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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 289

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This is the grave of I.W. Abel.

Iorwith Abel was born in 1908 in Magnolia, Ohio to a working class family. His father was a blacksmith and his mother’s family were coal miners. He graduated from high school in 1925, briefly went to a business college, and then got a job working at American Sheet and Tin Plate Company in Canton. This was a steel mill. As was common, he worked in a variety of mills over the years. He wasn’t any different than any other steel mill worker. He was subject to extremely dangerous working conditions and long hours in brutally hot mills. He didn’t make much money. And he was subject to frequent layoffs depending on the steel market. This was not a job where conditions had improved significantly in the last few decades. If anything, things just became more dangerous as the technology advanced but safety was still ignored. The plight of steel workers at this time is best accessed through Thomas Bell’s great novel of the period Out of This Furnace, which you should all read. The story of Bell’s family was the story of so many steelworkers, including Abel. In fact, Abel was making 16 cents an hour for an 84-hour week when he started. Yep, that’s 7 12-hour days. And the steel industry switched workers between the day and night shift every couple weeks. How did they do that? They required a 24-hour shift! 24 hours in a steel mill!!!! Yes, this killed lots of workers. No, the employers did not care.

Of course he was laid off during the Depression and he had to work in a brick kiln for very low wages until he could get back in the mills, which happened in 1936. At this time, the CIO was starting up. Industrial organizing was on the horizon. The steel companies had created company unions to shut off any real avenue for discontent, but the Steel Workers Organizing Committee began challenging. SWOC was the top priority for John L. Lewis because of the close connection between the coal mines and steel mills, often owned by the same interests. Lewis felt the United Mine Workers of America would never have the power it needed if the steel mills remained unorganized. Abel got involved with SWOC at his mill and organized Local 1123. As the leader in the mill, he led workers out on 42 wildcat strikes over the next year, essentially spontaneous actions where workers walk out, usually for a brief period of time. While US Steel soon caved to SWOC, the so-called Little Steel companies were the violently resistant to unionization, as I explored recently with my visit to Tom Girdler’s grave. So those mills, such as where Abel worked, remained non-union until the early 1940s, when the companies capitulated to get defense contracts.

I’m not sure if Abel was blacklisted or not after the failure of the Little Steel strikes, but in any case, SWOC hired him as staff in 1937. He became a protege of SWOC head Philip Murray and rose in the organization’s hierarchy. In 1942, Abel was named director of the Canton District of what was now the United Steelworkers of America and occupied a position of the executive council of the Ohio CIO. He also served on the National War Labor Board during World War II.

In 1952, Phil Murray died. David McDonald took over as USWA president and Abel rose to the position of secretary-treasurer, which in the union movement, usually makes you the heir apparent to the throne. McDonald wasn’t such a great union leader. He was reasonably competent and held the line for awhile against the steel companies, who were still deeply bitter about unions existing in their mills, leading the USWA on the successful 1959 steel strike. But he also had little interaction with the locals, submitted to corporate demands on automation, and was basically a union leader for a fat and happy time. By the mid-1960s, the contracts the USWA were signing were not very good and there was a lot of discontent bubbling up. Abel saw an opportunity. McDonald also changed the union’s constitution so he could run for more terms as president. So in 1965, Abel challenged him for the presidency. It’s pretty clear that McDonald tried to rig the election, but Abel managed to squeeze by to victory, largely because he had good relationships with the Canadian locals and they came out in large numbers.

But the structural issues that McDonald was facing in negotiating those contracts weren’t so easy to overcome, especially as foreign steel started to flood in, itself a phenomena in part caused by the companies constantly forcing the workers on strike in attempts to bust the USWA, which caused other industries to beg Washington for more steel imports. He understood that he was elected on a platform of change, with discontent bubbling up from the locals over a lack of democracy in the union, from black workers over the racism they felt both on the job and within union, and increasingly from women angry about the sexism they faced. Abel moved slowly, but as the 60s with its activism and protest swept over the USWA, it took Abel with it. There was significant discontent within the union over Abel’s leadership, as the film you can watch here shows.

It wasn’t that the Abel years were without any successes. He fought hard to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 and the Employee Retirement Income Safety Act in 1974. The union grew thanks to mergers with smaller unions. He finally established a sizable strike fund to help members when strikes happened. But he also was hesitant to do much fix the racism and sexism within the union, although in 1974, he signed a consent decree to change seniority rules so that layoffs didn’t disproportionately affect minorities and women. That decree in itself angered older members who felt now the union wasn’t protecting them anymore, which of course was also filled with racial and gendered resentment in itself. He did have a reputation for fighting racism and was named to the Kerner Commission in 1968 to investigate the causes of the urban riots, but like the other industrial unions, leadership was hesitant to do much about the racism within locals. Even the famed radical Harry Bridges allowed longshoremen locals to remain lily white if they wanted. Plus, the steel imports kept coming. For the 1974 contract talks, Abel managed to get around any major attacks by taking a no-strike pledge and both sides agreeing to binding arbitration. That actually worked and the contract turned out pretty good. The 1977 contract wasn’t bad either and Abel retired after signing it. But by 1980, with layoffs due to foreign steel already weakening the union, employers pulled out of the deal.

Opposition to Abel was rising anyway. Ed Sadlowski was a leftist insurgent within the USWA. An anti-racist, environmentalist, and peace activist in addition to a third-generation steelworker, Sadlowski had a vision of a union movement fighting for social justice, one reminiscent of the CIO’s early leftist years. He ran for head of his district council on a reform platform in 1973. The USWA leadership rigged the election against him. He appealed, the Department of Labor mandated a new election, and Sadlowski won in a landslide. A new, more democratic, day seemed to have arrived in that union. Sadlowski was ready to run against Abel in 1977. So Abel retired, named Lloyd McBride as his successor, and managed to just beat Sadlowski for the presidency. Not much thus would change in the USWA as it continued on its long, slow decline. Probably a Sadlowski presidency couldn’t have stopped that either, but at least it would have shook up the union establishment toward preparing for different days.

I.W. Abel died in 1987 at the age of 78. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Magnolia, Ohio.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am very grateful for your support in making this series happen. If you would like this series to continue visiting labor leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lloyd McBride is in Pittsburgh and David McDonald in Cathedral City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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