Working-class women's liberation and rank-and-file rebellion in steel

THERE REMAINS almost no knowledge today that a historic labor upsurge took place in the United States during the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Largely ignored and lost to history have been that decade’s explosion of rank-and-file militancy, its record strike wave, its widespread formation of rank-and-file organizations, and its contributions from socialists. This article takes up a slice of that proud, forgotten history: an independent women’s caucus which became a local rank-and-file caucus in the United Steel Workers of America (USW), and the 1976-77 Steelworkers Fight Back campaign to build a fighting union and elect oppositionist Ed Sadlowski as international president.

This article focuses on organizing efforts on the local level for working class women’s liberation,1 and for increased rank-and-file power in the steelworkers union. It is an attempt to pass on to this generation experience that occurred at the base, in one local.2 In an environment of intense hostility toward women steelworkers, a women’s caucus was able, by building solidarity, to lead and win a united fight for washrooms for all women and men. The women’s caucus was broadened and transformed into an independent rank-and-file local union caucus. That local caucus, in turn, became part of a national opposition movement that swept through the steelworkers union. These events were telescoped into a period of less than one year (spring 1976–February 1977). The culmination of steelworker unrest, the Sadlowski Fight Back campaign represented the biggest and most important opposition in the history of the USW.3 A key reflection of the general rank-and-file movement in the United States, it also represented, unfortunately, that movement’s last major upturn.

The United Steel Workers and other unions of the early to mid-1970s occupied a transitional window in time, sandwiched between the militant mass social movements and labor struggles of the 1960s, and the victorious employers’ offensive that would follow. The material basis for increased workers’ expectations, confidence, and struggle had been laid by the post-war economic boom and low unemployment of the 1950s and 1960s. Working-class consciousness had been radicalized by the tumultuous social and political struggles of the 1960s. After 1968, the working-class upsurge produced pre-revolutionary situations in a few countries. At the same time, 1973–75 brought the worst international economic recession since World War II. American workers faced attacks on their living standards and working conditions, along with a growing backlash against the popular gains of the 1960s. The employers’ offensive that began after 1975 was the opening round of decades of restructuring directed at weakening working-class organizations and fundamentally altering the balance of class forces in favor of capital. The 1970s thus constituted a bridge between the two eras of post-war prosperity and neoliberal, crisis-driven austerity.

The United Steel Workers of the mid-1970s represented well over one million members. Notwithstanding its strength measured by today’s yardstick, the USW, like most major unions of the mid-1970s, was conservative, ossified, and class-collaborationist. The militant industrial unionism of the 1930s had given way to concessionary, business unionism under entrenched bureaucracies, whose privileged officials were unresponsive to, and frequently hated by, their memberships.

Facing attacks from their employers, and union leaderships that refused to defend them, rank-and-file workers began moving on their own. During the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, grievances and contract rejections rose exponentially. New unions came into being. Existing unions saw an explosion of Black caucuses, women’s caucuses, and rank-and-file groups on the local, district, and national levels. The period from 1965-1975 saw more strikes than any other period in the postwar history of the United States. Between a quarter and a third of these strikes were wildcats (officially unsanctioned strikes). This period saw an average of 350 “major” strikes per year (strikes involving more than 1,000 workers) and 4,000 to 6,000 “non-major” ones. The high point of the tidal wave—1970—ranks with 1919, 1937, and 1946 as one of the great defining years of working class history. It brought the GM strike, the GE strike, the railroad strike, and two major wildcat strikes by over 300,000 postal workers and Teamsters.4

The issue of strikes held critical importance for steelworkers. USW president I. W. Abel had signed a (subsequently extended) pledge to the steel companies in 1973 that the union would not strike during the following year’s contract negotiations. Abel refused to allow rank-and-file steelworkers to approve or reject the no-strike “Experimental Negotiating Agreement” (ENA).

Union democracy was a rare commodity for rank-and-file steelworkers. Unlike the United Auto Workers and other industrial unions formed in the great CIO sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the USW had begun under top-down, administrative control by United Mine Worker bureaucrats, president John L. Lewis and Phillip Murray.5 Part of this legacy was that rank-and-file steelworkers did not even have the right to vote on their own contracts. They had experienced relatively little recent militancy or mobilization. These dynamics played a significant part in the rank-and-file steelworker insurgency of the 1970s, engendering strong pro-democracy and “Right to Ratify” sentiment—although it was limited by weak traditions of rank and file self-organization.

The ENA both propelled and retarded the USW opposition. The bureaucracy claimed that agreeing in advance not to withdraw their labor was the union’s only option, given the industry’s practice of stockpiling steel before strikes. In that longstanding pattern, the steel companies, unimpeded by the international union, produced, imported, stockpiled, and transported large supplies of steel before and after contract expirations. Essential labor countertactics—flying pickets to shut down the movement and importation of steel; limitation of voluntary overtime in periods leading up to contract expirations; elimination of forced overtime; shorter contract periods—had been rejected by the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy had instead enabled the steel bosses to stonewall their way through prolonged strike action with minimum losses.

A searing strike in 1959 had brought four long months of hardship to steelworkers before ending inconclusively in deep demoralization.6 The international union’s bureaucracy had used the extreme cost, and the lack of results, of the 1959 conflict to convince large sections of the membership that strikes in the steel industry could not be won.

Abel’s no-strike pledge to the companies was a gift—not a compromise—of historic proportions, though the bureaucracy tried to claim otherwise. The $150 bonus per worker that Abel had accepted for steelworkers in exchange for their right to strike was so paltry as to be laughable. The bureaucracy was pressed to find other explanations: The ENA, it said, was a landmark bargain, in which the USW had given up its right to strike in exchange for job security. When mounting industry layoffs made this line impossible to maintain, the bureaucracy desperately tried to concoct still others: “These fellows” said Abel, referring to Sadlowski and his supporters, “say the union gave up the right to strike and the industry gave up nothing. . . . [T]he industry, you see, gave up the right to take a strike, they agreed to give up the right to lock us out.”7

The industry threw more and more steelworkers onto the streets. In 1975, according to the union, blue-collar steelworker jobs were down to their lowest level (357,800) since WWII, continuing “a long-term decline in steel employment even though steel production has risen.”8 One out of every four jobs was lost in steel between 1962 and 1977. Abel allowed the industry to eliminate over 70,000 steelworker jobs during the time he headed the union.

It became undeniably clear that steelworkers had no job security. While this knowledge angered many, it did little to lessen fears of another long and pointless strike, and of another international-engineered defeat. Job insecurity among male steelworkers also worked to dampen dissent, and contributed to the backlash in the mills against affirmative action.

Working class women’s liberation: women enter the mills
In the year following the 1973 ENA, the USW, the steel industry, and the federal government reached another agreement whose impact on rank-and-file activity in the USW would prove to be major. This pact, unlike the ENA, resulted from rank-and-file pressure as well. The Consent Decree of 1974 partially reformed the steel valleys’ entrenched system of massive job discrimination against Blacks and women.

The steel barons—the historic antiunion vanguard of the entire American capitalist class—had always been fierce proponents of racist, sexist, and ethnically-based strategies to increase profits and disorganize the highly-diverse, multi-ethnic workforce.9 Black and female steelworkers faced an entrenched system of near-apartheid. Black workers could not escape the blast furnaces and hottest departments containing the most-hated, most life-threatening jobs. Despite the added burdens and dangers of their work, they received, unsurprisingly, the smallest paychecks. Women, for the most part, could not get hired at all.

The civil rights movement, however, by 1964 had forced the passage of Title VII, the federal legislation outlawing discrimination in employment. Persistent pressure from Black rank-and-file steelworkers, ten long years of plant-by-plant litigation, and a key victory in a 1973 federal lawsuit at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield, Alabama, plant had finally forced the steel companies and the USW (both named defendants) to head off further adverse legal judgments by reaching an industry-wide agreement with the federal government in 1974. The resulting out-of-court settlement, the Consent Decree, included a variety of limited provisions for steelworkers, including minimal back pay—and huge projected savings for their bosses.10

The Consent Decree did not require the long-demanded, full plant-wide seniority necessary to end racist job segregation. It did, however, make inroads into the arcane, byzantine, departmental seniority system that had kept even the mills most senior employees—if Black—trapped in the most dangerous, hellish, low-wage jobs and departments. The important battle for full plant-wide seniority was not over, but limited plant-wide seniority in basic steel had been won.11

Blacks and women gained some opportunity for advancement into the mill’s better paying and less dangerous jobs, particularly under the Consent Decree’s requirement that a significant portion of those admitted to skilled trades apprenticeships be minorities and women. An appreciable portion of all newly hired steelworkers would also have to be women under the Decree’s terms.12 The mills already contained a very few women steelworkers, generally Blacks who had been kept in the most oppressive departments. Large numbers of women had never been seen in the mills before, except during World War II.

Women’s rights, as a result of the primarily middle-class women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, had generally been gaining ground. But the right to equal pay for equal work had been losing it. The Department of Labor Women’s Bureau reported that in 1974, women had to work almost twice as many days (nine) as men (five) in order to gross the same earnings. This differential had nearly doubled since 1955.13 The proportion of wages earned by women for the same work as men had dropped by 2 percent, to 57 percent, from 1970–1974. The pressing need for equal pay and many job-related concerns like it made the existing middle-class women’s movement, with its focus on personal issues like “consciousness-raising,” inadequate to the needs of working-class women.

The 1970s, however, saw the emergence of a working-class women’s liberation movement. The militant union W.A.G.E. (Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality) was founded on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1971—by Ann Draper, Jean Maddox, Joyce Maupin, and others. The national Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the first interunion organization with a women’s agenda, formed in 1973, although its potential was compromised because it came under the control of union bureaucrats like the UAW’s Olga Madar.14 A national network of Area Committees on Occupational Safety and Health developed in different cities (PACOSH in Pittsburgh; CACOSH in Chicago; and so on), and included a specific focus on women’s occupational health. Women office workers organized themselves into groups like Cleveland Women Working and Boston’s 9 to 5.15 Numerous conferences, classes, and publications were organized on the subject of working-class women’s liberation. Working women were demanding their rights to equal pay, maternity benefits, childcare, safe and healthy job conditions, and non-discriminatory treatment in workplaces throughout the country.

Where they could, many working-class women entered heavy industry, because it was generally unionized and so provided the best wages, benefits, and working conditions—far better than those in the traditional women’s sector. Women who chose non-traditional jobs tended to be fighters; to some degree, they were self-selected for toughness.

There was debate on the Left about whether political women should take jobs in heavy industry. Most of the Left believed they should not. Some believed that women in predominantly male industries “could not lead women workers.” Others believed that women could not lead male workers. In both cases, a key section of the organized left, the International Socialists (IS) disagreed.16 It fought for the position that women must be an important part of the leadership of the workers’ movement—and therefore must be located in those sections of the class that are its most advanced and most developed. The IS also fought for the need to bring the working class-women’s liberation movement into male-dominated heavy industry and unions. Finally, it argued, there would be many opportunities to lead women workers as well as men, whether in the same industry or in others. These differing leadership theories were tested in practice, as IS women took jobs in auto, teamsters, and steel, and emerged as rank-and-file leaders in their industries.

For both male and female steelworkers, the meaning and significance of working-class women’s liberation was inescapably in-your-face. The bosses’ staunch historical opposition to hiring women meant that the way in which appreciable numbers of women finally did enter the mills, under the 1974 Consent Decree, was dramatic and sudden. (Most of that impact would be, however, delayed: the prescription for a significant proportion of minority and female new-hires collided with the 1974–75 recession, which produced few new-hires of any kind. As the economy began to improve, hiring in the steel valleys opened up in early 1976 under the shadow of looming Consent Decree compliance deadlines.)

Significant numbers of women joined the steel industry’s overwhelmingly male workforce in fairly abrupt fashion. Added to the mix were the company determination to drive the women back out; the lack of washroom facilities; the physically-demanding nature of many jobs combined with prevalent traditional gender stereotypes; a large dose of crude sexism among both workers and management; the strong backlash against affirmative action and the Consent Decree among racist, sexist, and conservative workers; and a barrage of incessant sexual harassment that was open and at times concerted. The inevitable result was that the questions of working women’s liberation, for both female and male steelworkers, were immediate, starkly defined, and impossible to avoid.

On public trial everyday (for starters) was the threshold issue of basic gender competence to do the job. Contradictory and uneven consciousness encompassed widespread conviction among large sections of white male steelworkers that women were physically incapable of doing the work of heavy industry—even as they witnessed the women doing it. The argument that women could not pull their weight, and that consequently a disproportionate burden fell on their male crewmates, was aggressively voiced and promoted on most job sites. The drama played out not only in heated shop floor discussions, but also in job relations and work assignment arrangements (male coworkers’ attempts to sabotage, “protect,” overload, isolate, or show solidarity with female crewmates, for example).17

While the issue of their chromosomes’ competence to do the work may have met women on the doorstep, it was not the most basic question of working-class women’s liberation to confront the mills. That honor belonged to the right of women steelworkers to . . . be women steelworkers.

The greatest power resisting women’s presence in the mills was the steel companies themselves. The easily manipulated hostility of a large section of conservative white male steelworkers formed one front of the campaign to drive women out.18 Women steelworkers faced incessant complaints from fellow employees that they did not belong in the mills and ought to get out. Single mothers with young mouths to feed were relentlessly berated for having taken jobs from men with families to support—and pressured to leave and “find a man to take care of them.” Many, if not most, women—the author included—could not walk to their job sites each day without enduring long, crowded gauntlets of jeering, red-faced coworkers bellowing, “Go back to the kitchen!” and other, far less charming, taunts.

The vehemence of the opposition to women’s presence in the mills had a dual effect. On the one hand, it exhausted the women and challenged their toughness, solidarity, stamina, and morale. Some women, succumbing to the stress, disappeared, having decided to seek a more humane job environment. Far more disappeared due to large-scale, discriminatory, at-will firings during their initial probationary employment periods, during which the USW had agreed to forego union representation. In 1974, Abel had cooperated with the company’s project of eliminating newly hired women, by doubling the probationary period from 260 to 520 hours (3 1/4 months). The government cooperated by keeping records on how many women were hired, but not on how many made it through probation.

Not only did the vociferous drive-the-women-out campaign serve to drain, challenge, and strengthen its female targets. It also ensured that the main political questions of shop floor debate were the central questions of the working-class women’s liberation movement: Did women have the right to work outside the home? To equal job opportunity? To better-paying jobs? To equal pay? To work in heavy industry, where compensation was generally highest? Did they have the right to work in the steel mills? In this mill?

The pervasive chauvinist, sexist, and misogynist sentiment in the country’s steel mills derived from three sources—company hostility to women employees, American culture, and lack of union leadership. These forces conspired to make the key concern of women in the mills the same concern that was at the core of the working-class women’s liberation movement. Initially, the most pressing rank-and-file issue for women steelworkers was not the Right to Strike, nor the Right to Ratify. It was the Right to Be There.

Shop floor debates about this question and others played a somewhat unique role in shaping consciousness because of the way in which the giant steel mills, with individual workforces numbering in the multi-thousands, were organized: sprawling (for three miles, in the case of Clairton, described below) and village-like, with different work sites, buildings, sheds, shanties, departments, walkways, roads, railroad tracks, lunchrooms, locker rooms, storage areas, boxcars, coal piles, open spaces, underground areas, and hidden spaces. Steelworkers in these areas, both as individuals and as crews, often spent long hours and days unsupervised; it was common to spend a great deal of time reading, resting—and talking.

The moment female steelworkers joined the crews, vocal opposition to their presence meant that the persistent talk turned to the subject of women—their presence, their roles, and their rights. The ensuing debates were passionate, challenging, and ubiquitous. Many who did not take active part in the debates nonetheless witnessed them. Many had to think through questions they had never thought through before. In this process, consciousness evolved, particularly since male steelworkers were also witnessing the actions of hundreds of their female coworkers, who carried their weight on the job, proved themselves each day, and initiated and led events like successful campaigns for decent washrooms.

While the Consent Decree required the steel companies to hire women, it did not require them to retain them. The companies, not unexpectedly, consequently did everything they could to drive out the women they had just been compelled to employ. The first wave of women to enter the mills arrived to find that, unlike their male coworkers, they had no washrooms, showers, or changing rooms (despite jobs that were exceedingly filthy). At best, they were provided with overcrowded, makeshift trailers containing cramped lockers and nothing more. Toilets were few and far between, and frequently located long walks of twenty minutes and more from job sites. The bosses had failed to provide even a semi-adequate number of Port-a-Potties. Women steelworkers found themselves with no choice but to organize and fight for adequate facilities if they wished to stay.

Clairton Coke Works: A case study in rebellion
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the world’s biggest coking operation, and one of its filthiest and deadliest.19 The risk of lung cancer facing coke oven workers was ten times that for other steelworkers. In 1977, the company was still fighting against the provision of protective clothing for workers on batteries that reached over 2,000º F. USW Local 1557 represented 4,000 members at the Clairton mill. Like most of the locals and all of the districts in the Pittsburgh area, Local 1557 was an international union machine stronghold.

In the spring of 1976, Clairton’s main women’s trailer-cum-locker room was bursting with complaints, frustration, and fury over the lack of lockers, sinks, showers, washrooms, and toilets. A few women visited the Local 1557 union hall. There, they were met with vague patronization, vague sympathy, and exhortations to be patient; the officials would see what they could do. The women reported back. A motion for women’s washrooms at the monthly local union meeting was first met with approving lip service and then referred to a committee. The women reported back. As official foot-dragging continued, women steelworkers took matters into their own hands in the late spring. Channels of communication were opened with women on other shifts and in other trailers, and a caucus was formed. Meetings were held to discuss tactics and strategy, while visits to the union hall and consultations with local officials and committee members yielded further exhortations to “be patient.”

By then, the women had been laboring in the mill without adequate washroom facilities for months. As they well knew, Port-a-Potties—the most minimal potential response to their needs—took not months, but hours, to install.20 The lack of constructive response from Local 1557 union officials prompted the women’s caucus leadership to propose independent action. The more political women in the caucus understood that they could not win without support from men. They therefore proposed that the women gain support by circulating a petition among all of their coworkers, calling upon the union to secure from the company adequate facilities for women steelworkers and sister union members.

The vast majority of women, however, opposed the idea. The early hate gauntlets and persistent daily abuse had convinced them that men would never support them.21 While the political leaders of the caucus were sympathetic—they faced the same harassment—at the same time they understood that not all men were hostile. They persuaded the other women to float the idea of a prospective campaign for women’s washrooms with several of the less antagonistic men. When the women did so, they met a surprising level of support. Even some older white male steelworkers who opposed women working in the mill agreed to back washrooms, explaining that they wouldn’t want their wives or daughters treated in such a way. Many men were eager to disclose the deplorable, often flooded, filthy, and dysfunctional state of their own facilities.

Given this strong and unexpected response, the women decided to approach the men again, this time to suggest an expansion of the women’s fight to include the men and their demands as well. The men agreed. Threats of firings and rumors of company retaliation against “the troublemakers” began circulating throughout the mill. (U.S. Steel had apparently been content until then to have the local union attempt to contain complaints by isolated and bullied female employees. But now, men and women were joining together.) Company intimidation produced insecurity among Clairton workers, many of whom became afraid even to sign a petition. The washroom committee therefore decided to distribute a leaflet to all employees, acknowledging the company’s threats, detailing their own legal rights as workers, and underlining the need to fight back.

A petition was circulated calling upon the local union, with the signers’ support, to “enlighten management” as to the need for adequate facilities for all men and women at Clairton. Significant numbers of workers signed on, particularly as those who had been intimidated by company threats received and discussed the “Know Your Rights” leaflet. As the washroom campaign gathered support, built solidarity, and sparked heated discussions in locker rooms, lunchrooms, job sites, and the local union hall, the company made cosmetic improvements to the main gate women’s trailer. This weak ploy, however, was unsuccessful; Clairton workers refused to be satisfied with superficial concessions and the company’s attempts to divide them. The Clairton campaign, mirroring efforts in other locals—especially in the union’s political center, District 31 (Chicago/Gary)—continued to gather steam. As solidarity and support continued to build, the company backed down. Realizing it had a real problem on its hands, particularly since the washroom campaign challenged its compliance with Consent Decree goals, U.S. Steel at Clairton moved to supply washrooms, locker rooms, showers, and toilets for women—and repair and upgrade facilities for men.

As these facilities were built, remodeled, repaired, opened, and utilized, a certain sense of accomplishment became palpable. Women had shown their male coworkers that it was possible to fight and change unacceptable conditions to which the men had become resigned. Clairton workers experienced a tantalizing taste of solidarity. It can be assumed that successful campaigns for adequate facilities by steelworkers at Clairton Local 1557, Gary [Indiana] Local 1014, and elsewhere had more far-reaching effects as well. A few months later, for example, in West Virginia’s United Mine Workers’ District 17, women miners’ washrooms were won with relatively little struggle (and in one case with the temporary use of the bosses’ showers) at Eastern Associated Coal’s Harris Mine and at Armco.

The gains of the Clairton struggle transcended washrooms. The women had been pushed, and they had pushed back. Women steelworkers had established themselves in the mill. They had proven themselves to be fighters. They had taken on and beaten back the company’s offensive to drive them out. They had challenged and reduced the mill’s culture of extreme sexism; male chauvinist reactions were starting to change. Women had proved they would not be driven out of their jobs by hatred and harassment. They were there to stay.

Many dynamics of the Clairton washroom campaign also operated in a multitude of other contexts. One small incident may serve to illustrate several of those forces which operated more widely: the companies’ attempts to get rid of the women they had been compelled to hire by giving them the hardest jobs; the sympathy, support, and solidarity many males, particularly Blacks and younger whites, demonstrated toward their female coworkers (and especially toward their actively antiracist female coworkers22); the ripples sometimes created by a “woman’s issue;” and the integrated leadership shared among women, men, Blacks, and whites.

The recently-hired (white) author had been assigned, like most of her sister steelworkers, to some of the heaviest physical labor at Clairton Coke Works. The track gang spent the day manually hauling railroad ties weighing several hundred pounds, and swinging sledge hammers or pickaxes over-shoulder (in order to pound in railroad spikes and dislodge the rock-like coke that fell between and clogged the tracks). As a former construction worker, the author had succeeded in pulling her weight on the crew for the better part of her three-month probation. On this particular day, however, she had cramps and must not have looked well. Some of the Black guys on the crew expressed concern.

Upon hearing that she felt both near-faint  and unable to leave work due to probation, they came up with the following recommendation: Under the local union’s agreement with the company, despite the general lack of union recourse while on probation, no one could be fired for not doing their job so long as they were moving—regardless of how fast. While her coworkers were clear that they did not intend to slow down, they insisted that the local union always stood firm on this line in the sand. She might, they offered, at least feel a bit better; even as an individual, she could not be fired, so long as she was moving—at least a little, “guaranteed.”

Dubious but desperate (and not a little naïve), stressed about losing the job no matter what, the author began walking, moving, and digging coke—slowly—grateful for the limited but welcome relief. As she continued moving in exaggerated slow motion, time dragged; the expected foreman did not materialize. After awhile, another of the guys on the crew began moving in slow motion, too, then another, and before long, nearly the whole crew. The foreman stomped over. Sternly, he told the author to drop her shovel.

She was being transferred to the labor gang, 23 he announced, commanding her to follow. He delivered her to the new job site. Not another word was said.

The guys on the track gang resumed their normal pace. They had made their point.

Slowdowns were not an everyday occurrence at Clairton, but the dynamics of this story were—even in that environment of rampant misogyny. These dynamics—of solidarity and shared initiative—were experienced and deepened by many hundreds of workers during the washroom campaign.

The role of the IS
The fight for washrooms at Clairton could not have followed its particular trajectory without continuing organization. As the struggle broadened and progressed, leadership at Clairton came from three equally indispensable sources: a few white female and male workers, in their twenties and younger, who were born fighters; several Black male workers who had been in the mill for varying periods up to thirty years; and white socialist women from the IS (International Socialists). A few other areas, notably Youngstown, Ohio, and the Gary, Indiana, area, were able to draw on a fourth important source of rank-and-file leadership: older, experienced steelworker militants who had been in and around the socialist and communist left.

The International Socialists, the predecessor to today’s ISO (International Socialist Organization), was dedicated to building workers’ control and socialism from below. Its roots ran back through the Workers’ Party of the 1940s and the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s to the Communist Party of the 1920s, and included deep historical labor traditions.24 The IS was distinguished from the rest of the Left by its perspective, put forward by Lenin in 1921 at the Third Comintern Congress, that in countries with large labor movements and small, weak communist parties—particularly Britain and the United States—the road to a revolutionary party lay in building a rank-and-file movement in the trade unions. The Communist Party and the TUEL (Trade Union Education League) of the 1920s, as well as the Workers’ Party of the 1940s, had both followed this perspective with organizational, political, and historic labor success.

Like several other left groups, the IS of the 1970s went into industry in order to reestablish labor roots and reconnect working-class militants and political radicals. Their historical connection had been nearly severed in the 1950s, when McCarthyism rooted out socialists, communists, radicals, and progressives from the American labor movement, and from much of society. The vacuum was all the greater due to the historical absence in the United States of a labor party and the traditions and alliances of European-style social democracy.

In the 1960s, political radicals from the student movements were inspired and impelled to overcome the divide and unite with American workers involved in the explosive rank-and-file union upsurge. This dynamic was catalyzed by events abroad; 1968 brought militant and revolutionary workers’ struggles in many countries. After French workers and students united in inspirational solidarity in the magnificent, political general strike and factory occupations of May 1968, large numbers of serious American campus radicals and revolutionaries could no longer tolerate being politically separated from the militant workers’ movement in their own country. When their efforts at strike support and other organizing projects from outside the factories failed to bridge the gap, ISers and other leftists took jobs in industry. The IS of the 1970s, with limited resources, went into those industries which were both hiring and traditionally the most strategic and most powerful sections of the labor movement.

Due to industry hiring patterns, IS members found jobs in steel much later than in other industries, where the organization’s labor work—and the rank-and-file movement in general—was far more developed. By then, about thirty-five to forty of the local rank-and-file groups in different unions around the country were initiated and led by members of the International Socialists, with a perspective unique on the left that emphasized the need for national caucuses as well. Accordingly, IS members initiated or played leading roles in national campaigns and caucuses in the autoworkers (United National Caucus), teamsters (Teamsters for a Decent Contract, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, UPSurge), telephone (United Action), and teachers (United Action). The impact of IS leadership and politics extended disproportionately beyond the organization’s relatively small numbers.

No other left group could claim comparable success. The reason for the IS’s distinction lay both in perspectives, and in fundamental politics. Almost all left groups and radicals of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, with the notable exception of the International Socialists, politically supported or defended regimes like Russia, China, and Cuba, and their anti-democratic, anti-worker, anti-socialist systems. Because its commitment to building workers’ power and democracy from below was genuine and consistent, the anti-bureaucratic IS conception—that socialism means workers’ control of production and of the state—made sense to many workers in the rank-and-file movement.

The lessons and experience gained by IS members in industry were shared throughout the organization via the local and national industrial fractions, national leadership bodies, and the IS weekly newspaper, Workers’ Power. The fractions, in collaboration with the national IS leadership, also guided and led the industrial work, as the Pittsburgh and national steel fractions did at Clairton. Members who were not in industry participated in the fractions and supported the work in many ways, for example, by coordinating Workers’ Power coverage, sales, and discussions. Experienced, leading militants from other industries were at times assigned to guide the work of less experienced fractions.

The most important trade union lesson that the IS brought to militants at Clairton and elsewhere was the need for a powerful rank-and-file movement from below—one that was militant, democratic, well-organized, built through shop floor as well as union struggles, and based on the broadest and deepest possible unity. It was crucial that such a movement lead an aggressive fight against racism and sexism, and not subordinate those struggles to a spurious unity based on conservative existing working-class consciousness.

The IS also brought a larger class, economic, and societal explanation for what was happening in the world. IS members, unlike those of most left-wing groups, functioned openly and proudly at work as socialists; a key political role of ISers in industry involved their regular shop floor sales and discussions of Workers’ Power, the group’s national, weekly, revolutionary socialist newspaper.

Ongoing rank-and-file organization came out of the struggle at Clairton—when a small section of the workforce was forced by the company to fight for its existence—because socialists were in the leadership. The opportunity for advancing organization could easily have passed unnoticed, and the struggle taken a different turn, had socialists not been present.

The organizational form at Clairton changed as women washroom campaigners began questioning whether to continue, as their sisters in other locals and districts were doing, as an independent women’s caucus.25 The IS politically supported independent formations of women, Blacks, and the oppressed to organize against racism and sexism and for their rights, and to ally and unify with other workers for common class goals. This conception, however, did not restrict advancing struggles and demands for class politics to any particular organizational form. As the fight for washrooms at Clairton gathered steam, female steelworkers expressed a lack of interest in continuing as an independent women’s group. Meanwhile, the natural impetus for an independent rank-and-file union caucus was strong.

Male and female Clairton militants were working together effectively on the washroom campaign and all wished to go beyond it. There were many other issues in their respective departments that needed attention; dissatisfaction with working conditions throughout the mill was rife. Organizing enough strength within and between different work areas was problematic. The massive, rambling nature of the mill along with the union’s general dedication to blocking activity made it difficult even to know which issues were shared among which departments. The question facing the nascent rank-and-file group at Clairton was how to overcome widespread apathy and isolation by linking struggles within individual crews and departments to each other, to more generalized issues within the mill, to the rest of the union, and to the steel industry as a whole.

Simultaneously, it was becoming increasingly clear that dissatisfaction among rank-and-file steelworkers might produce turmoil at the top. There was to be an international convention in Las Vegas the first week in September 1976, where it was thought that District 31’s maverick dissident director, Ed Sadlowski, might announce a bid for the union’s presidency. Election of top union officers would occur early the following year. National spring contract negotiations would follow the international election. Extension of the no-strike ENA was at stake.

Whatever happened at the national level would deeply limit or expand what could happen locally. Similarly, no change at the top could occur or have meaning without a strong, militant, organized, steelworker rank and file democratically directing any new leadership from below and holding it accountable. This lesson had been recently and painfully underscored by Miners For Democracy (MFD), when it allowed its militant, historic, national organization to dissipate after electing retired miner and Black Lung movement leader Arnold Miller to the union’s top office in 1972. With a powerful, organized rank and file no longer behind and in front of him, Miller had followed an increasingly conservative and tragic trajectory. He ended his union presidency as a strikebreaker—against the wildcatting miners, to whom he had once belonged, and who had elected him to represent and lead them. MFD was one example of the powerful consequences of disbanding rank-and-file organization after an election victory.26

SSU and Sadlowski
Local rank-and-file organization at Clairton was influenced by socialists’ perspective on shop floor newspapers, which can be traced back to the Communist Party of the 1920s. A mill-wide newspaper at Clairton would help to overcome isolation between different departments and link local struggles and issues to national ones. It would be the source of news of the company and the union, the focus of political discussion in the mill, the alternative to the union officials, and an organizing center for the rank-and-file group. Following discussion among first the washroom leaders, and then a broader periphery, a strongly committed core agreed with the IS that a rank-and-file newspaper was both important and feasible. Sufficient contributors, distributors, support, and material to make a real go of a plant-wide monthly newspaper were lined up. The name of the group and the paper turned the company’s logo, USS (for U.S. Steel), on its head. SSU—Steelworkers Stand Up—was born.

A young supporter seized initiative and spray-painted the coming newspaper’s logo, an encircled SSU, on a wide range of locations throughout the mill. Curiosity mushroomed when the company announced it would fire anyone caught painting “three letters” on company property. Steelworkers Stand Up appeared at Clairton for the first time in late September 1976. Well-received, it carried about a dozen articles and letters, written by many different members of Local 1557. It included reports on local and mill-wide issues like health and safety; the business of the most recent local union meeting; news of the international USW convention, which had taken place the first week of September; and of Ed Sadlowski. SSU was soon to become the voice of the Sadlowski campaign in the mill, and its militants would have a broader influence in Pittsburgh Fight Back.

Sadlowski was a left-wing reformer and social democrat (a loose brand of self-defined Debsian socialist). He had always been—and remains to this day, four decades later—a class fighter for workers’ rights and workers’ justice. Having followed his father into the mills, he became a local union president, and in 1974 he became the director of USW District 31 in a hard-fought election battle and legal challenge. By 1976, he had put out feelers for a potential run for top office. Though weak and disorganized, the opposition had raised the hackles of the Abel/McBride forces. One Illinois steelworker, distributing Fight Back literature in Houston, Texas in late July, had been shot in the neck.

During the first week in September, president Abel, his hand-picked successor Lloyd McBride, and the international machine devoted almost the entire USW convention’s “business” to attacking Sadlowski and the opposition. Abel & Co. had reason to fear. A Fight Back campaign would be a direct challenge to the continuation of the international machine, not merely to the individual(s) who ran it. As Sadlowski would explain at the press conference announcing his candidacy on September 14, (to loud applause from about 200 supporters) the fundamental issue in the 1976–77 international USW elections was the choice between a fighting union that took on the bosses, and a business union that made deals with them. Steelworkers were faced with the possibility of a real voice in creating a union that represented their class interests.

Socialists, electoral reform campaigns, and Fight Back
Socialists were faced with the question of whether and how to support Sadlowski. Should they build the Fight Back campaign or continue concentrating on local rank-and-file groups? What politics should they raise and fight for? Should they refuse to support Sadlowski at all, deeming him too flawed and too conservative?

Marxists start with the premise that the personal qualities and intentions of individual candidates are not decisive. The fundamental question is one of the balance of class forces. Will the campaign advance workers’ confidence, organization, and militancy? Will it involve them in a fight for demands that move the class struggle forward? Will it lead to greater openings for rank and file self-organization from below? Will it be a mere exchange of different personalities who broker the same business-oriented sell-outs at the top? Will it coopt militants into a more conservative course? To answer these questions, Marxists must analyze the concrete conditions of each given election.

The main dynamic of the Fight Back campaign was that it stood for a national union and labor movement that fought against the bosses for the interests of rank-and-file workers. On a national scale, such an election had enormous potential significance. The main countervailing consideration for socialists was that while Sadlowski raised militant demands and left-wing ideas in speech, his campaign had no strategy for building the rank-and-file organization that could win them.

Sectarian leftists refused to support Sadlowski because he was a union official, not a rank and filer; and a reformer, not a revolutionary. The many dynamics missed and dismissed by this position include the fact that politically, Sadlowski, while not perfect, was in advance of the ranks—including the militants—on many questions. He often spoke publically to steelworkers about important labor questions in order to move them to the left. He projected himself as an educator, a raiser of political consciousness. This was one of his strengths, and it gave broader and deeper currency to many of the goals and ideas he discussed, including those that no one else but leftists were raising. Sadlowski often made radical and controversial ideas more broadly acceptable by watering them down to vague ideals—abstract, far-off, unthreatening. But he also often used the language of class politics and class struggle. In discussing an independent labor party,27 a union that “fought the bosses,” “taking to the streets,”28 “class action,”29 the USW as the “vanguard of the fight to make the labor movement cure this nation’s ills,”30 and even the day when workers would manage the factories,31 Sadlowski legitimized left-wing ideas.

Although these were ideals in which Sadlowski believed, he and the campaign leadership were nonetheless subject to pressures from the right (staff men, conservative steelworkers, the Communist Party, liberal political allies), as well as the Left (militant steelworkers, political radicals). These competing influences were evident on the crucial question of the ENA. Sadlowski, especially at first, was reluctant to lead a fight on an issue that so deeply divided the ranks, would alienate support he hoped to gain, and would require grassroots organization to win. Fight Back, nonetheless, would come to be strongly identified with the right to strike because of leftward grassroots pressure upon the campaign leadership.32

Crucially, and despite the fact that he hoped his campaign could avoid an aggressive fight for the right to strike, Ed Sadlowski had mounted a direct challenge to the Able/McBride machine (not just to the faces that ran it). A Fight Back victory would be an enormous, and potentially irreparable, blow to the bureaucracy. Because the international machine generally ruled the union so tightly at the local and district levels (except for isolated dissident locals and, since 1974, District 31), a breakup of its control would mean enormous openings for the rank and file. This process had already occurred in District 31, when Sadlowski beat Sam Evett in 1973-74 for District 31 director. Within two years of his victory, seven of the eight locals representing the giant District 31 mills had thrown out the old machine guard and voted in Sadlowski slates. At three important locals, 65 (U.S. Steel South Works), 1010 (Inland), and 6787 (Bethlehem), rank-and-file militants and radicals were swept into office.

Furthermore, Sadlowski had no machine of his own. Despite his appeals to low-level staffers,33 there was no alternative machine that Sadlowski could hope to use within the USW. A run that was serious about winning would have to turn to the rank and file, the only base that could deliver a victory. This relationship would present opportunities for rank-and-file militants to influence both Sadlowski and other steelworkers, to fight for winning the right to strike, to move the campaign leftward, and to use Fight Back to build a strong rank-and-file movement in the USW. It would provide radicals with the opportunity both to raise their rank-and-file perspectives, and to rebuild a socialist current within the labor movement.

The issues that had been and would be raised in the Fight Back campaign were greater militancy; union democracy; the right to ratify and to strike; an end to discrimination against Blacks, Hispanics, and women; a more representative union leadership;34 a women’s committee in the union; a shorter work week; an independent labor party; and greater worker control over hazardous working conditions. Because there had been a mere handful of national and international union elections to put business unionism at issue, and because most rank-and-file memberships were so thoroughly fed up with their own union bureaucracies, a victory for Sadlowski would be felt well beyond the USW. A Steelworkers Fight Back victory would be a powerful triumph for the whole rank-and-file union movement.

Finally, the opportunity to be part of a national movement in steel—which could take on those larger questions (like the right to ratify and to strike) that could not be decided at the local level, and which would raise the political horizons and consciousness of the local militants—was consistent with the IS perspective on national rank-and-file caucuses, as opposed to the position of those sections of the Left which viewed all struggles from a local perspective only.

Based on these considerations, the IS threw its (limited) resources into the Fight Back campaign, and worked to convince steelworker militants with whom it collaborated to do the same. Both entered the bigger Fight Back milieu (as compared to the much smaller peripheries of the individual rank-and-file groups) in what would prove to be the chance of a lifetime for steelworkers. Not only the IS, but large sections of the Left, welcomed the enormous advance in US labor politics represented by the Sadlowski campaign.

Sadlowski and Fight Back, nonetheless, were not perfect. The contradiction between the campaign’s strengths and its flaws prompted most of the Left to react in one of two ways: either in slavish support and silence, or in hypercriticism.

The Communist Party (CP) gave uncritical backing and raised no independent politics, believing that any criticism would confuse unsuspecting steelworkers and risk losing their support. The American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took an almost identical view. The CP attempted also to hold down rank and file initiative, criticism, and leftward pressure in the local Fight Back groups. Sectarian Trotskyist groups generally gave their conception of “critical support,” which to them meant “support” that was only critical of the real or imagined sins of the campaign for not being revolutionary. The Maoists (who, because of their Stalinist heritage, had wavered between ultraleft dual unionism and/or “rank-and-file” groups under their own party control) during the Sadlowski campaign mostly swerved sharply to the right and revived the old Stalinist idea of the “center-left bloc,” which meant their uncritical alliance with union bureaucrats, left or right, depending on the season.

The silence of radicals and militants who chose not to raise criticisms or independent politics during the campaign allowed Sadlowski more freedom to move to the right in appealing to conservative steelworkers, in Fight Back’s constantly paradoxical response to opposing forces within it.35

The political challenges posed by ISers to the campaign leadership, and to steelworkers, stood in stark contrast to the silence offered by much of the Left. The IS believed that within Fight Back—a development with such potential—militants and radicals had the responsibility to raise constructive ideas for overcoming limitations, in order to strengthen and build the campaign and the rank-and-file movement. Because ISers raised their ideas and criticisms—countering, for example, the campaign’s wavering on important issues like the right to strike—they won respect and support from militants in Fight Back. Further, because ISers earned credibility for being some of the best builders of the reform efforts they joined (or initiated and led), their socialist ideas received a more open hearing as well.

The Fight Back campaign
As the campaign progressed, grassroots opposition ignited. Sadlowski’s run challenged and changed deep-rooted cynicism among steelworkers. For so long, so few had believed that anything could be done to gain a voice in the affairs of their union. Now, the valleys and mills were filled with talk of Sadlowski and interest in the issues of the election. Problems like unemployment (Sadlowski proposed a shorter work week with no loss in pay); the need for a fighting union; the need and right to vote on contracts; the need to win back the right to strike; the fear of strikes; the distinction between winning and losing strike strategies and tactics; the need to shut down hazardous job conditions with no loss in pay (another Sadlowski plank); the question of whether a change at the top, or one guy, would change anything; the question of what could change things; and many similar topics became the talk of the day. For Clairton steelworkers, one Fight Back demand had particular relevance: Marvin Weinstock (Fight Back candidate for vice president for administration) had called for an immediate effort to win the six-hour day for coke oven workers, due to the exceptional occupational dangers of their jobs.36

SSU continued to publish its monthly newspaper and to organize around local struggles as well as the Fight Back campaign. It faced an early test when a previously unknown paper, put out by a griever who was a CP sympathizer, surfaced in the mill along with disruptive attacks on SSU for being “divisive” and “Trotskyist.” The sectarian challenge became a turning point for SSU, because the group chose not to engage in turf and ego wars that would divide and alienate rank and filers. Agreeing with the national IS steel fraction’s advice, SSU adopted a principled unity position. It made overtures to the other paper/group (despite the enormous hostility of its leader), offering to give up its own name, paper, and format, or take any other measures that would support the broadest possible, regular, mill-wide, united, democratic group and publication. The group’s CP-oriented leader refused to cooperate on any terms, and lost support to SSU as a result. In its November issue, SSU ran an editorial outlining the unity position for which it would continue to fight in the mill and in Fight Back. As a result of its consistent principles, SSU won over key militants and became positioned as the group at Clairton that stood for unity and seriousness in building the rank-and-file movement. Its paper also became the main voice of Fight Back at Clairton, since the local Fight Back steering committee rejected SSU proposals to put out a broader publication.

Higher-ups in the Fight Back campaign generally discouraged (actively or passively) rank-and-file organization and initiative as a disruptive challenge to what they wished to contain as a strictly electoral campaign.37 In charge of the tridistrict Pittsburgh area, staff member Pat Coyne discouraged all activity and literature independent of his office. The catch was that his office generated no literature or activity (other than phone calling and press conferences).

The Clairton local Fight Back group consisted of SSU, other rank and filers, and members of left groups. Most besides SSU were afraid to take any action independent of Coyne’s office. SSU was able to eventually win over a majority of the local Fight Back group to its views on independent activity. As the local Fight Back group in Local 1557 began putting out hard-hitting, issue-oriented leaflets, literature-starved militants from other mills in the valley requested and received copies for their own locals. Because these were so well-received and frequently requested, Staffman Coyne was forced to channel some through his office, putting them out under tridistrict Fight Back auspices. By the end of the campaign, because of its consistent stand for independent initiative and organization, SSU had gained the respect of many militants in the district beyond Clairton.

The strategy of building strong rank-and-file organization and initiative from below was tested when steelworkers voted in November to nominate candidates for the February ballot. November voting results varied markedly, in correlation with levels of rank and file self-organization. Sadlowski suffered wake-up-call losses in critical locals in his home stronghold  District 31—including 6787 (Bethlehem) and 1014 (U.S. Steel Gary Works)— although he carried the district as a whole. In the Gary area, overconfident campaign directors had successfully diverted rank-and-file Fight Back forces from organizing their own giant basic mills prior to November, directing them instead to leaflet at small surrounding locals.

On the other hand, in McBride strongholds like Clairton’s Local 1557, where Fight Back activists ignored campaign advice against grassroots organizing and mounted a strong, systematic, imaginative effort, Sadlowski won the November nominations vote by 2-1. The Sadlowski campaign reversed its strategy of ignoring the big mills, although it continued to fail to give concrete support and leadership to rank and file organizing efforts.

The bosses organize
Throughout the campaign, a group called Steelworker Members Against Radical Takeovers (SMART), fronting for the Abel/McBride machine and for the steel companies, littered the mills with literature redbaiting Sadlowski and Fight Back forces. Local 1557 union officials personally handed these leaflets out at Clairton’s plant gates. SMART leaflets had a significant influence on steelworkers (these were still the times of the Cold War). The SMART campaign lost much of its impact, however, where it was confronted sharply and without delay. When SMART blanketed Clairton Coke Works, for example, with redbaiting flyers at the eleventh hour before the November nominations, an enormous wave of sentiment shifted in McBride’s favor. SSU (without waiting for official approval, or disapproval) immediately wrote and widely distributed a hard-hitting response. Amid avid shop floor arguments, the huge tide shifted back to Sadlowski, and led to his 2–1 victory.

Sadlowski’s own response to redbaiting was uncompromising. Exceedingly rare, if not unique, among major labor officials of the time, Sadlowski stood publically against redbaiting. He denounced it as an attempt to divide steelworkers, Fight Back, and the working class. He countered redbaiting by describing the positive role played by socialists in building the unions and the labor movement. He defined himself, when asked, as a socialist “in the sense of Eugene Debs.”38

The steel companies took heed. At a company press conference on the USW election in December, U.S. Steel’s chief negotiator, vice president J. Bruce Johnston, acknowledged that Big Steel’s endorsement of a union candidate would be “the political kiss of death.”39 He pointedly emphasized instead, therefore, the industry’s avid endorsement of the no-strike ENA. The industry’s support for Abel/McBride escalated to an assault and a threat when it announced 9,000 election week layoffs—about 7 percent of the District 31 membership—in the Fight Back stronghold of Chicago/Gary.

The stakes held by the entire labor movement in the Steelworkers’ election were becoming impossible to ignore. The head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, took the unusual step of publically taking sides in a constituent union’s internal election and supported McBride. Leading officials of the AFL-CIO gave their financial support.40 Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, used union funds to pay for an advertisement in the New York Times attacking Sadlowski. Top union officials realized that rebellion among disaffected steelworkers, if victorious, would be contagious, posing a serious threat not only to Abel and McBride, but also to the entire labor bureaucracy.

In December 1976, the US Labor Department announced that it would not monitor the February 8 election for top USW officers, despite the fact that fraudulent vote counts were known to occur as a matter of course in the union—and had recently occurred, according to the government, in Sadlowski’s bid for District 31 director. (That original election was overturned and rerun). It would be Abel/McBride supporters counting the votes in February. The USW’s 10,000 polling places were too numerous for Fight Back forces to monitor on their own. A plethora of small locals represented 700,000 USW members, a majority, who worked in everything from sweatshops, grocery stores, and warehousing, to the “bucket shops” and “fab” (fabrications, vs. basic steel manufacturing) section of the industry. The smaller locals were generally isolated and conservative, completely beholden to international USW staffers. They predominated particularly in the southern and western parts of the United States, and across Canada.

The vote and its aftermath
When the February vote was counted results were split, not unexpectedly, between the basic and fabrications sections of the union. Sadlowski had won a clear majority among workers in basic, ten of the union’s twenty-five districts, and a majority of locals representing 1,000 workers or more. Lloyd McBride had taken 57 percent of the overall vote, and run strongly in the non-basic section of the USW, especially in the southern and western United States and in Canada. The election represented repudiation of the ENA in basic steel, where the no-strike deal mattered most—particularly since basic steel set the bargaining pattern for the rest of the union. The election also represented a clear vote in basic for the right to ratify contracts. But the strength of the rank and file in its most powerful section, and in the USW as a whole, had not yet become sufficiently developed and organized to allow the membership to take control of the union.

Despite the overall election loss, the rank-and-file opposition among steelworkers had been greatly strengthened by the Sadlowski campaign and the victory in basic. Local Fight Back groups, and local rank-and-file groups, attempted to carry on building an independent movement after the election. However, the promised support from the national campaign office, a national newspaper, and a continuing national organization never materialized. Jim Balanoff, former president of Local 1010 (Inland Steel, Gary), a key Sadlowski advisor, and his successor as director of District 31, would later say: “Our mistake in 1977 was that Steelworkers Fight Back didn’t stay alive. You need an organization. I don’t think the losses [including Balanoff’s own, in the 1981 USW elections] would have occurred if Fight Back had stayed alive.”41 Once again, the MFD’s lesson that the crucial element of meaningful election strategy is an organized, ongoing rank-and-file movement became relevant.

Many steelworkers believed that the basis had been laid for an ongoing movement that would continue to grow. A national network of rank-and-file militants had begun to congeal. Winning the right to strike and ratify—along with many issues raised by Sadlowski’s campaign—had gained wide traction in the mills as legitimate, and changeable, issues for steelworker debate and action. Many local rank-and-file groups, shop newspapers, individual militants, and socialists had built and earned credibility and influence in their mills that extended beyond their limited seniority, in a testament to what can be achieved by relatively small but determined numbers in times of upsurge.

But the industry and the world were about to enter a period of major restructuring. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, the American steel industry was dramatically transformed. Its outdated facilities had left it unable to compete on the world market against more efficient German and Japanese steel corporations. In totally restructuring to restore its profitability, the American steel industry modernized its plants and equipment; shut down old mills; cut wages and benefits; imposed “concessions” bargaining; increased productivity and speed-up; diversified into non-steel markets; and slashed the steel production workforce. In a single year (1979), over 57,000 jobs were cut.42 The women and minorities who had been hired under the Consent Decree, having the least seniority, were the first to go. By 1980, USW membership had been halved. During the following ten years, U.S. Steel increased productivity by nearly 300 percent—while slashing almost three-quarters of its workforce.43

Steelworker militants and the whole Left that took part in the Sadlowski campaign had shared the hope and expectation that Steelworkers Fight Back represented a stronger, broader, and potentially more organized expression of the rank-and-file upsurge that had been going on in the 1960s and 1970s. Fight Back, unfortunately, came to represent instead the last act of the extraordinary working-class militancy of that period, which came to an end with the economic crises of three recessions between 1973 and 1982. Beginning in the late 1970s, capital initiated a sustained international drive to restore profitability. The triumph of neoliberalism, with its crushing of the trade unions and the Left, set the stage for a long period of retreat, from which the working class and the Left is only now starting to revive.

  1. The working-class women’s liberation movement developed in contrast to the middle-class women’s movement in the 1970s. See note 14 and accompanying text.
  2. USW 1557, U.S. Steel, Clairton, Pennsylvania.
  3. James B. Lane and Mike Olszanski, Steelworkers Fight Back, (Indiana University Northwest, 2000); Phillip W. Nyden, Steelworkers Rank-And-File: The Political Economy of a Union Reform Movement (New York: Praeger, 1984).
  4. Joel Geier, “Revolutionaries and the Rank and File Upsurge of the 60s and 70s,”
  5. United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis funded and appointed his subordinate in the UMW, Phillip Murray, to set up SWOC (Steel Workers Organizing Committee) in 1936. The bureaucratic SWOC became the centralized and undemocratic USW in 1942. Staughton Lynd, A History of the Steelworkers Union (Boston: New England Free Press, 1973); John Herling, Right to Challenge: People and Power in the Steelworkers Union (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
  6. Lynd. The strike lasted 116 days before the government stepped in to force a settlement.
  7. Jim Woodward, Workers’ Power 194, Feb. 7, 1977. The best ongoing left coverage of Fight Back and the steel industry can be found in Workers’ Power, the weekly newspaper of the International Socialists, soon to become available online.
  8. Jim Woodward, Workers’ Power 176, Sept. 20, 1976.
  9. The steel barons recruited a foreign-born workforce, largely from southern and eastern Europe, at the beginning of the twentieth century. “By 1907, less than one-quarter of Carnegie’s workforce remained American-born whites.” John H. Hinshaw, Steel and Steelworkers: Race and Class Struggle in Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2002), 28. Jobs and departments were segregated by language to keep unions from forming. In one U.S. Steel plant of 5000 employees in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvannia,. in 1909, sixteen different nationalities could be counted. (Despite the bosses’ divisions, that plant became the site of a historic and “magnificent victory” against barbarous conditions. The 1909 McKees Rocks strike “was one of the bloodiest battles waged in American labor history and one of the most inspiring examples of working-class solidarity ever witnessed in this country.”) Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World 1905-1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 282-95.
  10. Forty thousand workers received $31 million, or an average of less than $800 apiece (“Milestones: 1974,” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, available at Their bosses received $470 million—the projected savings from avoiding payment of $500 million if the Fairfield pattern had been applied to the whole industry.
  11. For an explanation of some of the seniority limitations, see Hinshaw, 211-13.
  12. Along with Blacks and Chicanos. The important issue of race and racism in the industry and union is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, see Ruth Needleman, Black Freedom Fighters in Steel, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003); Hinshaw; and Lynd.
  13. Jim Woodward, Workers’ Power 189, Dec. 20, 1976.
  14. Union W.A.G.E., ORGANIZE! A Working Women’s Handbook (Berkeley: Union W.A.G.E. Educational Committee, 1975); Diane Balser, Sisterhood & Solidarity: Feminism and Labor in Modern Times (Boston: South End Press, 1987); Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 440-60; Kieran Walsh-Taylor, Turn to the Working Class: The New Left, Black Liberation, and the U.S. Labor Movement (1967-1981) (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dissertation, 2007), available at
  15. Jean Tepperman, Not Servants, Not Machines: Office Workers Speak Out (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).
  16. For a history of the IS see the section of this article, “The role of the IS.”
  17. When challenged, they argued exceptionalism: These particular competent women were atypical; other departments were tougher [when women could do the job in this one]; other departments were easier [when women could do the job in that one]; and so on. Some who held these beliefs were die-hard chauvinists, but many were not. Not all changed, but many—perhaps most—eventually did.
  18. Black men were generally sympathetic to women’s plight in the mill, because they faced so much similar discrimination themselves. Under the Consent Decree’s terms applying to both groups, and the backlash against them, Blacks and women were natural allies. In addition, where white women were actively anti-racist, Blacks appreciated and reciprocated the solidarity.
  19. Not only for workers on the job, but also for surrounding residents. In one incident in 1975, for example, fourteen people were killed in Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods filled with deadly air belched out by the Clairton works when the company stubbornly refused to suspend production during a high pollution alert. Workers’ Power 160, May 17, 1976.
  20. Perhaps they should have counted themselves lucky: In the comparable iron range of Minnesota, one Port-a-Potty was overturned while a woman was using it. There, the company-promoted environment of employee-perpetrated sexual harassment was so violent and vile that “union brothers” had covered a sister in the same disgusting excrement they laid claim to for brains. In a landmark sexual harassment case involving that abuse and others, company attorneys treated the women plaintiffs to equal humiliation. Jensen v. Eleveth Taconite Co.; Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law (New York: Anchor, 2003).
  21. For an uncannily accurate rendition of the conditions they faced, see the excellent movie North Country, based on the experience of women miners in the comparable Minnesota iron range. The book on which that movie is based, Class Action, tells the story of their struggle and the victorious landmark ruling that resulted, in the first sexual harassment class action suit in the U.S. (Jensen v. Eleveth Taconite Co.). Bingham and Gansler, Class Action.
  22. There was a significant racist culture in the mills, surprisingly crude and unabashedly open. It was as impossible to avoid racist attitudes and slanders as it was to avoid sexist ones.
  23. Unlike the track gang, the labor gang was not grueling (most of the time). It provided a mobile pool of unskilled workers for the dirtiest crap-jobs in the many different departments of the mill. Some tasks were extremely physically demanding, while others were light. Department locations and jobs generally changed each day. In time (following probation), the reassignment to the labor gang would prove to have unforeseen consequences for the company—particularly in terms of rank and file organizing and socialist paper sales—since the laborer’s job provided access to virtually every shop, crew, and worker (there were some 4,000) in the sprawling, three-mile-long mill.
  24. The rank-and-file union traditions of the International Socialists are those of the labor work of the communist and Trotskyist movements; the rank-and-file Trade Union Education League (TUEL) of the 1920s; the 1934 general strikes of the Minneapolis Teamsters and Toledo Auto-Lite workers; and the Workers’ Party rank-and-file organizations against the no-strike pledge of WWII.
  25. Particularly in District 31 (Chicago/Gary). Women in Local 1014 and District 31 organized, at both the local and district levels, primarily around: affirmative action, discriminatory probationary firings, washrooms, harassment, maternity and pregnancy benefits, apprentice rights and needs, and increased union participation and representation. District 31 Women’s Caucus leaflets and newsletters from 1976–77; Margaret Fonow, Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 112–134.
  26. A part of this story is told in Barbara Koppel’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA.
  27. Sadlowski spoke of a genuine, independent labor party, and gave the notion broader currency. But he also wavered about workers’ participation in the Democratic Party. He voted in 1976 for the “lesser evil,” family non-union peanut farm owner, Jimmy Carter.
  28. Ed Sadlowski quoted in Nyden, Steelworkers Rank-And-File, 73.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Jim Woodward, Workers’ Power, 170, August 9, 1976.
  31. Speaking at a two-hour question-answer format Fight Back rally of about 200 steelworkers in the Pittsburgh area in December 1976, which the author attended.
  32. Though Sadlowski opposed the ENA, he was silent on the strike issue at the September press conference announcing his candidacy. The Sadlowski campaign resisted forming a strategy for winning back the right to strike. It hoped to avoid alienating potential supporters. But under persistent pressure from militant rank and filers, Sadlowski voiced stronger positions on the right to strike as the campaign progressed. Even while responding to leftward pressure from below, the Sadlowski campaign would still agree to no more strategy for winning back the right to strike—with contract negotiations to follow on the heels of the election—than to promise a(nother) referendum.
  33. Three of the other four candidates on Sadlowski’s slate were staffmen, including Andrew Kmec, the head of the Staffman’s union. Kmec ran for treasurer. The rest of the Sadlowski slate included Ignacio Rodriguez for secretary; Marvin Weinstock, a staffman from Youngstown, for vice president for administration; and Oliver Montgomery for vice president for human affairs (the first Black candidate for the USW International Executive Board, a staffer from the union’s research department, and a leader since 1964 of the Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Steelworkers, a Black caucus fighting for better Black representation in the union). As Ed Mann from Youngstown’s Rank and File Team (RAFT) observed, Sadlowski “felt more comfortable with the staff because that’s who he saw, that’s where he operated. He was a staffman.” Nyden, 84. The campaign’s orientation to friendly staffers meant “Fight Back was in the paradoxical position of playing the International’s game in its selection of strategy, at the same time as it was emphasizing the grassroots orientation of its insurgent campaign platform.” Nyden, 85.
  34. In addition to standing for these principles, the Fight Back slate included Oliver Montgomery and Ignacio Rodriguez (see note 25), and candidate for District 31 director, Jim Balanoff, promised to establish a women’s committee in the union.
  35. “Early in the campaign [Sadlowski] concentrated on those in the union’s political center because he felt that he already had the support of those on the left.” Nyden, 85. As John Barbero of RAFT (Rank and File Team) from Local 1462 in Youngstown, Ohio, put it, Sadlowski, in orienting toward friendly staffers, felt that “rank-and-file groups had no place to go but to him in the 1977 election.” Ibid.
  36. Jim Woodward, Workers’ Power #184, Nov. 15, 1976.
  37. Describing Fight Back’s early days, Phillip Nyden writes: “Fight Back attempted to run everything from Chicago. Initially, the formation of local organizations was discouraged . . . . Rather than emphasize grassroots organization as the primary political strategy, a significant amount of time and resources were spent in attracting media attention. Paralleling Fight Back’s decision to use strategies aimed at stimulating media attention rather than grassroots organization was its decision to rely on the court system as a key source of political power.” Nyden, 83.
  38. Workers’ Power #186, Nov. 29, 1976.
  39. David Leitz, Workers’ Power #190, Jan.10, 1977.
  40. These included Lane Kirkland, the federation’s secretary-treasurer; Jacob Clayman, of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department; and Sol Chaikin, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
  41. Jim Balanoff quoted in Nyden, 100.
  42. Nyden, 95.
  43. “In the 1980s, U.S. Steel closed fifteen facilities and eliminated in excess of 120,000 steelworkers’ jobs throughout the country (over 70 percent of its workforce). With relatively modest investments, man-hours per ton at U.S. Steel fell from 10.8 in the early 1980s to 3.8 in 1989.” Hinshaw, 248.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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