Alice Peurala and Harold Washington. Photo: Scott Marshall
A picture posted on Facebook of the late local steelworkers’ union leader Alice Peurala and the late Mayor Harold Washington took me back a few years.
In 1973 I had moved to Chicago from LA.
In those days 20% of all Big Steel production in the United States took place along Lake Michigan from 78th Street on the east side of Chicago to Burns Harbor in Indiana.
Out-of-towners and those who live on the north side don’t know there’s an east side of Chicago. But that is what the area far south, by the Indiana border is called.
in 1973 the Southworks collection of mills owned by US Steel had about 11,000 workers spread out over a dozen mills.
You could walk into the employment office with no previous experience and get a job that paid decent money. It was hard, dirty, often dangerous work. But it was a union job with union wages and benefits.
Until about ten years earlier they had been jobs, particularly the skilled jobs, preserved for white men. But Local 65 pushed to end that practice. And by the time I got hired in as a millwright apprentice, I was getting trained along with Black, Latino men and women apprentices.
Significantly, our president of Local 65 was Alice Peurala. She was the first woman to head a basic steel local in the United States.
I was assigned to work with a journeyman millwright named Adam Konwerski. Adam, a Polish immigrant who came to the US in 1959, had worked at Southworks for nearly a quarter of a century. With union wages he had sent his two daughters to Catholic school and on to Marquette, a Catholic University.
As an apprentice, I mainly did grunge work under Adam’s tutelage and supervision.
A millwright fixes whatever is broken in the mill. And since our 96″ mill was a hundred years old, there was a lot to fix to keep the steel plate rolling. At the time, our steel plates were being trucked up to be used to build the Sears Tower.
That’s my steel in that building.
“Ka-lonsky,” Adam would say. “Go to the shop and get two seven-inch bolts and nuts.” And I would run down to the shop and get what he had demanded.
“Ka-lonsky” he would say. “Get in there and clean out that shit.” And I would grab a shovel and clean out the oil and slag that had covered the piece of machinery we were about to repair, while Adam stood above me, hard-hat tipped forward, cigarette dangling from his lips and a flashlight pointing where I was to work.
Young and more than a little stupid, I would look up at the veteran steelworker and say, “Adam. How come I’m always down here in the oil and slag and you’re always up there smoking your cig?”
And Adam would smile and say, “Ka-lonsky. They pay me for vat I know, not for vat I do.”
The Steelworker Union leadership back then had agreed to what they called an Experimental Negotiating Agreement. Fancy words for a no-strike clause.
South Chicago’s District 31 was headed by a militant union leader, Ed Sadlowski. He challenged the big boys in Pittsburgh and had the support of our Local. But the national leadership prevailed. And their conciliation contributed to the decline of both the union and the US steel industry.
Today there is no more Southworks. No more Local 65.
It is a metaphor for what has happened to US manufacturing and to private sector unions.
Now the target is public sector unions. It is why I wince at the conciliation of some IEA teacher union leaders. I’ve seen this movie before.
The Illinois Labor History Society will honor the late Alice Peurala, the late Wisconsin Steel union leader Frank Lumpkin and “Oil Can” Eddie Sadlowski on December 2nd. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will be the featured speaker.