will be tremendous re-
(to be continued)
THE MILITANT/APRIL 15, 1977
In this issue we continue publication of an interview with Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers party, about the recent election in the United Steelworkers of America. Barnes toured nine U.S. cities in January and February, speaking on the significance of the union election and talking with activists in the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign. In the February 8 election, Fight Back candidate Ed Sadlowski lost narrowly to Lloyd McBride, handpicked successor to USWA President I.W. Abel.
Below, Barnes discusses the program and outlook of the Abel-McBride bureaucracy.
Question. I think many Sadlowski
poll watchers were surprised at the
heavy turnout in the election of the
older, more conservative workers who
voted for McBride. How do you account
Answer. First, of course, you have to
remember the unanimity of the ma-
chine against Sadlowski. Staff repre-
sentatives, full-timers, district direc-
tors, and local officers were almost
unanimously part of the "official
Remember that whenever you file a
grievance, whenever you try to fight
the employers: you feel yourself de-
pendent to a large extent on the
attitude of the staff representative and
ultimately the district director. Tre-
mendous pressure can be brought to
bear because of their poWer ever what
happens to locals and to individual
I was in Houston a few days before
and then during the election. I watched
the machine get out the day before the
voting, get every full-time functionary
out passing out the McBride material,
get the McBride voting cards in eve-
ryone's hands, and organize to get
workers to the polls.
Pressure at the polls
Then a lot of pressure is brought to
bear in the voting itself. I went inside
the local union hall at Armco Steel in
Houston and watched some of the
voting. I saw the staffers and local
officials bring people to the door with
the McBride cards in their hands. It's
supposedly a secret ballot, but you
have the distinct feeling that the local
officers and staff are keeping a close
eye on how you vote.
The McBride people often would not
even fold their ballots, or would only
fold them once, and kind of wave them
as a sign they were voting the right
I got the feeling I knew who voted
for Sadlowski by seeing the steel-
workers who folded their ballot over
and over about eight times and then
dropped it in the box.
This, of course, was a local where
there was a Fight Back poll watcher.
The ballot box was empty at the
beginning of the voting, unlike some
places, and nobody dropped in three
ballots. You can imagine what hap-
pened in locals dominated by these
forces where there were no Sadlowski
There's more to it, though. You also
have to understand the kirtd of cam-
paign the machine actually ran, their
real program; ·and the fears they
appealed to among the older workers
and those who are part of the union
apparatus. The red fear, the strike fear,
and especially the fear of the employer.
I got a graphic picture of this from
I.W. Abel himself. While I was in
Pittsburgh I went to hear Abel's final
campaign speech. It was February 1 at
the Islam Grotto in Pittsburgh. Al-
though it was advertised as a big
McBride rally, McBride wasn't there
and was hardly even mentioned.
Few steelworkers · There were precious few steelworkers there, either. Even the reporter from the Pittsburgh Press took note of how the crowd was different from those at Sadlowski's rallies-more stylishly dressed, he said, more coats and ties,
Abel seemed to quickly get the
picture of who was there. He started '
speaking straight from the shoulder-
as a top union bureaucrat addressing a
gathering of fellow bureaucrats. His
purpose was to whip them up against
Steelworkers Fight Back and arm
them with the arguments to take back
and use in the locals.
One of the things that was most
striking about Abel's speech was this
fear of the corporations. His major
defense of the ENA [Experimental
Negotiating Agreement, the no-strike
pact in basic steel] was not that it had
accomplished great things for steel-
workers, but that it had averted the
danger of the union being destroyed by
"Industry has enjoyed taking us on
in the past," Abel said, "and would
enjoy trying to destroy us in the future.
ENA will prevent that." These. are
actual quotes from Abel-l took careful
notes on his entire speech. He thinks
the ENA was a generous concession by
He went on: "ENA is one of the
greatest things that ever happened to
steelworkers. They don't have to worry
about hitting the bricks. The union
hasn't given up the right to strike," he
said, "the employers have given up the
right to take a strike, with all their
power and massive assets."
Abel's class-collaborationism and
privileged living standards have taken
him to the point where he believes that
the corporations are all-powerful.
Anyone hearing this speech would
know that he has absolutely no confi-
dence in the fighting capacity of the
American workers. Abel truly believes
that the only salvation for the union-
which he identifies with himself and
his kind-is to make common cause
with the bosses and rely on their
Not 'give me'
Here is I.W. Abel's view of unionism:
"We contribute as well as receive. We
are not a 'give me' organization. We
had the well-earned reputation of being
strike-happy. The ENA settled that."
Apparently Abel thinks that strikes
took place in the steel industry because
the union demanded too much, a view
he undoubtedly picked up from the
steel executives he hangs around with.
But now, Abel said, ENA means that
"the union shop and the cost-of-living
clause are sacred."
Can you imagine that? He believes
that when the relationship of forces
changes the employers won't try to
take away the cost-of-living clause or
the union shop. He's blind to the
prospect that the union might have to
fight to defend these gains-because
he can't even conceive of mobilizing
the union ranks for a fight against the
And Abel carefully fails to mention
the places like Texas-and nineteen
other "right to work" states-where
the union shop not only isn't sacred,
it's been outlawed by the Democratic
and Republican politicians.
It was also clear from Abel's speech
how deeply the question of foreign
imports is tied up with the no-strike
deal. This is a question I hope the
Militant will carry more on, because it
is central to the bureaucrats' rationale
for collaboration with the bosses in
steel and many other industries.
They palm off the bosses' fight
against imports as a fight to protect
jobs, when it's really only a fight to
protect the monopoly price structure
and monopoly profits of American
capitalists against their competitors.
And in the process the bosses streng-
. then their hand against the union.
Here's how Abel put it in his speech:
"Foreign imports .are the greatest
danger to our well-being and our
national security. The ENA was the
answer to this threat. The purpose of
the ENA is to stabilize our industry
and to safeguard our markets."
You can see how Abel identifies
completely with the outlook and inter-
ests of the capitalists. Our industry
. . . our markets . . . our national
security. That's the voice of steel
bosses, not steel workers.
Abel went on to say that Fight Back
"wants more imports and fewer jobs
for steelworkers." He didn't mention,
of course, that his regime cooperated in
a productivity drive that eliminated
thousands upon thousands of jobs-all
in the name of making "our" industry
This was leading up to Abel's charge
that Sadlowski is seeking "Japanese
yen" to finance his campaign. Sup-
posedly this is said because a mailing
list the Fight Back office used to send
out a fund appeal-one of many lists
they got from liberal magazines and
groups-included the name of someone
who had been a lawyer for Toyota.
Something absurd like that.
But Abel's real message was clear to
all the union staffers there: if you want
to fight the yellow peril, vote McBride.
The whole place rose in applause and
laughter at this racist taunt.
Disdain for workers
Abel shares the capitalist disdain for
workers as nothing more than un-
thinking cogs in the machinery of
production. He used his speech to
ridicule Sadlowski's statements on the
intellectual capacities of the workers.
"These people say steelworkers are
capable of becoming doctors, songwri-
ters, and poets." Abel said this with a
tone of heavy sarcasm, as if only a
total fool could think such a thing.
This is "glib and irresponsible," he
said. "We have no interest in reading
poetry to a bunch of wierdos. We have
no interest in crazy and vulgar words,
strumming on a guitar. No-we are
interested in protecting the greatest
society every produced, safe against all
Abel didn't spell out who the "intrud-
ers" are that Fortress America must be
protected against. In front of that
audience, he didn't have to. They knew
he meant safe against the "aliens,"
safe against the "Japs," safe against
imports-and most of all safe against
any challenge to their fat salaries and
"We should have no illusions," Abel
said. The real logic of this opposition is
"to do away with the capitalistic
system and institute a socialistic
system. Our members appreciate the
capitalistic system whose fruits we
That "we" was truly heartfelt by the
assembled staff members, who enjoy a
lot more fruits of the system than the
workers they're supposed to represent.
But Abel assured them they're worth
every penny they're getting. "Don't
forget," he said, "take this to the
members-the gains we have won are
attributable to the work your officers
have been doing." The workers them-
selves have nothing to do with it, in
Maybe this is an over-long answer to
your question, but I thinK it's valuable
to see the mentality and program of
the bureaucracy, which Abel spelled
out so bluntly: total collaboration with
the employers, "our" industry against
foreigners, defense of the capitalist
Years of capitulation to the employ-
ers by Abel-and by [former USWA
Presidents] McDonald and Murray
before him-have fostered among part
of the ranks this attitude that the
corporations will react with great
power if anybody tries to stand up to
them. The bureaucracy has done its
best to wipe out the idea that you can
fight the employers and use the union
power to defeat them.
Fight Back has begun the job of
turning this around. But there are still
many workers who will have to learn
in struggle that you can make gains by
If the American workers do take over
their unions and use them as instru-
ments of struggle for their class
interests, they will be the greatest
power on earth.