Printer Friendly

United Steelworkers of America: 26th convention.

The United Steelworkers of America held its 26th constitutional convention, commemorating 50 years of existence, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the locus of much of the union's history. The 2,300 delegates, representing more than 600,000 members in basic steel, allied industries, and a wide range of other manufacturing, transportation, health care, utilities, and service industries, expressed views and adopted measures relating to standard union matters. Among the items examined were financial expenditures, dues allocations to locals, internal union politics, collective bargaining, and national events affecting working people. But the dominant theme was the union's past experiences, with particular emphasis on events that occurred near the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. President Lynn Williams commented that it was appropriate to "come home to Pittsburgh."

Officially, the Steelworkers began in Cleveland on May 22, 1942, but the convention delegates acknowledged that their spiritual origins, as embodied in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the 1930's, emerged from the smoke and ashes of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. Historian Joseph Frazier Wall, of Grinnell College, lectured on the courageous actions of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in actual combat with Pinkerton agents sent up the Monongahela River on barges to dislodge workers who had seized the steelworks after the Carnegie Steel Company locked them out of the workplace and company housing. Seven strikers and three Pinkerton agents died in the melee. An abridged version of the film documentary and monograph, The River Ran Red: Homestead 1892, accompanied Wall's talk and analyzed the methods utilized by Andrew Carnegie and his chief lieutenant, Henry Clay Frick, in crushing the strike but not the spirit of the union members. Wall also elaborated on anarchist Alexander Berkman's tragicomic failed attempt to assassinate Frick, resulting in the intercession of National Guard troops, which terminated the conflict. An exhibit promoting the creation of a Homestead historic site under Public Law 102-101 (encouraging the establishment of theme sites celebrating labor history) and a convention resolution calling for similar re-creations of labor events received unanimous approval.

The convention program also drew a parallel between the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the 1992 Steelworkers dispute with the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation. In what is called the Battle of Fort RAC, Steelworkers Local 5668, of Ravenswood, West Virginia, endured a 20-month lockout, punctuated by the hiring of strike replacement workers, and won a new contract that restored union members' jobs and guaranteed that the company would no longer "lockout, permanently replace, or otherwise discriminate against [its] employees because of their union activities." President Williams presented Dan Stidham, president of the local, with the union's "Freedom and Democracy Award" for leading the cause. Steelworkers District 23 director, Jim Bowen, commented that the support of other unions in general and of the "Women of Steel" a women's support group for Steelworker members--specifically, proved that solidarity works. As with the presentation on the Homestead situation, the delegates viewed a brief video on the dispute. Then they marched en masse from the David Lawrence Convention Center to the Pittsburgh Press building in a show of further solidarity with unions striking against the city's largest newspaper.

From the past to the future

The great hall of the convention center featured a mural, the "Chain of Solidarity," showing important events in the union's history. In the middle of the chain was the rounding link, the formation of the union in 1942 as part of the great wave of industrial unionism that swept through the Nation under the banner of the CIO. The Steelworkers' first president, Philip Murray, now enshrined in the Labor Department Hall of Fame, forged that link connecting the historic past with the present through the concept of "industrial democracy."

Appropriately, this concept was another major theme of the convention. Steelworkers President Williams stated in his opening remarks, "We must learn from the past, confront the challenge of the present, and create the future."

Philip Murray's theories on industrial democracy contrasted sharply with the conflict-ridden mode of labor relations that was prevalent in the 1930's and 1940's. Joined by other farsighted labor leaders, such as the United Auto Workers' Waiter Reuther and the Steelworkers' own Clinton Golden, Murray envisioned the workplace as a model of representational democracy, where wage earners controlled their work processes in partnership with employers. Willing to use the strike, coordinated campaigns, and other confrontational weapons in labor's arsenal if needed, Williams noted that the future of the steel industry in a global and highly competitive world depended on Murray's vision of industrial democracy through empowering employees. The Canadian arm of the union distributed press copies of a publication of theirs that focused on the issue and agreed with labor consultant John R. Stepp, who said, at a previous Steelworkers conference, that "the future lies in ensuring that industrial democracy and empowerment of workers go hand in hand." President Williams' keynote address concentrated on turning back antiunion assaults by requiring that members be empowered "in their union, in their workplaces and enterprises, in their communities and in the political process .... Empowerment is the critical concept."

The convention depicted the notion of empowerment to the delegates through six videos-on education, organizing, amalgamation and mergers, collective bargaining, coordinated campaigns, and political action. Afterwards, panel discussions were held among union members who participated in activities related to the six issues. Union leaders made it clear that employers refusing to accept the empowerment of workers would ultimately face it confrontationally. Keeping with the historic theme, President Williams noted that new production technologies and fresh forms of workplace organization that demanded employee participation for the good of workers and their unions was a key issue in the Homestead struggle; Carnegie wanted wage reductions proportional to decreases in prices and to decreases in the cost of labor brought about by implementing new technology, but would not work with the union to resolve the issue.

Not all factions of the union have embraced the new theories. As in the auto industry, where dissident United Auto Workers oppose "jointness," some Steelworkers view these programs as coop-tive and destructive of hard-won historic benefits. Led by Local 1397 leader Ron Weisen (representing workers in the Monongahela River valley), this group charges that President Williams and his administration have "sold out" to failed corporatist philosophies that tie the union to industry leaders in an unholy alliance between labor and capital. While there is spirited debate among industrial relations experts on the benefits and perils of labor-management cooperation for unions, the majority of delegates eschewed negative arguments and overwhelmingly supported resolutions for employee empowerment.

Fifty years of challenge

Despite past successes through the straggles of Homestead, the 1919 steel strike, the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, industrial councils for the production of steel during World War II, and the 1959 strike against U.S. Steel, the labor movement in general and the Steelworkers union in particular face many crises ahead. As late as 1980, the Steelworkers had more than 1 million members, but the figure has dropped to about 600,000 now. Buddy Davis, director of Steelworkers District 24, told one delegate that the union was losing $500,000 a month in operational expenses. Financial problems in the steel industry, examined in detail in And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the U.S. Steel Industry, by labor journalist John Hoerr, hold little promise for any immediate increase in markets or jobs.

In fact, the union was actively engaged in or studying the feasibility of employee stock ownership buyouts to save jobs at Bethlehem Steel facilities in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Lackawanna, New York, and Sparrows Point, Maryland, and at Republic Engineered Steel in Ohio. Convention resolution 16 approved of this process, even encouraging the prounion governments of Poland and other Eastern European nations to investigate the feasibility of such buyouts for their steel industry.

As former Steelworkers Secretary-Treasurer Walter Burke noted, in the 50-year history of the Steelworkers union, "Nothing has ever come easy." Nonetheless, despite operating fund and other losses during the past year (about $7 million), the union's assets totaled almost $175 million. And continued struggles to protect workers' rights, such as that at J.T. Ryerson, Inc., service center network of Inland Steel, are fully supported by Steelworkers leadership.

The delegates also debated numerous resolutions pertaining to the membership. Organizing white-collar workers (resolution 24), the concerns of women workers ("Women of Steel," resolution 21), universal health care for all Americans (26), global union solidanty (8, 9, 10), reform of occupational safety and health laws (18), programs for retired members (Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, 23), work and family matters (22), and legislative efforts to prohibit the hiring of permanent replacements during strikes (27) were all passed by the delegates.

Resolution 14, opposing rapid acceptance of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, received special attention. Local 6787 President Paul Gipson told of 16-year-old workers dying in Mexican maquiladora plants for 75 cents an hour. Other speakers commented on the lack of safety and health standards in Mexico and the environmental disasters caused by unregulated industrial pollution. Canadian National Director Leo Gerard noted that antiunion business efforts flourished under Mexican labor laws. Defeat of the free trade bill was approved by acclamation.

As with any convention, a parade of speakers addressed the body. Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, a former confidant of Philip Murray, gave the opening invocation. Labor officials Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, William George, president of the Pennsylvania State AFL-CIO, and Robert MacKenzie, labor minister of Ontario, Canada, commented on the union's role in the labor movement. Delegates gave a standing ovation to Dr. Glenn Doman, director of the Institutes for Achievement of Human Potential (a Steelworkers-supported organization that treats brain-damaged children), and his 10-year-old patient, Adam Johnson, who leads a normal life despite original diagnoses of permanent brain damage. In addition to several other political speakers, union members and guests were greeted by Pittsburgh mayor, Sophie Masloff.

Conference attendees passed by the Steelworkers exhibit area, containing information booths on issues of particular importance to union members. In addition to the Homestead exhibit, delegates viewed the sculptured busts of Steelworkers presidents, from Murray to Williams, and saw brief vignettes of their accomplishments. Information was available on union activities in the areas of affirmative action and civil rights, the "Women of Steel" program, reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and Labor Department financial filings under the National Labor Relations Act of 1958.

A three-act play illustrating the interaction between work and life away but not detached from the mills was also presented. Steel City traced the development of steelmaking from its beginnings as a cottage industry dominated by Anglo-Americans to the subsequent growth of leviathan corporations employing Americans of Polish, Lithuanian, Greek, Italian, and African descent, as well as other nationality groups. The main setting of the play was a picnic of pensioners from the closed Jones & Laughlin mill that illuminated the Pittsburgh skyline for many years. Their central theme, and that of the convention itself, was to honor the past while looking ahead to "Build the Dream" for the future. After the performance, convention guests were treated to a "Solidarity Celebration of 50 Years," at which members of Steelworkers Districts 15 and 20 from western Pennsylvania prepared nine different ethnic foods-- Bulgarian, Caribbean, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak, and Slovenian--that are traditional in various Pittsburgh neighborhoods.


When President Williams closed the proceedings on September 4, ending a week of furious activity, the words of his keynote address still echoed through the David Lawrence Convention Center. The labor movement has not outlived its usefulness, he told the gathering. Workers need it today to encourage social and economic justice and to end racism and sexism. He urged rebuilding the cities and infrastructure of the Nation and honoring the brave deeds of 1892, 1919, 1936, 1942, and other critical years. In summation, he told the convention: "We have been privileged to inherit a wonderful institution. It is our duty to safeguard it, to maintain it, and to improve it for those who follow. I know you are up to this challenge and will not shirk your responsibility against what may be, in many ways, challenges that are deeper and more pervasive than at any time in our history."
COPYRIGHT 1992 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Guzda, Henry P.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:Crisis and Choice in European Social Democracy.
Next Article:Boeing, machinists settle.

Related Articles
Steelworkers press organizing and coordinated bargaining.
J.M. Huber.
Turf wars.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters