There’s a classic textbook of labor history called Who Built America?, its title an echo of the Brecht poem “Questions From a Worker Who Reads.” The question is rhetorical, obviously. It’s labor that built the country. (Brecht gets it: “Great Rome is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them?”)
The link between proletarian toil and national development was for generations the preferred way for labor to assert its place in the social contract. And for no group of workers was this claim more potent, more meaningful, than American steelworkers. From the late 19th century until the middle 20th, they formed one of the largest concentrations of industrial workers anywhere in the world. The symbols of American modernity—cars, highways, skyscrapers, aircraft carriers—were wrought from their product. Children of steelworkers often tell stories of lying in bed at night while dad worked the graveyard shift down at the mill, feeling his absence and, in compensation, imagining with pride his thumbprints on the beams in New York’s bridges and towers, or the helicopters in Vietnam.
It’s easy to understand the historical resonance of this idea, but in 2018, we need no reminder of the contradictions and dangers that come from establishing labor’s value based on its connection to the national project. The metals tariff recently imposed by the Trump Administration is justified on national security grounds—much as Trump periodically justifies the entire proto-fascist enterprise as a proletarian agenda, asserting an explicit identity between hard borders and mass prosperity. Thanks to generations of struggle, some workers fleetingly won a place for themselves in postwar American society; though that place has vanished, American culture still sanctifies the blue-collar worker, in a tomb that the jackals who rule the country happily raided for overalls and hardhats with which to disguise themselves.
In the twilight of the age of steel, Ed Sadlowski, Jr., saw this coming. Sadlowski, who died last week at 79, was for a moment in the 1970s the leading spokesman of blue-collar discontent with the postwar social compact, and a prophet of its imminent end. In the United Steelworkers of America, a sclerotic and hierarchical giant of 1.4 million members, Sadlowski, a third-generation steelworker, rose from the rank-and-file to become president of his local union, USWA Local 65, then to the leadership of the Chicago-area District 31, and then very nearly captured the presidency of the entire USWA in 1977.
While we now know that the crisis of the industrial economy and the liberal political regime in the 1970s gave rise to neoliberalism and right-wing ascension, it was not obvious at the time that things had to break that way. Like Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Michael Harrington, Johnnie Tillmon, Ralph Nader, Harvey Milk, or Jesse Jackson, Sadlowski represented the hope that existing liberal institutions might yet be salvaged and turned leftward. With all that the labor movement, the welfare state, the black freedom struggle, the peace movement, feminism, and gay liberation had achieved, it still seemed possible to carry forward the momentum of the 1960s.
Sadlowski embodied the wish for organized labor to wake from its postwar slumber and again throw its weight behind a great movement for a different country, as it had done in the 1930s and before. The AFL-CIO had shamefully backed the Vietnam War; Sadlowski opposed it and denounced the growth of “the weapons economy”—of which steel was very much a part. Many of the unions in the federation, including the USWA, had dragged their heels at best on racial integration of their workplaces; Sadlowski called for strengthening the union’s civil rights apparatus, attracting the support of Jesse Jackson and members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Much of organized labor met environmentalism with hostility; Sadlowski dissented. “It’s one hell of a thing for me to say—we just don’t need any more steel mills. We don’t need that kind of industrial growth, at the expense of what the environment should be.” He followed the thought where it led: “Enough with the car!” What more radical claim could a blue-collar worker make about postwar society than to doubt the automobile?
The outgoing incumbent I.W. Abel, for his part, attacked Sadlowski for “wanting to turn the labor movement into a political movement.” Abel, like the other gray eminences of American labor, was accustomed to being granted a seat at the table. Sure, sometimes you had to fight the boss, but you and he would be back at the table again the next day, so best not to make too much of a stink. It was becoming clear that this kind of statesmanlike posture was not a guarantee of workers’ interests by union leaders, but an accommodationist betrayal that rendered unions incapable of responding to the onset of deindustrialization.
Sadlowski was born in South Chicago, barely a mile from the Indiana line. His mother came from the Illinois coalfields; his father was a steelworker and a veteran of the bitter, eventually lethal campaign to organize “Little Steel”—all the companies besides the giant US Steel. The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, when the Chicago Police Department shot fifty demonstrators and killed ten, had happened during this organizing drive—in shouting distance of where Ed, born the next year, would grow up.
Young Ed followed his old man into the mill, working as an oiler and earning the nickname “Oilcan Eddie.” The place where the Sadlowskis lived and labored was part of the massive steel belt stretching forty miles around the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Sadlowski’s childhood home was only a few neighborhoods over from the spot in Gary, Indiana where steelworker Joe Jackson was grooming his children for musical stardom—another torturous route out of the wreckage of the postwar dream. In the 1970s, everyone was looking for one more chance.
What powered the Sadlowski insurgency was a growing sense that the postwar bargain was deteriorating and workers couldn’t do anything about it. Inflation was eating into wages. Workers were being displaced by new technology and by rising pressure from imports. “We know what it is like to buy groceries at ever rising prices and to try to balance the family budget,” explained the Sadlowski slate. “We know what it is like to be laid off or to try to survive on short work weeks. We’ve seen too many of our neighbors and fellow workers unemployed, trying to keep their kids in school and put food on the table without a regular income.” In the late 1960s and early ’70s, rank-and-file caucuses had formed in many steel mills to protest local issues, ranging from discrimination against women and African Americans to workplace safety and health. There was lots to protest: steel work was pretty likely to make you start vomiting blood or to take pieces off your body if you did it long enough. The bizarre hours, the grueling heat and workload, and the danger together drove huge numbers of steelworkers into alcoholism. Everyone had stories of watching workmates die horribly. And black workers especially were exposed to the worst of it.
At the same time, the union leadership had signed the “Experimental Negotiating Agreement” (ENA), a proposal from the company that swapped guaranteed wage increases for the right to strike. There had been industry-wide steel strikes in 1946, 1949, 1952, 1956, and 1959—the last still the record-holder today for the largest work stoppage in US history, as measured in person-hours. By the 1960s, steel consumers—particularly auto companies—realized they should anticipate these regular interruptions in the steel supply. They began to stockpile, which was bad, and to look overseas for suppliers, which was worse. So management proposed the ENA in 1965, calculating that stopping strikes was worth a larger wage bill, and in 1973 the union agreed. But the gains were soon minimized by spiraling inflation, while workers’ inability to walk off the job deprived them of their traditional weapon of self-defense. Sadlowski’s movement, “Steelworkers Fight Back,” was the result.
There had been rank-and-file insurgencies in steel and other industries before, and increasingly so in the 1970s. What made Sadlowski different was how his attempt to better represent steelworkers occasioned him to rethink the entire arrangement of postwar society. In an interview he gave to Penthouse, he suggested that the “ultimate goal of organized labor is for no man to have to go down into the bowels of the earth and dig coal. No man will have to be subjected to the blast furnace.” Organized labor’s postwar success had rested on the bargain of wages for productivity. To question this productivist logic—the idea that hard labor deserved reward because it built the country—was pure blasphemy for hard-pressed blue-collar workers in a moment when steel jobs were starting to disappear. Still, he said it. “I never met anyone in his right mind who loved working in the steel mill,” said Sadlowski. “Working forty hours a week in a steel mill drains the lifeblood of a man. There are workers there right now who are full of poems and doctors who are operating cranes. We’ve run the workers into the ground. Ultimately, society has nothing to show for it but waste.”
In a 1975 profile in Rolling Stone, Sadlowski reminisced about the steelworkers he’d hung out with on the job in earlier decades, many of them immigrants. “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.” The younger generation though, “they can’t talk about nothin’, some of them.” Workplace alienation wasn’t theoretical for Sadlowski—an autodidact who said he’d “fucked [his] head up with books.” He saw his workmates being diminished by their worsening jobs and taken for granted by their union, so he ran for president.
Sadlowski lost the ’77 election, but not by much, and probably not fairly. His opponent, favorite son Lloyd McBride, and the “family” that ran the union, came after the insurgent as a bourgeois hippie, a freak who marched with Jane Fonda against the war, raised money outside the union from other hip leftists (eventually the subject of a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court), supported gun control, “exposed himself” in Penthouse, and—cardinal sin—thought there should be fewer steelworkers. Although McBride won 57 percent to Sadlowski’s 43 percent, his winning margin came from the small shops scattered across the South and, particularly, from the fraud-prone Canadian locals—some of which gave Sadlowski impossible-seeming single-digit shares of the vote. But even if the balloting was fair in a strict sense, the fact that a Sadlowski campaigner was shot while leafleting in Texas gives an idea of the atmosphere in which the insurgency had to operate. Still, Sadlowski won in the heart of the basic steel industry—the giant mill complexes in Chicago, Gary, Cleveland, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, and Baltimore. The people who stared into blast furnaces every day voted for the man who said they should not have to, that they were full of wasted poems.
Sadlowski sought to transcend the bargain that gave steelworkers a seat at the table in return for the deadening of their minds, the humiliation of their spirits, and the destruction of their bodies. He dared to imagine something other than swapping wages for productivity—grief, loss, and drudgery in return for a numbing, dwindling security. From a life spent in the shadow of the violence of steelmaking, he saw beyond the mills and the masculine national pride that they sustained. We’d be in much better shape now if he had won.
“I don’t believe we should have fences around this country,” said Sadlowski during the ’77 campaign, speaking out for Mexican immigrants in the workforce. “We should be looking at ourselves as citizens of the world.” Citizen of the world—a different vision of the worker than the builder of America, the erector of triumphal arches.