Two Labor Views of Steel Price Hikes
In the struggle for leadership of the United Steelworkers Union the issues between the incumbents and challenger Ed Sadlowski become clearer every week.
Consider, for example, the reaction of the two camps to the steel industry’s recent uniform price increase. Sadlowski issued a statement that sounded like old time unionism. He condemned these prices as a “major setback for American consumers as well as our members.”
Why? Because, he noted, the steel industry is operating at only 70 per cent capacity, is confronting declining demand for steel, and therefore could not justify raising prices again at this time.
Indeed, only three weeks before the price increases were announced, a U.S. Steel executive declared that there would not be any further price increases in the immediate future.
On the other hand, I.W. Abel, the retiring president of the Steelworkers Union, supported the price increase. His words could have been written by the steel executives themselves. He even called for tighter quotas on imported steel — the main source of competition for the highly concentrated domestic steel industry.
Sadlowski asserted that the U.S. steel industry “has no one to blame but itself for the inroads being made by foreign steel.” Domestic price-gouging leads to smaller sales and fewer jobs for steel workers, he observed.
A long line of expert commentary supports Sadlowski’s analysis. Over the years, such diverse sources as the
Cabinet Committee on Economic Policy; the Council of Economic Advisers; former Federal Trade Commission chief economist, Willard Mueller, and former Nixon economic adviser, Hendrik Houthakker, have questioned this recurring pattern of lock-step price increases at the time of declining demand and large unused capacity.
Abel adores, hobnobs with, and defends the big steel moguls. He has said that the steel companies cannot afford more pollution controls at the same time that the government is suing these profitable companies for violating existing pollution standards
He is contemptuous of the drive for consumer justice, even though
workers’ wages and health would gain in real terms as a result. He came very late to a modest recognition that steelworkers are afflicted with serious occupational diseases and injuries.
Sadlowski is running against Abel’s hand-picked candidate, Lloyd McBride. Much has been made about Sadlowski’s determination to make the union democratic.
Whether more union accountability to the workers is achieved remains for the future to tell. But what is almost certain to occur, if he wins, is a conservative redirection of the giant union’s policies toward the historical roots of American unionism’s vision of the good life.
Recently, Sadlowski described what he meant by the good life in just three words. “Bread and books,” he said.
If the 38-year-old third-generation steelworker from the grimy steel works of South Chicago achieves victory in the elections February 8, United Steelworkers will come to grips with the issues of corporate power both inside and outside the factory gates.
Outside the gates, that includes pollution which heavily affects steelworkers and their families, consumer rights, government performance, and a favorite Sadlowski priority, basic changes in the tax system.
An insurgent challenge to the entrenched leadership of a large union confronts great odds. The imbalance of resources and staff and the lack of equal access to union locals increase the odds. But close observers give Sadlowski a fair chance to win.
Something must be brewing in the minds of the iron men who make the nation’s steel. Could it be that they want something more out of life than a future defined for them by the steel companies, with I.W. Abel’s effusive blessings?