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Eddie Sadlowski: Old-Fashioned Hero of the New Working Class

There is a fire in the steelworkers union, and he is not gonna piss on it

Steelworkers

Steelworkers throwing slag into the furnace, 1941

Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty

The only logical place for this story to begin is in a bar: Lombardi’s, on the South Side of Chicago, a neighborhood joint where steelworkers hang out, drinking glasses of beer with shots of whiskey on the side. By day, it’s a shadowy hole populated by older men who sit quietly pondering their hands–which often have several fingers missing, fingers they left behind in the mills. By night, the desperation turns boisterous. The room is suffused with a musty yellow light from behind the bar. A ballgame is on the tube. There are loud belches and guffaws and arguments over baseball, women, work–you name it.

Twenty-five years ago, when Ed Sadlowski would stop by Lombardi’s with his shoeshine kit, they used to kick him out. He was a pain in the ass, a street kid bothering the patrons. Now, he’s as close to a celebrity as they get in Lombardi’s. At the relatively tender age of 37, he is the director of District 31, United Steelworkers of America. There are 130,000 men and women who work in the steel mills of Chicago and northern Indiana who are hoping that Ed Sadlowski will make their lives a little better.

There are others who are watching him, too: The big shots in business and labor and government who suspect (and fear) that he may be this country’s next great labor leader. He sits down at the end of the bar at Lombardi’s, surrounded by steel-workers, shooting the shit. He’s well over six feet tall, 220 pounds (about 40 of which are a classic beer belly), with dark hair that often falls down in his eyes, dark eyes under dark eyebrows and a booming voice with a gravelly edge to it. They are talking union politics.

“Don’t worry about these guys,” he advises his colleagues. “I’m serious, we’ll kick their ass.”

“We’ll get ax handles,” jokes a steelworker with silvery hair. “Like that governor down South Madigan.”

“Yeah, like Maddox,” Ed laughs. “Ax handles.”

***

For the past several years, Ed Sadlowski and his pals have been waging a successful guerrilla war against the bilious autocrats who run big labor in this country. It is a rebellion that is pretty close to unique in the dreary world of labor politics since World War II–and probably as significant as the ouster of Tony Boyle and his thugs from the United Mine Workers Union after dissident leader Joseph Yablonski was murdered.

It began as a rebellion against Joe Germano, who had run District 31 (the largest of 22 steelworkers’ districts in the country) with an iron fist since 1942. Germano was a tough guy, a pal of Mayor Daley’s. He is best described by an old steelworker named Ray: “Joe started out okay. He was a real ‘dese and dose’ guy. But he changed over the years. He forgot about the guys in the mills. I guess he ate too many dinners at tables with tablecloths on them.”

By the time Germano decided to retire in 1973, there were not many steelworkers who could say they’d even seen him. For his successor, Germano chose a bland functionary named Sam Evett, who had spent most of his life in the district office.

Like many second-generation labor leaders, Evett seemed to have more in common with management than with the guys in the mills. But Evett was the heavy favorite to succeed Germano. For one thing, he had the support of the “official family” of the United Steelworkers–the union staff from International President I.W. Abel down to the officers of the 288 locals that comprised District 31. In the past, such support had been enough not only to assure victory but also to discourage any competition.

For another thing, when it came election time, Evett’s people cheated. Sadlowski, on the other hand, started working in the mills when he was 18 and was first elected to local union office when he was 22. His father had been a steelworker and so had his grandfather. “I didn’t get involved because of any romantic reason like the boss punched me in the nose and I wanted to fight back. I just wanted to be part of the labor movement,” Sadlowski says.

He was a natural leader and rose quickly through the ranks. “When we announced we were going to challenge Evett, people laughed,” says Clem Balanoff, a friend who helped run the Sadlowski campaign. “I mean, no one ever did that. It was practically impossible to even get on the ballot: You had to get 18 of the 288 locals to nominate you and that was a lot tougher than it sounded. Evett’s people would block us from meetings hell, we didn’t even know where half the locals in the district were and we couldn’t find out because the district headquarters wouldn’t give us the list.”

Eventually, Sadlowski got 40 locals to support his candidacy and the race was on. His slogan was: “It’s time to fight back,” and he campaigned at the plant gates, the union halls, the bars. His message was simple: “Times are tough and they’re getting worse. High prices. Poor shop conditions. Not enough job security. Our union should be fighting back but we’re falling farther and farther behind .”

It was like big government, didn’t care about your basic populist appeal: Big labor, like big government, didn’t care about the little guy–it was time to put District 31 back in the hands of the rank and file.

Clem Balanoff remembers election night in February 1973: “We were winning by maybe three, four thousand votes. But then, about midnight, the results stopped coming in. Now, in Chicago politics this can mean only one thing: It means they’re stealing the election.” Sure enough, when the returns started to come in again, Evett slipped ahead.

Sadlowski cried foul, hired the noted labor lawyer Joe Rauh (who’d also defended the dissident Mine Workers) and sued the union. The U.S. Department of Labor investigated and found massive fraud. Another election was held in November 1974, this time with federal supervision, and this time Sadlowski clobbered Evett, almost two to one. “When we won, everyone was going crazy,” Balanoff remembers. “They were shouting, ‘It’s over. It’s finally over.’ But I told them it wasn’t over, it was just beginning. We had just taken on the most monumental task of our lives.”

***

Bob is a steelworker in Joliet. He’s in his mid-30s and wears a goatee and slicked back brown hair:

Why did I support Ed? I don’t know. I read this story in the Sun-Times about the election and how this young guy with a “ski” on the end of his name who used to work midnight shift in the machine shop was running against some hand picked flunky who never worked a day in a mill in his life.

I work midnights and I know what it’s like: You watch a little Johnny Carson and then you go to work. And then you get out in the morning when most normal people are starting their days. I figured a guy who worked midnights in the machine shop would know what that’s all about, so I voted for him. The biggest problem we have now is that most guys take everything for granted. They see vacations and holidays and time and a half and they figure that management just gives you that shit. They don’t know that people had to fight for it. Hell, there ain’t three or four guys in the shop who know 10 people were killed by the cops at Republic Steel in 1937 and the only reason I know is that Ed told me a couple of months ago. And that’s what I think Ed is about. I think he wants to get us back to having the same kind of attitude guys had in those days.”

***

“I want you to hear the greatest recording of the human voice ever made,” Ed Sadlowski says. He puts on a 1906 version of the Irish tenor John McCormack singing the aria, “Il Mio Tesoro” from Don Giovanni by Mozart. Ed closes his eyes, his head sways slowly with the music. He opens his eyes, “Huh? What do you think of that? Great shit, huh?”

We are in Sadlowski’s basement, which is a mess like the rest of his house. He’s been trying to refinish the house for the last few years, with the help of his wife, Marlene, and their four children. But Ed has been busy with the union and Marlene has been busy with school (she recently got an associate degree in psychology), so the place has remained unfinished and in constant turmoil.

It is a modest brick home in a neighborhood of modest brick homes sandwiched in among the steel mills on Chicago’s Southeast Side. It is about a mile from the Republic Steel plant where the massacre occurred in 1937, the year before Ed was born. His father told him about it when he was a kid–the strikers’ peaceful Memorial Day picnic, the fiery speeches, the march on the factory, the shots, 10 dead and many more wounded–and it remains a central fact of Ed Sadlowski’s life.

In a time when many labor leaders see themselves as “partners” of big business, he sees himself as an adversary. There is labor and there is management and woe to those who seek to smudge the line like Steelworkers president I.W. Abel, who makes $75,000 per year and, Sadlowski says, “has begun to think like he makes $75,000 per year.”

But even so, even though Abel has become Sadlowski’s prime target, “I would still take Abel over the most liberal banker.” The Republic’ massacre lives on in Ed’s basement, along with Homestead, Pullman and the other great labor struggles.

There are stacks of books about labor history, copies of old union songs (Ed knows all the words), pictures and posters. His prize possession, though, is an old loose-leaf binder with copies of union documents from the Thirties. “Take a look at this,” he says, “this is great stuff I got a copy of the check John L. Lewis sent to help pay for the funerals of the guys who were killed at Republic.”

And it is great stuff. Frantic telegrams from Chicago to Steelworkers headquarters in Pittsburgh, and back again. Rabble-rousing speeches. Reports of “gunmen hired by the company” threatening the workers. “Here, you see that signature?” Ed says, flipping a page. “George Patterson. He was the first president of local 65, my home local. He’s still alive and one of my big supporters. We held this dinner for him and he got up to speak–it was about the time the police killed Fred Hampton here–and he says, ‘I see the police killed two young black guys because they called themselves Panthers. I can remember when we were the Panthers.’ After all those years, he still had the instincts. I mean, this was just a week after the shooting and the liberals were still trying to figure out what kind of position to take and he knew.”

“Ed,” I say, “you’re a romantic.”

“Fuck you,” he replies. “A romantic! A romantic could of never won that election.”

***

In the old days, of course, labor leaders were a bunch of romantics (with the exception of an occasional stick-in-the-mud like Samuel Gompers) who rode the rails from town to town, speaking, organizing and not worrying about the details. Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs didn’t spend much time bothering with pension funds, seniority squabbles or grievances. Ed Sadlowski has to do it every day. Early one morning last summer, he drove across the state line to the District 31 office in East Chicago, Indiana. He drove past refineries and factories, through clouds of yellow smoke and God-awful smells–the great corporations jammed up against each other on the shores of Lake Michigan.

He was wearing a mint green short-sleeve shirt, dark green pants and large awkward black tie shoes. He had a Samsonite attaché case and was listening to some actors reciting Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology on the radio.

The union headquarters was located in a drab bank building and it resembled nothing so much as the principal’s office in a high school. It was cold, metallic; lots of file cabinets and adding machines.

Ed’s office had a big desk and a conference table, several chairs for visitors, plywood paneling on the walls and the office equivalent of Astroturf on the floor. Also on the floor was a framed photo of John L. Lewis which Ed had yet to hang. There was a pile of telephone messages on his desk, a stack of mail and a pile of expense accounts to okay. He looked at the telephone messages one by one–complaints, grievances, health compensation, seniority. He began making calls.

“Hello, Ed Sadlowski here what can I do for you? oh yeah? what about your staff guy? that figures all right, I’ll see what I can do.” The conversation repeated itself about a half-dozen times during the next few hours. The key question was, “What about your staff guy?” The answer, invariably: “He doesn’t do shit.”

The union staff, which is supposed to handle the day-to-day problems, was never any great shakes to begin with. They were Germano’s boys and they remain so, and there isn’t all that much Sadlowski can do about it. I.W. Abel controls the budget, pays the salaries, and the staffers know that Abel would not be overly upset if Sadlowski’s administration was made to look bad. Later in the morning, five rather elderly black workers came into the office. They seemed even more uncomfortable than Sadlowski, sitting with their hats in their hands, not sure whether they should call him “Ed” or “Mr. Sadlowski.”

They described a very complex seniority problem; it was costing them a lot of money. Ed asked them if race had anything to do with it. They weren’t sure but suspected so. “What about your staff guy?” “He doesn’t do shit.” “I’ll see what I can do,” Ed said. “If you don’t hear from me by Thursday, give me a call. I mean it. Call me at home.” The men left and I said, “They seemed to be begging.”

“Yeah,” Ed said. “If we could ever get those guys to come in here and start demanding.” After another frustrating hour of phone calls, we left the office and drove to Gary where Ed was to do a radio show and then talk to some steelworkers. On the way, we talked about the staff problem. “You take a guy who’s been working for the union 20 years in his shop. A good guy,” Ed said. “And you give him a staff job because he’s earned it. Now that pays $17,000 per year with a car and expenses. So one day this guy is going to work with a brown bag for lunch and the next day he’s sitting across the table from management and they’re calling each other by their first names. They’re pals and that’s the way it happens.

“The first time I ever rode on a jet plane, the union paid for it. They flew me to New York, and there I was at the Roosevelt eating New York strip steak, and the union was paying for it .”

“So how come it didn’t happen to you?” I asked. “How come you didn’t turn out like the others?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because I was younger, a different generation.”

“You still could be bought, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah but I think I know their game,” he said. “The biggest thing management has had going over the years is this game of divide and conquer–especially between blacks and whites. Like my pa used to tell me about the sharecroppers down South. The black sharecropper would get a house that was just a little better than the white guy but the white guy would get a dime more on a bale of cotton than the black. And so they’d always be jealous of each other about something and always fighting each other instead of the boss. Management’s still doing that kind of thing.

“You can’t be a union man and a racist. No way. You can’t be a union man and be a redneck. I just can’t handle that kind of shit. A guy will come up to me and say nigger this and nigger that and I’ll just unload on him–you don’t know me, I can be a mean sonofa-bitch. There’s no way you can be a union man and a racist.”

***

Jerry, age 28, is a steelworker in Gary. He has long blond hair and a moustache:

I’m laid off now but I expect to go back soon. I’m next on the list to go back and I’m lookin’ forward to it. The work ain’t hard, the pay is pretty good–I make about $18,000 a year [the average steelworker makes about $14,-500 per year]–I love the union and the guys I work with. I’m an electrician; there are about 50 guys on my crew and we stick together, you know? Something comes down and 42 of us’ll back the guy who gets in trouble. And it pays off. For example, we wanted to have the company fix up the shanties where we take our breaks–put in air conditioning and picnic tables. Well, the company says no and then things start happening in the plant. [Laughs] Things start breaking down. Wires get crossed. You know what I mean? Pretty soon the company fixes up the shanties. You ask me about politics. I don’t know. None of those guys turn me on. I guess I’d vote for Kennedy if he ran but I don’t think he’s gonna. Wallace? I kinda like Wallace. He’s against government gettin’ out of hand the way it is, with 20 guys doin’ a job one man can handle. He’s against big business too, I think. He says things the average guy can understand.

***

The radio show in Gary was rather bland. Ed Sadlowski doesn’t get too specific when talking about politics these days. First, although he’d probably be loathe to admit it, he has to be careful. There’s been a lot of redbaiting directed against him. Second, there isn’t all that much you can say about politics these days without making a fool of yourself one way or another.

National politics he dismisses brusquely:

“Those guys are just sitting on their dicks. They should start calling each other bastards.”

Local politicians fare not much better. Ed was one of the few Chicago labor leaders who refused to support Mayor Daley this year. And when Governor Dan Walker asked if he could speak at a steelworkers’ dinner in March, Sadlowski refused. Walker was allowed, though, to buy a ticket and sit with rank and file union members. As for discussions of larger, theoretical issues, Sadlowski will drop hints but steers clear of being pinned down. Driving to Gary, I asked him how he’d restructure big business if he could. “That’s the ultimate question,” he said. “That’s the big one. Hell, if I had the answer to that…” He was silent for a moment.

Then, pointing to a row of suburban tract houses, “You see, that’s what you got to contend with. The American Dream. You’ve got generations who’ve been brought up with that, had it drummed into their heads in the so-called institutions that are public schools. People believe in that bullshit.”

And later, on the radio show: “I don’t have any strategy. I don’t go for any of those ‘isms’–I think they’re a trap. If I had to pick an ‘ism,’ I guest, it would be humanism. It’s really simply: People are hungry, you feed “em.” There were several steelworkers waiting in the radio station’s lobby and we immediately repaired to the nearest tavern, to discuss union politics. The steelworkers were looking for advice: They were staging a miniature Sadlow-ski-style rebellion of their own, trying to overthrow the entrenched union leadership in their factory’s local.

“You’ve got to hit and hit and hit and hit,” Ed told them, Knute Rockne style. “You have to keep going to their meetings. Keep plugging.”

“But they have more strength than us now,” one worker complained. “Well, here’s what you do,” Sadlowski said. “You learn their rules–the parliamentary procedure and all that–and then you strangle them with their own rules. You keep going to the meetings, keep demanding your rights under their rules, and pretty soon you find that your local president will need a couple of belts of Walker before he comes to meetings. And pretty soon you’ll see him yelling at his friends, getting rattled. And then you’ll find that the guys start coming over to your side.”

This was clearly a lot more fun than hanging around the office, getting angry phone calls. The other was important, (maybe even more important) but this was organizing. The great labor leaders–Debs, Lewis, Haywood, even Gompers–were organizers. They didn’t sit in offices, like Abel and George Meany.

“There’s a fire in the steel-workers’ union,” Sadlowski is fond of saying, “and I’m not gonna piss on it.”

That night, Sadlowski held a meeting for the rank and file in South Chicago. About 80 steelworkers showed up–blacks, whites, Chicanos, men and women, young and old–and sat drinking beer in a bare room with stark fluorescent light as Ed told them about the problems he was encountering in running the union. Then a question and answer period, and after several questions about bread and butter–seniority, grievances, pensions–the pain and frustration began to pour out.

“It’s getting real bad, Eddie, since they began the layoffs,” said a young mill hand from U.S. Steel who looked a lot like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. “The level of harassment by management is just incredible now. They treat us like machines you can just turn on and off. They treat us like animals. I wouldn’t treat a dog like they treat us.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sadlowski replied. “It’s always like that when times get hard. They know they got you over a barrel; the working guy always gets it in the neck.”

“But what can you do about it?” Sadlowski murmured something about “beginning to apply some pressure in areas where it’ll hurt management.”

But that was no answer. You can’t hurt U.S. Steel unless the pressure is applied nationwide, by the union as a whole. And he knows that instead of becoming more militant during the recession, people like Meany and Abel have snuggled up closer to their partners on the management side–in fact, Abel has signed an agreement with the big steel companies giving up the union’s right to strike.

As the New York Times reported last year, “Paradoxically, the recession has engendered new expressions of labor-management collaboration.” The long-term answer, of course, is that Ed Sadlowski is going to have to challenge the leadership of the national union. He is going to have to run for president of the steelworkers in 1977 against Abel or Abel’s surrogate.

Although Sadlowski hasn’t officially announced his intentions yet, his campaign headquarters remained open after the district election and he’s looking to dissidents in other districts for support.

Between now and then, though, are the day-to-day frustrations, the bread-and-butter problems and the question “But what can you do about it?”–which hung in the air long after it was asked. The meeting in South Chicago ended with the steelworkers boisterous, optimistic. It was the first time most of them had ever been able to sit down and bitch to their district director.

As an old Chicano said near the end, “I been 30 years in this steel industry. I never met Joe Germano and I think Sam Evett was the same guy. Ed Sadlowski is the only district director I ever saw.”

The new atmosphere of democracy and responsiveness had been enough to sustain Sadlowski’s popularity that night in South Chicago. He had built hopes and raised expectations but his future would be determined by how he answered the steelworker’s question–”But what can you do about it?”

“I think Sadlowski can be very important,” said Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union and one of the most progressive national labor leaders. “But I want to see what he does with the boss. The question is, what will he do in the crunch? Can he successfully fight the employers who are every bit as miserable, indecent and immoral as they ever were?”

“Yeah,” said Sadlowski, when I told him about Wurf’s comment. “He’s right.”

After the meeting, we dropped by a saloon for what Ed described as a “taste” but which turned out to be considerably more. We bumped into an old friend of Ed’s, a steelworker turned teacher.

“Hey Joey,” Ed bellowed. “What you puttin’ in those kids’ heads?”

“I’m teaching them that the cops shot first at Haymarket,” the friend replied. “Joey and I worked together in South Works,” Ed explained. “I was an oiler–I had this monocle on my name: Oilcan Eddie, they called me. I had the job down to a science. I spent most of my time up in the locker room, reading. That’s when I began to fuck my head up with books.”

Ed was shouting over a noisy jukebox. The bar was filled with young steelworkers who had their motorcycles parked out front, and a few old ones too. An old guy, about four sheets to the wind, ambled up and put his arms around Ed and Joey.

“You guys know what a woman looks like?” he asked. “They all look alike in the dark,” Joey said. “But can you name the parts to a pussy?” The old man began to tick them off on his fingers: “There’s the ovary, the fallopian tube, the clitoris” The old man staggered away.

“You remember some of the old guys that used to work in the mills?” Joey asked. “The guys just over from Europe. First generation guys, they’d come to work in a white shirt and tie!”

“Yeah,” said Ed, “and the bull sessions we’d have during breaks. We’d go into the shanties–you know, the rest shacks–and we’d talk about anything best damn conversations I ever had. Those guys had minds, you know? They had subtlety. Talk about anything philosophy, politics. It was tough keeping up with them–you had to keep your mind honed, you had to be sharp to hang in with these guys. Some of the best public speakers I ever saw were in the mills.”

He looked over to the pool table where some young guys were playing eight ball. “I don’t know about some of these young guys comin’ up, though,” he said. “I can’t talk to some of them. You know, I’ll be having a conversation with someone about baseball, say, and they’ll come up and say ‘What kind of shit is that, baseball?’ And I say okay–you pick a topic. I’ll talk about anything you want. But they can’t talk about nothin’, some of them.”

Ed and Joey began to talk about the long strike they had in 1959 against U.S. Steel. Ed downed his shot and leaned back sipping his beer, thinking about the guys he’d known and the others he’d read about in the locker room.

And then, “You know, sometimes I miss the old days back in the mill.”

And then, “Yeah, but not enough to want to go back there. Once you get out of the mill, you never go back. I ain’t ever seen a guy who went back to the mill who didn’t have to.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Labor unions

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