Ed Sadlowski, 1938-2018

Edward Sadlowski, a Chicago steelworker best known as a leader of the 1970s rank-and-file challenge to the USWA bureaucracy, died on Sunday. From Joe Klein’s 1975 Rolling Stone profile:

Bob is a steelworker in Joliet. He’s in his mid-30s and wears a goatee and slicked back brown hair:

Why did I support Ed? I don’t know. I read this story in the Sun-Times about the election and how this young guy with a “ski” on the end of his name who used to work midnight shift in the machine shop was running against some hand picked flunky who never worked a day in a mill in his life.

I work midnights and I know what it’s like: You watch a little Johnny Carson and then you go to work. And then you get out in the morning when most normal people are starting their days. I figured a guy who worked midnights in the machine shop would know what that’s all about, so I voted for him. The biggest problem we have now is that most guys take everything for granted. They see vacations and holidays and time and a half and they figure that management just gives you that shit. They don’t know that people had to fight for it. Hell, there ain’t three or four guys in the shop who know 10 people were killed by the cops at Republic Steel in 1937 and the only reason I know is that Ed told me a couple of months ago. And that’s what I think Ed is about. I think he wants to get us back to having the same kind of attitude guys had in those days.

Sadlowski should also be remembered for advancing, within the context of a rank-and-file revolt, a critique of work rather than a producerist critique from the standpoint of labor. Here he is in a controversial January 1977 interview in Penthouse:

When Ed Sadlowski says that nobody should work in a steel mill, he knows whereof he speaks. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, worked in the mills around Chicago for most of his life. His father did, too. In 1956, when he was 18, young Ed continued the tradition. By the time he was 21, Ed was shop steward. Three years later he became president of his 10,000-man local. 

Penthouse: What are the chief problems of the workingman today?

Sadlowski: The fact that we’re capable of producing but not capable of purchasing. The overabundance is the system’s fault. It becomes unbearable for the consumer. In 1975, 11 million cars were produced, a 3 or 4 percent increase, and it keeps growing. That many cars just aren’t needed. We should start looking at what we’re producing, but there is a trained materialism that blinds everyone involved. Schools, textbooks, things that are really needed aren’t to be had. What is needed is a whole revamping of the social needs and wants. We need governmental programs that clean up the environment while putting people to work. I don’t mean enforced labor projects but things where people can be creative. That means a reevaluation of what work itself is all about.

Working 40 hours a week in a steel mill drains the lifeblood of a man. There are workers there right now who are full of poems and doctors who are operating cranes. We’ve run the workers into the ground. Ultimately, society has nothing to show for it but waste. A doctor is more useful than a man with the capacity to be a doctor spending his life on the crane. Such men are kept from functioning at their best, not only by U.S. Steel but by doctors themselves. I advocate putting people who work in the steel mills into medical professions. They have the brainpower to become scientists, yet the system sells them short. There’s no open marketplace. The Sixties saw the advent of the conglomerate, or the multinational company, which is so diversified you can’t grab it. Jones and Laughlin, which in my day was strictly a steel company, now makes bedsprings and bed pillows in Japan and in Europe. It makes cars. We need to start talking about one big union. The companies are doing that, but the labor movement has not kept up with developments.

Penthouse: Do you think workers are always going to feel alienated?

Sadlowski: I do. The plants are made for that purpose. First of all, to start an industrial society, you have to capture people. You get a bunch of immigrants without any legal resources, and you put them in plants. You make a language barrier. If they strike, you beat their heads in. Or you try psychic blackmail, coming up with some Calvinistic scheme whereby the worker will think he’s saving his soul by becoming an ox who works from sunrise to sundown. You make propaganda about the salutary effects of hard work, about the moral stamina involved in becoming a slave. You surround it with the glamour of the American dream. The poor motherfucker who works 40 years and has nothing to show for it, who feels his whole life has been wasted–he’ll disprove all of that bullshit in 40 seconds. Put the son of bitch whose father has a million dollars to work at the blast furnace, and I guarantee that kind of shit will cease to exist. I never met a steelworker in his right mind who loves what he’s doing. No one likes to get up at five in the morning. I remember going to bed at nine o’clock and getting up the next morning and being so tired I couldn’t move. And I have a feeling that if such a guy exists, he’s some liberal punk who will last two months–and feel like a he-man because he’s sweated for once in his life.

Penthouse: But what happens to the guys who get laid off?

Sadlowski: In the present structure, they find employment somewhere else. Society absorbs it. I’m talking about shared technological advancements in the industry. The ultimate goal of organized labor is for no man to have to go down into the bowels of the earth and dig coal. No man will have to be subjected to the blast furnace. We have already benefitted from what our brains have produced technologically. Let’s have the steel industry, by virtue of what it is capable of producing, subsidize education. Do that! We just don’t need any more steel mills. We don’t need that kind of industrial growth, at the expense of the environment. We can’t consume what existing steel mills produce; so let’s call a halt. Enough with the car! How many more cars do we need? It’s too much. It’s gagging me. I like candy but I get a belly-ache.

The entire interview is available, along with many more fascinating details, in  Steelworkers Fight Back: Inland’s Local 1010 and the Sadlowski/Balanoff Campaigns (edited by James B. Lane and Mike Olszanski)

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