Farewell, 'Oil Can': Ed Sadlowski, 1938-2018

A campaign poster from Ed Sadlowski's (left) famous electoral bid for the Steelworkers presidency, along with Jim Balanoff (right), candidate for director of District 31. Sadlowski passed away on June 10.

The late 1960s and 1970s gave rise to grassroots movements for union democracy all over the United States. The ones in the Auto Workers and Mine Workers have been written about the most, but Steelworkers Fightback was no less momentous.

The name that stands out in this national uprising is Ed Sadlowski, who rose from an oiler’s job to director of the largest district in the Steelworkers at that time, District 31. “Oil Can Eddie,” as he was known, went on to challenge the top bureaucracy, running for president in 1977. Those of us who worked with him or knew him pay tribute to his endless contributions to democratic unionism. There could not be a greater loss to grassroots democracy in the union movement than his passing on June 10.

Sadlowski hired into US Steel's South Works on the south side of Chicago in 1956. His father had been a member of USWA Local 1010 in Gary, known as the “red local,” and active in the CIO organizing campaigns.

Eddie was not only an activist, organizer, and leader, but also a labor historian. My first long conversation with Eddie happened at the USW training center at Linden Hall outside Pittsburgh in the ‘80s. I was there teaching in a leadership program and mentioned that I was about to explore the mill towns along the Monongahela River. He said, “Let me be your guide.” Eddie had a wealth of stories about the workers’ and the union’s history. I doubt if anyone knew more than Eddie.

There had been earlier struggles for a more democratic union in steel. Especially important was the Black struggle for equality that culminated in the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Steelworkers in the 1960s.

The USWA was formed during the battles of the 1930s for industrial unionism, but its structure was set up along the lines of the UMW because it was the Mine Workers that provided financing and leadership for the unionization drives in steel. That meant the USWA was very centralized and very top down. Plus, the union came of age during the period of Cold War anti-communism. Many of the radicals that built the union were marginalized and, especially in District 31, the directors were staunch anti-communists who branded every radical as a red. In fact, they relied on the FBI for reports on Fightback meetings, to label any worker fighting for a voice as a red.

Eddie brought the union out of its conservative past to challenge the politics that had left the union defenseless against downsizing, automation, restructuring, and globalization. After the dramatic 1959 strike in steel, the union had bound itself with a no-strike agreement, known as the ENA (Experimental Negotiating Agreement). The union's executive board of district directors controlled everything at the time. They dominated every convention. There was no direct election of officers; these conventions were where officers were elected. It had become a white male dynasty, wedded to collaboration and compromise.

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Younger steelworkers throughout the country were opposed to the no-strike agreement, and were demanding nationwide election of officers, one member-one vote. What Eddie did was forge many caucuses and local movements into a national powerhouse that was inclusive, women as well as men, Black and Latino as well as white. Eddie’s Fightback slate when he ran for president was the most diverse group ever to run for office in steel.

Ed Sadlowski lost that bid because the “official family” of top officers worked very hard to make sure he could not prevail. He won the majority of the votes in the U.S. locals but lost the Canadian ones where he had been limited in his access to locals.

The Fightback movement was able to end the convention election of officers and the ENA. The leadership in locals across the country changed hands and radicals assumed office. While the Fightback movement itself did not survive after the Sadlowski campaign, many new activists took office and transformed local politics.

Eddie’s path included many wins, starting with his taking the presidency of his own Local 65 in 1964 when he was only 26. Other locals in District 31 followed suit; the first woman president of a basic steel local, Alice Peurala, took office in 1979. The rank-and-file caucus in Local 1010 at Inland Steel won as well. For the first time a strong women’s caucus was formed, the District 31 Women’s Caucus. Its president was Ola Kennedy, an activist from the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Steelworkers, and the vice president was Roberta Wood, a strong left activist.

Ed Sadlowski never retired even after he retired from steel. He continued union organizing and representation, working with AFSCME and other unions. Eddie always made himself available to anyone who wanted to talk, get advice, meet with him, or learn from him. “Oil Can Eddie” had mythical stature. Eddie Sadlowski was one of the best unionists the labor movement ever had.

Ruth Needleman, a retired labor educator from Gary, Indiana, is the author of Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism.