In the coming year, four major unions — the Auto Workers, Mineworkers, Machinists and Steelworkers — will have elections for new leadership. These elections, particularly the one by the steelworkers, may have far reaching effects on the way unions are run and the range of political and economic issues on which union power is exercised.
The problems of many unions are well known in thoughtful labor circles. Too much stagnation of purpose, too much corporate co-optation, too much corruption and autocracy over rank and file, too much of a gap between the luxuries of union leaders and the necessities of union members —these make up some of the long simmering frustrations among unionized workers in industry.
Most hotly contested will be the steelworkers’ election in early 1977. It may not be a peaceful process if the challenger, Ed Sadlowski, a third generation steelworker and head of the union’s big Chicago-Gary district, is seen by the union rulers as likely to win. Two of Sadlowski’s men were roughed up recently in Texas.
THE SIGNIFICANCE of the Steelworkers’ election rests on important reform objectives being pushed by Sadlowski and his supporters for this most powerful union within the AFL-CIO. At 37 years of age, he is well read in the history of labor struggles early in this century. He is also articulately incensed at the contemporary abuses of big business and government.
Scorning what he calls “tuxedo unionism,” he wears work clothes and spends much of his time with his workers and their grievances. This behavior gives him a lot of rank and file appeal and contrasts with the style set by I. W. Abel, the retiring patrician of the union, whose closeness with the steel industry on matters such as community pollution has become legendary.
IN HIS SPEECHES and interviews, Sadlowski makes his union philosophy clear. Unions need to be democratically and peacefully run without the intimidation projected downward upon the membership by wealthy and self-perpetuating leaders. Unions should act for worker health and safety and other rights within large corporations. Unions should be doing more to advance consumer protection and stop disease-producing contamination of the environment. Unions should align themselves with progressive politics to clean up government, curb the power of monopolies and shape a fairer and more efficient tax system.
Already the Sadlowski challenge is beginning to attract the kind of backing that helped overturn Tony Boyle of the Mineworkers and is helping Caesar Chavez of the Farmworkers. At a recent testimonial dinner for Sadlowski in Chicago earlier this summer, Victor Reuther and Studs Turkel were prominent supporters. Local officials of some other unions were there as well. Veteran Washington labor attorney Joseph Rauh, who counseled the Mineworker reformers, is now counseling Sadlowski.