Looking Back at the Steelworkers Fight Back Campaign – Part 3
This is the 3rd in a three-part Stansbury Forum posting on Steelworkers Fightback (SFB), a reform movement within the United Steelworkers Union in the 1970’s. Garrett Brown documents the issues and personalities that drove that movement. The series is of great relevance today and can help inform our understanding and appreciation of the reform movements underway in many large US unions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) has new leadership as does the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), America’s largest retail union, there is an active opposition called Essential Workers for Democracy. They had a big presence at the union’s most recent convention in April and are actively pointing toward the 2028 convention. Peter Olney, co-editor of the Stansbury Forum
Part 3 – Strengths and Weaknesses of Steelworkers Fight Back
Despite SFB’s previous electoral successes in District 31, it was clear that scaling up to a national level for the 1977 international union election was a huge challenge. A challenge that was made more difficult by increasingly apparent weaknesses in the campaign strategy, a fractured national campaign office staff, and frictions between Chicago and Pittsburgh campaign offices.
The top-down centralization of the campaign meant the Chicago office made all the decisions about strategy and priorities as well as all the policy decisions, selection of campaign issues, and campaign statements for the entire country and Canada. Local knowledge and input from outside of Chicago was not well recognized or used, leaving supporters to basically “follow orders from HQ.” Internal communication with the field, which could have inspired supporters around the country with the successes and lessons learned by others, was weak, and often campaigners relied on leftwing newspapers such as The Militant of the Socialist Workers Party and The Daily World of the Communist Party for campaign news.
“Campaign headquarters did not recruit and promote candidates for the district director elections – outside of District 31 …”
The campaign had a decidedly basic steel focus, which did not necessarily match the key concerns of non-steel and smaller locals, which made up 75% of the membership. The SFB campaign was not well versed on issues of concern in Canada – both internal to Canada and Canadian steelworkers’ relations with the USWA based in the U.S. – nor with issues affecting local unions in “open shop” states like Texas.
The SFB campaign barely touched Canada, whose 900 local unions had a “favorite son” candidate – Lynn Williams – on the McBride slate. Over the years, Canadians have played a key role in the USWA with two being elected president – Williams, after McBride died in 1983, until 1994, and later Leo Gerard from 2001 to 2019. Gerard had worked against Sadlowski in the 1977 election. So a Canadian candidate on the SFB slate might have made a difference.
The Deep South locals saw the SFB campaign mostly in the form of traveling teams of supporters from Chicago and other parts of the country. In July 1976, one of the traveling supporters – Ben Corum – was shot through the neck while handing out SFB flyers at Hughes Tool Co. in Houston. So in these areas there was basically a clear field for the international staff and local officials to push the McBride campaign.
Campaign headquarters did not recruit and promote candidates for the district director elections – outside of District 31 – which would have created mutually beneficial electoral alliances between the Chicago SFB and local district director campaign organizations. SFB eventually won the majority of 10 of the union’s 25 districts, so there might have been additional reformers elected to the union’s International Executive Board as well increased votes in the presidential election with SFB-supported District Director campaigns.
The campaign hoped to compensate for the lack of local grassroots organizations, and the refusal of the Pittsburgh union HQ to release information until late in the campaign about the location of local unions, with a high-profile media campaign. Sadlowski had received almost universal good press in the District 31 campaigns as the “bold, young maverick,” but the national media coverage was more mixed, no doubt influenced by opposition to the SFB slate from industry and union officialdom.
Finally, the successful legal strategies to harness the power of the courts and Labor Department to overturn fraudulent elections in the Mine Workers union and District 31 campaigns was not a guarantee in the USWA presidential election conducted under a different administration. It was Republican administrations (Nixon and Ford) that had ordered the election reruns in the UMW and USW-District 31 – in part because this advanced standard Republican talking points about the corruption and violence inherent in labor unions. In January 1977, however, a new Democratic Administration, elected with the strong support of the USWA and other union officials, came to power in Washington.
These weaknesses in strategy were compounded by a divided staff in the Chicago headquarters. The headquarters staff was basically two camps of people. The first group were locals led by Clem Balanoff – the brother of Jim Balanoff – who had been a steelworker at Youngstown Sheet and Tube in Indiana for 17 years. Clem was a longtime friend of Sadlowski who had been involved in his union election campaigns from Local 65 president through District 31 Director. The second group were “out-of-towners” who had worked together in the successful 1972 Miners For Democracy election campaign in the United Mine Workers union – including Edgar James, attorney Tom Geoghegan, financial manager Robert Hauptman. Not from the MFD, there was independent photographer Robert Gumpert and graphic artist Sandy Cate, from the West Coast.
It was not clear whether Clem Balanoff or Ed James was the actual head of the campaign – but it was clear that there was dislike and mistrust between the two groups. The locals called the MFD veterans “technocrats” who did not know the local community and personalities, and were new to the steel union. The “out-of-towners” found it increasingly intolerable that Clem and his crew were reluctant to share information and collaborate in the essential tasks of the campaign. The working styles of the two groups were completely different and a mismatch from the beginning.
Clem Balanoff got his political training as a member/supporter of the Communist Party during the Cold War and Joe McCarthy-era repression. He was secretive, trusted only a small group of people, and was personally paranoid and inclined to circulate rumors and use his friendship with Sadlowski to bolster his position in the internal debates and staff infighting. Clem had been an effective campaign manager in District 31 union elections, but he did not have the skillset needed for a national campaign where SFB had to create, inspire and lead an effective network that did not yet exist, and which could only come about with transparency, delegation of authority and initiative, flexibility, and trust and openness with others.
Fortunately, the office manager of the SFB’s headquarters was George Terrell, who not only got along with all sides, but was capable and even-tempered. There were about 20 regular paid and volunteer staff in the office every week handling work assignments like producing campaign materials, fundraising, plant-gate leafleting, union hall rallies, candidate scheduling, responding to media inquiries and to supporters calling in from around the country.
There were somewhere between 30 and 40 paid staff working at campaign offices outside Chicago, including a number of Chicagoans who were sent from HQ to organize in local areas. Part of the SFB response was to organize traveling teams of steelworkers from Chicago to go to local areas, leaflet the plant gates, and coordinate with local individual supporters. It was remarkable to see rank and file steelworkers gave up their vacation days to join these traveling teams, and use sick days and free time for local campaign activities.
At the same time, there were tensions between the campaign headquarters in Chicago and the Pittsburgh SFB office, the two most important campaign offices. Pittsburgh was where two of the SFB slate members worked at USWA headquarters – Andy Kmec and Oliver Montgomery – and where another union staff member Pat Coyne was the key coordinator of the SFB campaign. Kmec was protected against Official Family retaliation by the independent field staff union, while Montgomery and Coyne had protection from a USWA local representing headquarters professional staff. The campaign offices in Chicago and Pittsburgh were operating in a different set of circumstances, which the Pittsburgh group felt that the Chicago headquarters did not understand and did not accommodate local initiative. Clem Balanoff’s son – Clem Jr. – was eventually dispatched to work in the Pittsburgh office, but Pittsburghers, seeing him as young and inexperienced, were not sure if this was additional support or espionage from Chicago.
Moreover, Coyne took a page from Clem Balanoff’s book and tightly controlled the Pittsburgh office, although leeway was given to some radical SFB supporters, if trusted by Coyne. In both cases, the offices were trying to prevent the campaign from being defined as “radical” or “communist” due to the high-profile participation of steelworkers in leftwing groups. At the same time the campaign wanted, needed, to tap into these groups’ networks and activism. In some locales and locals, radical steelworkers of various organizations were the best organized and most committed campaigners, and this was a resource that could not be ignored. No one on the SFB side was satisfied with this schizophrenic approach, and the McBride campaign continued to red-bait the campaign in any case.
Around Thanksgiving 1976, several months into the campaign, the “out-of-towners” had reached a breaking point, openly talking of resigning en masse. According to Bob Gumpert, the group decided not to resign after Tom Geohegan made an impassioned plea at the gathering of the “out-of-towners” that the SFB campaign – win or lose – was too important for building the momentum of union reform movement within the USWA, and other unions, for the group to walk away at this critical juncture.
Sadlowski needed both groups at headquarters – the locals and the technocrats – as well as good relations with Pittsburgh, so a plan was made to bring in Ernie Mazey for the last nine weeks of the campaign as the official head of the campaign to mediate and direct the HQ groups and relations with Pittsburgh. Mazey was a longtime leader and reformer in the United Auto Workers union, and, ironically, the brother of Emil Mazey, the UAW’s Secretary-Treasurer who was a leader of the UAW’s “Administration Caucus” – the equivalent of the USWA’s Official Family. Nonetheless, tensions continued at the Chicago campaign headquarters, and led to the departure of Ed James a month before the February 1977 election.
Important Aspects of the Vote
Only 40% of the USWA membership actually voted, despite the high profile nature of the presidential contest. This was testimony, I think, to the legacy of decades worth of hand-picked, Official Family candidates running in one-person races where the union’s ranks had nothing to say about the candidates or the results. Sadlowski was popular among young, Black and Latino union members, but it is not clear how many of them voted. One-third of USWA members were under 30 in 1977, and about 25% of USWA members were Black.
SFB strategy was the slate would roll up a huge margin in basic steel to overcome weaknesses in the smaller locals, Canada, and the Deep South. But Sadlowski received 5,500 fewer votes in the 1977 presidential election in District 31 than he did in the 1974 District Director race. The SFB margin of victory in District 31 was 61% to 39% — less than expected – and the margins in other basic steel centers were less than that in District 31. In District 31, I think, McBride’s media themes had an impact over time on individual steelworkers, as did the staff electioneering in local unions, support for McBride from four of the five District 31 Director candidates. Fewer resources for local campaigning with the recruitment and support needed for traveling national teams sent out from Chicago played as role as well.
But for me, the fact that the SFB campaign won at least 250,00 votes, or 43% of the vote, on a program of union democracy, union militancy, and social unionism – the most radical union program since the 1930s – was quite an achievement, especially given all the obstacles, including some created by the SFB campaign itself.
There are aspects of the SFB campaign that were clear at the time that radicals seeking more democratic and militant unions today might learn from:
First: Campaign election organizations cannot substitute for patient, long term grassroots organizing of workers and union members, which other reform movements like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have demonstrated in the years since the SFB campaign.
Second: Highly centralized organizations, which allow for little local initiative and participant buy-in, are not effective in organizing worker members or in winning union elections.
Third: Radicals in the union, and as non-union supporters, can play a critical role in union reform and revitalization campaigns, if they prioritize a broad, united effort to reach out to, and mobilize the membership, rather than just promoting their own organizations and perspectives.
Fourth: Ensuring that the message of the campaign gets out on its own terms is crucial, since where steelworkers heard from the SFB directly, there was a positive response. Developing a “war room” capability to effectively rebut charges like the “outsiders will control the union” theme is essential.
Fifth: Getting out the vote is critical, especially in unions like the USWA which had no tradition or practice of internal democracy, especially with key sectors like young workers, workers of color, and women.
Sixth and lastly: Incumbent officials will always cheat if allowed to do so, so preparing in advance a strong poll-watching, legal, and publicity strategy to respond to the inevitable fraud is key.
Almost 50 years later, what was the impact and legacy of the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign?
On the negative side, the promise of an ongoing, national SFB based on the campaign never materialized. This was due to two factors, in my view.
One was the physical and emotional exhaustion of the leadership of SFB in District 31 (Sadlowski in particular) and the need of District 31 Director Jim Balanoff, and SFB-affiliated local union officials, to fend off attacks from Pittsburgh while effectively administer their offices.
McBride rejected some of Balanoff’s appointments to international staff (as Abel had rejected several of Sadlowski’s proposed staff, including Ola Kennedy, who would have been the first black woman staff member in the district). To limit his influence within District 31 and nationally, Balanoff was stripped of some internal union positions. Balanoff’s strategy, in response, was to “turn down the temperature” in relations with Pittsburgh, and focus on effective management of the district. This approach ultimately failed as the McBride administration was determined to root out all officials that SFB supported.
Braddock, PA. Hymies Bar across from the Edgar Thompson Steel Works.
The second factor was the swift onset of the crisis and collapse of the U.S. steel industry. In the second half of 1977 layoffs began at US Steel South Works and other mills around the country. These accelerated in 1978 and into 1979, when US Steel permanently closed 12 major facilities around the country. In 1979 alone, 57,000 steelworkers lost their jobs in plant closures, and by May 1980 the number of hourly steelworkers in the U.S. was below the previous low recorded in June 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. By 1980, the membership of the USWA had been cut in half – with basic steel taking the brunt of the cuts. These laid-off steelworkers, many of them SFB supporters, were soon to be ex-USWA members and outside the union altogether.
The argument can be made that a “fighting program” led by a national SFB to save jobs – such as demanding a massive government-funded public works program to increase the demand for steel, or cutting the work week with no reduction in pay to spread the work – might have galvanized the ranks and mitigated the crisis. But I think insurgent rank-and-file campaigns like SFB were too new to the USWA, the members too desperate for immediate solutions to their families’ intensifying economic problems, and there simply was not enough time before the industry’s collapse crashed down on the union and its members. There certainly was no support among Democrats or Republicans – either in Congress or from Presidents Carter and Reagan – for such a program.
On the positive side, the SFB campaigns from 1973 through 1977 inspired and mobilized a large swath of USWA members. Hundreds of steelworkers became involved in “taking back their union” through the SFB campaign. The 1977 presidential election with 580,000 members voting was the largest direct election ever held in the USWA and a tangible demonstration of union democracy.
Despite the national loss, supporters of the SFB message registered victories on a District and local level. In District 31, Sadlowski was elected Director in 1974 and Jim Balanoff in 1977. In in the north central states” District 33, SFB supporter Linus Wampler was elected Director in 1977. In Districts 9 (Bethlehem), 20 (Pennsylvania) and 38 (western states), reformers ran strong campaigns in 1977 against Official Family candidates. In 1981, Local 6500 President Dave Patterson, who organized the SFB campaign rally in Sudbury, was elected Director of District 6 in Ontario, Canada.
In the 1979 local union elections, SFB supporter and women’s rights defender Alice Peurala became the first and only women to became president of a basic steel union at US Steel South Works. In Local 1010, Inland Steel in Indiana, the “Rank and File Caucus” candidate, African-American Bill Andrews, became a four-term president on a platform of democratic and militant unionism. In Local 1397, US Steel Homestead Works, another “Rank and File Caucus” swept the officer positions and implemented new systems of contract bargaining and grievance handling based on substantial member participation.
Union activists in the SFB campaign went on to lead the fight against plant closures and the related community impacts in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In particular, Local 1397 in Homestead played a critical role regionally throughout western Pennsylvania. Even after the steel mills were bulldozed into rubble, individual SFB supporters inspired by the campaign continued the work of promoting the ideas of democratic, militant unionism, supporting union reform efforts and election campaigns in other unions, organized alternative labor education centers, and supported community-labor coalitions on a variety of issues.
The SFB campaign was a building block of a historic process in the American labor movement that started in the United Mine Workers and the Miners for Democracy in 1969, through the 1970s USWA campaigns, to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the election of Ron Carey as the Teamsters union president in 1991, and then Sean O’Brien in 2021; and continues with the reform movement in the United Auto Workers union, which elected Shawn Fain as president in 2023.
The themes of all these successful efforts have been the same: membership participation and mobilization; defense and support of those discriminated against and harassed; coalition building within the union; strengthening links between labor and other social movements; and strong action, including strikes, to protect members on the job.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign of 1976-77 is that today’s “failure” can make an essential contribution to “success” later on.
Among the labor history books that provide important background on the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign and its legacy are:
· “Rebel Rank and File: Labor militancy and revolt from below during the long 1970s,” editors Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner and Cal Winslow
· “Black Freedom Fighters in Steel,” by Ruth Needleman
· “Homestead Steel Mill; The final ten years,” by Mike Stout
Garrett Brown worked in steel mills in Alabama, in a chemical plant and garment factory in Georgia, been a journalist in Chicago, and a Cal/OSHA inspector in California, in addition to consulting and training with worker and community groups on workplace health and safety around the world.
The Stansbury Forum is a website for discussion by writers, activists and scholars on the topics that Jeff focused his life on: labor, politics, immigration, the environment, and world affairs.