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Troubled Steelworkers Turn 50: A Time For Retooling

June 16, 1986

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The United Steelworkers of America, born in conflict and baptized in blood, marks its 50th year tempered by the challenges of declining industry, membership and clout.

″They’re in a drastic period of transition from what they were to whatever they’re going to become,″ said Ben Fischer, director of labor studies at Carnegie-Mellon University and former assistant to four USW presidents.

″It’s a very, very difficult period for steelworkers and most unions. The union is being pushed and pulled in every which direction,″ Fischer said.

A dozen pioneers met June 17, 1936, in Pittsburgh to form the Steelworkers Organizing Committee, which became the United Steelworkers in 1942. A plaque will be dedicated Tuesday to commemorate its founding.

In 1936, workers made $4.32 a day and had few safety rules or gear, no time-and-a-half for overtime, no hospitalization, no vacations, no holidays and no pensions.

Boom times for the industry and aggressive bargaining by the union changed the picture. The USW peaked at 1.4 million members in 1976 to become the third-largest U.S. union. It bragged that its members were the highest paid industrial workers in the world, making an average hourly wage of $13.10 in 1982.

Lately, the USW has heard a statistical tom-tom of bleak news. Rising steel imports and sluggish demand for steel undermined the USW’s muscle. In 1983, the USW agreed to its first concessionary contract.

More losses have come this year. Three new contracts call for more givebacks in exchange for future profits, and talks with U.S. Steel Corp. began June 12. Neither side has ruled out the possibility of a strike.

In 1985, the union ranks had dropped to 750,000, less than one-third of them steelworkers, with another 200,000 on layoff. The USW has slipped to seventh among domestic unions, according to the AFL-CIO, and its membership is the lowest since its first audit of 725,626 in 1943.

″There could have been some cyclical downturns, but nothing of this nature has ever occurred before. The steel industry has never been in this situation before,″ said USW spokesman Dick Fontana.

To combat the decline, the union is retooling. It has evolved from a steelworkers union, to a metal workers union embracing aluminum and can industries, to a general workers union whose ranks include Boston city employees and welfare workers in Ohio.

″The future lies in attracting people from the services, health care and high-tech industries that offer some growth,″ said Ron Filipelli, chairman of labor studies at Penn State University.

Modern-day gloom obscures the union’s hard-won accomplishments.

In 1892, Carnegie Steel Co. barged 300 armed Pinkerton guards to break a strike at its Homestead plant. Seven strikers and three Pinkertons were killed in a gunfight.

A 1919 strike also ended in failure. But bankrolled by $500,000 from John L. Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, SWOC took permanent root 17 years later.

SWOC President Philip Murray made his first organizing speech June 21, 1936. Within nine months, he had a contract with Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co., now U.S. Steel, for a $5 a day wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, an eight- hour workday, and union recognition for 200,000 workers.

Other victories carried a terrible price. In 1937, workers struck Republic Steel Corp. At a Memorial Day rally in South Chicago, 10 strikers were killed and 90 wounded when guards opened fire. Six others died that day on picket lines in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But the industry was organized by the 1940s, and the union ultimately made a harsh life more bearable.

″The overriding accomplishment of the union was enabling steelworkers to arise from being part of the working class to part of the middle class,″ Fischer said.

″Back then, the real living standards were about equivalent to current welfare standards. It was an achievement to have an inside toilet and hot water,″ Fischer said.

″It wasn’t the two cents an hour or five cents an hour raise won by the union. It was status, the status that came with dignity and freedom of not ever again being subjected to the whim of a foreman,″ Fischer said.

When the bottom fell out of the domestic industry, critics charged the union was too complacent, too fat, too soft, too greedy, and that its own high wages led to the downfall.

″A mill is a dangerous place to work. ... A decent standard of living and a safe, healthy environment in which to work is not too much to ask,″ said Jay Weinberg, a former steelworker who is now an organizer with the Tri-State Conference on Steel, an advocacy group working to save basic industry.

He also predicted the USW would survive the latest turmoil:

″I don’t see it as a rise and fall like some Greek tragedy in which we’re all going to disappear. The union’s going through hard times, but there’s always going to be a need for people bonding together to protect themselves.″

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