ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 The overlapping careers of George Kimbley, William Young, John Howard, Curtis Strong, and Jonathan Comer add up to a collective profile in courage. Although differing in their handling of “racial conflicts and individual prejudice,” all played “instrumental roles



Black Freedom Fighters in Steel

The Struggle For Democratic Unionism

By Ruth Needleman


 Steve Early Review:

A quarter century ago, when mid-western cities were still ringed by the glowing hearths of steel mills instead of their post-industrial rubble, dissident steel workers were on the march. Their champion then was Ed Sadlowski, a critic of the union establishment who was campaigning, unsuccessfully, for president of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA). “Oil Can Eddie” was a product of the union’s Chicago-Gary district, where blacks and whites united to build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the “old left” working class milieu vividly described in Ruth Needleman’s Black Freedom Fighters in Steel.

Long before bumper stickers appeared on Volvos urging us to “Celebrate Diversity,” Sadlowski tried to do just that when he assembled his “Steelworkers Fightback” slate. In addition to himself, a Polish-American, it included a Serbo-Croatian, an African-American, a Chicano, and an American Jew. This rainbow coalition covered all the political bases except Canada—a fatal omission in an “international union” that has since elected two Canadians as president! 

In 1976, however, the emergence of a black candidate for the USWA executive board—Oliver Montgomery—was big news indeed. In the four decades since the USWA’s founding, no African-American had ever made it to the top ranks of America’s second largest industrial union.

By the 1960s, continued discrimination in the mills and exclusion of blacks from the union leadership and staff triggered a rank-and-file revolt, led by Montgomery and others.

To undercut Sadlowski’s appeal to minority workers, based on his alliance with this civil rights veteran, incumbent officials quickly created a new USWA vice-presidency for “human rights.” They then found a safer African-American candidate for the job—a union headquarters loyalist who was “not part of the black protest movement.”

Such partial victories are a re-occurring feature of the anti-discrimination fights recounted in Needleman’s steel union history. . . .

[Neddleman’s book is] thus relevant to current debates about reviving the labor movement — particularly through recruitment of more women, immigrants, and other “minorities” who together constitute a new majority in many workplaces.

Workers being wooed by “progressive unions” now are already learning the truth of Frederick Douglass’ famous 19th century axiom—”power concedes nothing without a demand” (which applies equally to industrial relations and internal union politics). In today’s AFL-CIO, grassroots participation in the pageantry of Justice for Janitors campaigns or the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is highly-prized—just as the CIO once put a top priority on African-American support for unionization in steel.

Worker involvement can be more problematic, however, when initial organizing or contract fights are over, labor-management relationships have become institutionalized, and union bureaucracy is far more entrenched than rank-and-file power.

As Needleman observes, “without membership initiative and organization, without debate and opposition, unions lose the spirit and substance that makes them work.” . . . .

Needleman anchors her analysis in oral history, focusing on the moving personal stories of five Steelworkers whose union involvement spanned more than sixty years.

The overlapping careers of George Kimbley, William Young, John Howard, Curtis Strong, and Jonathan Comer add up to a collective profile in courage. Although differing in their handling of “racial conflicts and individual prejudice,” all played “instrumental roles in establishing a union in steel, implementing fairer workplace standards, and forging alliances with community, civil rights, and women’s organizations.” Behind labor’s official support for “civil rights,” there has always been a more complex reality, even in left-led unions.

CIO organizing in the 1930s broke with the AFL’s tradition of craft union bias, creating integrated working-class organizations that had little precedent in a society long segregated, at all levels, in its housing, education, and employment.

Needleman . . . notes that CIO leaders backed “anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation, fair employment practices, fair housing, and voting rights.” Yet the legacy of past employer discrimination–and persistent racism on the shop floor—cast a dark shadow over the functioning of individual unions like the United Steel Workers. Using collective action and the threat of workplace disruption, black USWA pioneers helped curb many of the worst abuses by lower-level management.

Unfortunately, inequality on the job had a structural dimension. As Needleman explains, “the steel companies established segregation through their industry wide pattern of hiring; blacks and Mexicans were channeled into the worst jobs in the coke plant, open hearth, and blast furnace, or into the labor gangs in predominantly white departments.” Even within departments, jobs were arranged in white-dominated promotional “sequences” or groups, “segregating the better jobs from the worst ones.” When minorities challenged this system, the resistance was greatest where white workers saw their higher-paying positions—and seniority—being threatened.

Of course, the “seniority rights” they defended, with union backing, were neither plantwide nor departmental but rather “seniority within sequences”—not exactly a color-blind application of the principle.

In the 1940s, black USWA members themselves—aided by white leftists—began to chip to away at this edifice of injustice. How much help they got from their local unions—and how much of a “melting pot” the USWA actually became—usually depended on the success of joint campaigns with fellow activists who were Communists.

For conservative defenders of the status quo–in the plant or at the union hall—the political equation was clear: “black plus white equals red.” The subsequent elimination of many Party members from positions of local union influence after passage of the Taft-Hartley Act—and the ferocious attacks on left-led unions expelled from the CIO in 1949—undermined anti-discrimination initiatives in the steel industry and elsewhere.

In the midst of the great purge, a columnist for the Washington Afro-American lamented the CIO’s retreat towards “America’s traditional policy of segregation and Jim Crowism.” . . .

During the McCarthy era, two of Needleman’s subjects—Young and Strong—took brave stands in defense of white radicals facing persecution within the USWA.

In the interests of their own survival, other African-Americans distanced themselves from one-time political comrades and causes. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s spawned a new alliance within the Steel Workers, among black activists themselves. They formed a rank-and-file caucus called the “National Ad Hoc Committee,” which launched a renewed legal, political, and public relations assault on discriminatory practices.

Aided by the NAACP Labor Secretary Herbert Hill, Ad Hoc members ultimately used the battering ram of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to overcome promotional barriers. Nearly a decade of litigation involving major steel makers and the USWA resulted in a controversial industry-wide “consent decree.” It provided little back pay but did “open up jobs and apprenticeship programs previously off limits to African-Americans,” plus increased the number of women and minorities hired into the industry.

Unfortunately, black steelworkers gained access to better-paying, higher-skilled jobs just in time to see much steel making work deindustrialized out of existence. By the mid-1980s, half the work force in East Chicago and Gary had been eliminated, due to mill closings, new technology, foreign imports, and corporate restructuring.

The legacy of equal opportunity that Needleman’s “freedom fighters” hoped to “pass down to the next generation vanished.” Now stranded in devastated urban communities, their “children and grandchildren would not even have access to low-paid, dirty jobs in the mills.” Despite this tragic denouement, Black Freedom Fighters contains important lessons for workers trying to rebuild multi-racial unions, inside or outside the rust belt.

As the basis for a concluding chapter, Needleman assembled a group of past and present USWA activists, male and female, for a free-wheeling discussion of their experiences. The participants noted that blacks were not drawn to the union simply to gain rights on the job but also as “organization that would protect their social and political rights.” As one former Ad Hoc member observed, when organized labor put “social justice concerns aside in the name of business unionism, many black activists lost interest” and “black participation started its downward slide.”

To make membership voices heard again and promote social movement unionism, the book’s “freedom fighters” agree that workers need “self-organization”—independent clubs, caucuses, and networks that can raise issues, stimulate debate, and hold labor leadership accountable. . . .

Nevertheless, the example of black activists in steel—who soldiered on, even when shorn of many left allies–demonstrates the power and potential of rank-and-file initiative in a labor movement still top-heavy with staff and officials wedded to the status quo.

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Source: Steve Early is a Boston-based organizer who has aided union democracy movements in the Mineworkers, Steelworkers, and Teamsters.

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Ruth Needleman, professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University since 1981, has been engaged in labor and civil rights struggles for decades. Beginning in 1969 Ruth taught Latin American literature and studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. In the early seventies, she left UC to work for the United Farmworkers Union, writing and distributing their bimonthly newspaper El Malcriado. She co-authored the book Los gremios nacionales, which deals with the right-wing counter-revolutionary strikes in Chile, and published by Allende’s Quimantu. She also organized as a rank and file Teamster in a New York plastics sweatshop and later at UPS in Detroit.

For two years (1990-92) Ruth served as education director for SEIU. In 1993, back in Gary, she founded Swingshift College, a customized college degree program for workers. She has collaborated with the Steelworkers since 1981, teaching district and international programs, including their 4-year leadership program. Her publications address issues of race, class and gender, from her articles/chapters on leadership development, coalition-building, and women and unions, to articles on the importance of caucuses and independent organization within unions. Her recently published book is Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism. She is beginning a project on race relations and  strategies for solidarity among working women.

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updated 3 November 2007



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