The death of Ed Sadlowski and the demise of trade union reformism

 

The death of Ed Sadlowski and the demise of trade union reformism

19 June 2018

Ed Sadlowski, who led a movement to oust the United Steelworkers leadership in the 1970s, died on June 10. While largely unknown to current generations of workers, Sadlowski played a brief but significant role in the American unions. His bid to unseat the handpicked candidate of the United Steelworkers bureaucracy, Lloyd McBride, in the February 1977 election for union president garnered a great deal of rank-and-file support and media attention.

Heading the “Steelworkers Fightback” movement, Sadlowski presented himself as a fiery militant opposing the pro-management leadership of the USW. Debates between Sadlowski and McBride were televised, including a session on the nationally televised news program “Meet the Press.”

The Sadlowski-McBride contest took place in the context of mounting attacks on workers’ jobs and living standards and a rising tide of worker militancy, with mass strikes taking place in auto, the mines, the docks and across basic industry. In that period, millions of workers maintained their allegiance to the unions, despite their hostility to the corrupt and treacherous leadership, and saw these organizations as instruments that could advance their interests. The USW was at that time the largest US union, with 1.5 million members, including locals in Canada.

Movements in opposition to pro-company, anti-democratic union leaderships emerged in other industries, including among coalminers with the creation of Miners for Democracy headed by Arnold Miller, and in trucking with the creation of Teamsters for a Democratic Union headed by Pete Camarata.

In the 1977 campaign, Sadlowski made an issue of the USW’s acceptance of an Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA) with the…

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