In the political cauldron of 1970s world politics, Ed Sadlowski's 1977 campaign for president of the USWA showed the potential for the ranks to reclaim control of their union structures, confirming lessons from the Miners for Democracy movement earlier in the decade.
(I sometimes think about how the U.S. class struggle might have looked in the 1978-1988 period with a USWA where space for weilding union power had been expanded.)
But the USWA election of 1977 was a turning point in the Steelworkers union where the union failed to turn.
Only The Militant newspaper lived and breathed the Steelworkers Fightback campaign, explained it and promoted it, defended it and preserved its lessons.
15 June 2018
Was Sadlowski 'too radical'?
By Andy Rose
March 11 1977
Why did insurgent Ed Sadlowski
lose the February 8 election for presi-
dent of the United Steelworkers of
The smug assertion of outgoing
President LW. Abel and Lloyd
McBride-the "official family" candi-
date and announced victor-is that
Sadlowski's views were repudiated by
the union ranks.
The big-business press takes the
same line. Time magazine wrote Febru-
ary 21 that "McBride, not Sadlowski,
had read the union members' mood
"Sadlowski had become something
of a liberals' darling by portraying
himself as a lance bearer for the
downtrodden, a champion of militant
bargaining with the industry who
would also work for social change
through unionism," Time said.
"But basic steelworkers average
about $8 an hour, hardly a depressed
wage; many live in the suburbs, and
few are disposed to left-leaning poli-
Supporters of the Steelworkers Fight
Back campaign know that the election
was no vote of confidence in the
policies of the bureaucracy. They know
thousands of votes were stolen and
thousands more coerced through intim-
idation by the Abel-McBride machine.
Sadlowski has challenged the elec-
tion results, charging vote fraud and
illegal campaign practices by McBride.
At the same time, Fight Back sup-
porters are discussing and drawing the
lessons of the campaign.
What was the response to their
How could the campaign have been
organized more effectively?
What does the election outcome
mean for the future of the movement
for union democracy in steel?
'In These Times'
One viewpoint in this discussion was
presented in the February 23-March 1
issue of In These Times, a recently
initiated weekly that describes itself as
"the independent socialist newspaper."
In These Times notes that "the
Sadlowski margin in the big Midwest-
ern locals [in basic steel] was way
beneath what anyone expected, includ-
ing the McBride people, and the
automatic protest vote, which gave
even a colorless challenger like Emil
Narick 180,000 votes in 1969, seems
not to have materialized."
After giving vote totals to show the
relatively slim Sadlowski victories in
Chicago-Gary and Pittsburgh, the
unsigned article continues:
" 'There was a strike fear on the part
of a lot of workers, particularly older
workers,' one organizer from the Pitts-
burgh area told In These Times. 'They
really were afraid that Sadlowski was
strike-happy.'. . .
"Another person who worked in the
campaign spoke of its having devel-
oped a 'momentum of its own'-of
having gone from an intraunion strug-
gle to being a movement in which the
issues became broader and the stakes
"While that represented the achieve-
ment of the Sadlowski campaign, on
which future efforts will have to build,
it also contributed to his defeat by
scaring away the protest vote."
This analysis-which I have heard
from other Sadlowski supporters both
inside and outside the USWA-leads to
a dangerous dilemma.
To win, should Sadlowski have toned
down his attacks on the no-strike deal
and his stands on social issues such as
arms spending, racism, and the envir-
onment? Is electoral victory counter-
posed to militancy?
I don't believe so. I think In These
Times is misreading the election re-
sults and the mood of the American
working class today.
What Steelworkers Fight Back
needed to win big, in my opinion, was
not a less radical program but a bigger
and better-organized effort to get out
the program it had.
Most election commentary has had
nothing to say about the majority of
USW A members-the 60 percent who
didn't vote. In many of the big basic
steel locals the proportion not voting
was even greater.
The union officialdom discourages
voting, where it can get away with it,
by locating polling sites far from the
It discourages voting even more by
its bureaucratic, procompany policies
that lead workers to view the union as
an alien power-beyond their influence
and indifferent or even hostile to their
Who didn't vote?
Who didn't vote? No precise surveys
were done as in the U.S. presidential
election, but the impression of poll
watchers I have talked to is that young
workers and Blacks and other
minorities-those most disaffected
from the union-turned out in the
This is a big section of the United
Steelworkers. Estimates are that one-
third of the union is under thirty years
old and about one-quarter is Black.
Women are a small but fast-growing
' percentage of the membership.
These workers are no fans of the
conservative, narrow-minded Abel-
McBride bureaucracy. To the extent
that they were involved in the cam-
paign they overwhelmingly backed
It may come as a shock to Lloyd
McBride and to Time magazine, but
there is a substantial bloc of young
steelworkers who identify more with
the aims of the Black movement, the
women's movement, and the ecology
movement than with the union move-
ment as it exists today.
It is among the young, minority, and
women workers that Sadlowski could
have found even more active support-
and votes-then he did. How? Certain-
ly not by watering down his militancy.
A drastic change in the unions-a
radical change-is what these workers
are looking for. And skepticism that a
challenger really offers a program that
addresses their interests-in society as
well as on the job-is the biggest
obstacle to their involvement in Steel-
workers Fight Back.
Unfortunately, the Sadlowski cam-
paign literature-especially the early
literature-tended to be vaguer and
weaker than what the candidates
themselves were saying.
This may have been out of fear that
sharper stands would alienate some
voters. But it let slip a chance to build
an early base of support among those
most alienated from the bureaucracy.
The biggest group of steelworkers
who suffer special discrimination on
the job, in society, and in the union is
Blacks. I think one of the genuinely
weak sides of the Steelworkers Fight
Back campaign was its approach to
Black union members.
Sadlowski's program for Blacks was
far superior to McBride's. The insur-
gent called for stronger antidiscrimina-
tion remedies than the present consent
He pledged a variety of specific steps
to fight discrimination within the
union. And he said that the union
power should be brought to bear
against racism and segregation
thr-oughout society-not just in words
but in deeds.
Yet Steelworkers Fight Back never
put out literature specifically appeal-
ing to Blacks for support. Nor-except
for a few local initiatives-did it take
steps to especially involve Blacks.
One excellent leaflet signed by sever-
al Black caucuses endorsing Sadlowski
did come out, but it was late in the
campaign and got relatively little
circulation. Earlier and more wide-
spread distribution of literature like
that could have made a big difference,
Still, some may argue, you have to
face the fact that a number of workers
were scared off by Sadlowski's militan-
cy and his reputation as a radical.
That's true. But you have to face
other facts as well.
Answering the slanders
One is that the Steelworkers Fight
Back candidates would have been red-
baited, strike-baited, and branded as
radicals regardless of what they said
The bureaucrats know that any
campaign for union democracy is
implicitly a challenge to their entire
class-collaborationist policy. And they
respond with guns blazing.
The only way Sadlowski could coun-
ter the red-baiting and slanders was-
not by denying he stood for radically
different policies-but by energetically
getting his real ideas to steelworkers.
Wherever this was done thoroughly,
Sadlowski carried the vote. Where it
was not-as in big parts of Canada
and the South-McBride was able to
steal and stampede the vote.
Another fact is that the bureaucracy
does not exist in a vacuum. It has a
real base among the relatively privi-
leged minority of union members-
skilled workers, older white workers,
As a longtime union bureaucrat,
Abel is quite conscious of appealing to
this layer and fostering divisions
within the union.
In the current steel negotiations, for
example, Abel's so-called "lifetime job
security" plan would give high-
seniority workers a guaranteed
number of hours per year by taking
away benefits from younger workers.
The living standards of all workers
art: actually depressed by the policies
of the bureaucracy. But this is not so
evident to those who are relatively
Their tendency toward conservatism
is based on their concern to maintain
these relative privileges. They fear that
a confrontation with the boss may
land them back in the status of the
young, the Black, the unskilled.
I'm not suggesting that Steelworkers
Fight Back should write off a big
section of the union as too conserva-
tive to win over. But I am saying that
Fight Back can't compete with the
bureaucracy for their allegiance by
acting "safer." It just won't work.
Many of these workers will be won to
Fight Back only when they see that
the bureaucracy can no longer protect
their living standards-and when they
see a massive movement of the unpriv-
ileged ranks with the power to take on
the bosses and win.
Future of union
The Fight Back challenge to the
bureaucracy had many limitations.
The campaign started late.
It had no initial base of supporters
outside the Chicago area.
The campaign rested on those rank-
and-file steelworkers who stepped
forward-in a very short period of
time-to become organizers, leafleters,
Despite all the obstacles, Fight Back
awakened tremendous support. The
vote for Sadlowski was bigger and
more significant than the vote for any
previous antimachine candidate. It
was a more political and more con-
Fight Back now has the opportunity
to build on this success and organize
an ongoing movement for militant and
But Fight Back activists will have to
weigh the argument that Sadlowski
lost because he was "too radical." They
will have to decide:
Does the future of the movement for
union democracy-and the future of
the union-lie with those workers who
oppose strong identification with the
struggles of Blacks, Latinos, and
women? With those who are stam-
peded by fear of a confrontation with
Or does it lie with the workers who
get the least from the union now and
are the most eager for radical change?