It was a winter day late in 1974 when Quentin Young, my doctor and long-time friend, called me at my office to invite me to his office in Hyde Park. “You gotta meet this guy Eddie from the steelworkers,” he said.
The press had been following SadIowski’s struggle — happenings in the steelworkers union were big news in those days, especially around Chicago — and the chance to meet the man seemed interesting.
Of more interest was that Sadlowski had come out of US Steel’s South Works, the same plant I had worked in as a young man. I hadn’t thought about the place much for years, but I was suddenly curious what sort of stamp the place might have left on another man. Quentin had invited Bob Adams, another guy who had been in the mill as a young man. On the appointed evening, I was there.
The steelworkers’ union in the early 1970s could fairly be described as a huge system of interlocking fiefdoms, refereed from a skyscraper in Pittsburgh by I.W. Abel and his small circle of advisers. Abel’s men would pick Directors for the union’s 30-some districts, nominate them and then have them rubber-stamped by a membership vote.
Ed Sadlowski was a relatively small cog in this machine when he realized that he was fed up with the arrogance of the Abel group and that he would have to do something about it. With the help of a few younger unionists from Local 65 and some of the remaining progressives in the district, Ed had run for District Director and, he claimed, won.
The official vote, however, had Eddie losing by 2,000 votes. Eddie and his men were sure they had been “counted out,” and immediately lodged complaints with the courts and the National Labor Relations Board. Now Eddie was in the middle of a grueling round of fund-raising meetings to sustain his legal challenge.
Meanwhile, his position as a District 65 staffer, with the protection of the staff workers union, made the International afraid to fire him outright. He had used the position to emerge as the leading thorn in the side of the Steelworkers Union’s national leadership.
Ed Sadlowski was a burly, roughly handsome man in his early forties with an air of confidence and large appetites about him. You could tell right away he had that gift for getting people to underestimate him so that he could surprise them when the time was right. Here in Quentin’s office he could speak stirringly in the old labor tradition, and he meant it, but one got the sense that at the plant gates he could translate just as easily in the other direction and put radical ideas in language that made sense to the average steelworker.
This was a man who aspired to be director of the union’s largest district, but he projected a different persona from the average trade union leadership in steel. This was no gray-suited bureaucrat; Eddie Sadlowski was in office to carry out a Iife-Iong project, and every aspect of his complicated personality, down to the Iinesmanlike set of his shoulders, reflected that determination.
It became clear very quickly, despite all the rhetoric for the moneyed supporters, that Eddie was about more than just getting a union office. “If anything is going to change in America it isn’t going to be changed by business men, and it isn’t going to be done by the youth by themselves, either, unfortunately. Any progress we get will have to come from the working class.” (I paraphrase, because I wasn’t taking notes.)
Of course, the real purpose of the gathering was to raise money for Eddie’s recount campaign. We handed over our checks, and I agreed to host a similar meeting in our place up in Evanston the coming spring.
I liked Eddie, and I believed in what he was doing, but even more than that, I felt like this was a great opportunity to reestablish contact with my past. We spent more and more time together that winter and spring. (People assumed we had known each other in the mill, which wasn’t true, but it sounded good. He’d come into the mill as a machinist’s apprentice just when I was laid off in 1956.)
Very soon, the NLRB discovered that the official union leadership had faked the ballots in Gary, one of the biggest locals. I think they probably faked them just about everywhere, but Gary was where they were caught. A new election was set for the following year and Eddie won by about twenty thousand votes, which showed how egregiously the original election had been rigged.