I just got the word, via Bruce Bostick of the Steelworkers, that Ed Sadlowski died yesterday. He was one of the great American labor leaders who ultimately didn’t win.
It’s easy for us to remember the great leaders for working families if they rose to some title or office that makes the history books. What we don’t remember is the thousands who did the work but didn’t get the titles. The Sadlowski campaign for President of the Steelworkers was a landmark event in 1977, but Ed didn’t win the election.
After the draft was repealed in 1972, America’s big student movement dribbled away. For a lot of the 1960s-70s “radicals,” the progressive movement was over. You see them all the time. They’re the older guys with ponytails who love to talk about it, but it was only an interlude for them.
The young people who had been transformed by that great anti-war movement continued engaging in the many struggles for justice. Many of them still are. In general, though, they didn’t look to organized labor for causes. Unions did not want them. Most unions had ignored or opposed them throughout their political awakening and, to be frank, many of us had little or no hope for the union movement.
Sadlowski was a point of departure. His energetic fight for justice in the Steelworkers’ union showed that there were great things to be done in the union movement and great people were doing them. We flocked to the Sadlowski campaign, even to the point of giving up college career plans and getting Steelworker jobs.
Ed Sadlowski did not reject the outside help. He paid a price in red-baiting for that. I don’t think the red-baiting caused him to lose the election. He lost because he was bucking a mighty tide of conservatism and isolation in the American union movement, in my opinion. But the red-baiting hurt, too.
If we knew our labor history, we’d know that there were heroes in many unions who bucked the tide. Steel and the Miners Union may have been in the papers more, but it was going on in a lot of places.
I think the big payoff for the insurgents began in 1987 when a few unions started Jobs with Justice. In 1992, as I recall, there was a big conference of the more progressive unions to discuss the problems of low-paid workers. Then in 1995, John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson overturned 100 years of continuous officeholding in the AFL-CIO. That’s when it really started getting good, and it’s improved every day since then!
The Ed Sadlowski’s may not get the titles and the awards, but they did the work for all of us.
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