A woman of steel

November 18, 2014

Bob Simpson discusses the legacy of a civil rights and union activist from the post-Second World War era, in an article published several years ago at Daily Kos.

"They're telling workers they've got to step back and do with less. What does that mean? Not having a car? Not being able to make the payments on their house? Not being able to send their kids to college? Not having any money for recreation? I thought that what's it all about--to make the life of the worker decent and with dignity and the ability to enjoy the things of society like culture and recreation. Now they're saying we've taken too much from the corporations."
-- Alice Peurala, 1928-1986

THE FIRES of steelmaking burned all along the southern shores of Lake Michigan when Alice Peurala entered U.S. Steel's South Works in 1953. Today, most of those fires have gone out, and with them the thousands of jobs that were once the economic support system for the Southeast Chicago-Gary region, a region that has still not recovered economically.

Contrary to what you may have read, this was not a "loss" of manufacturing, like dropping one's car keys in a parking lot or having a few coins slip between your couch cushions. This was deliberate theft and vandalism by what we now call the 1 Percent. By failing to properly invest in modernization, failing to see the impact of globalization, failing to see the importance of a national industrial policy as their foreign rivals did, and turning a deaf ear to their own workers, the steel company owners helped create the economic disaster that we have today. The United Steel Workers (USW), the union that represented most of the steel mills, was trapped in an organizational structure and bargaining model that was unprepared for the employer onslaught.

Alice Peurala
Alice Peurala

A Woman Who Refused to Take No for an Answer

When Peurala entered Chicago's South Works mill in 1953, there were few women employed there. Most of the women who had steel jobs as a result of the Second World War had left those jobs when the men returned home. The women who remained faced gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. Still, Peurala found that most of the male steelworkers she encountered were pretty decent and helped her learn the tricks of the steelmaking trade that allowed her to do the job.

Having been an activist in the civil rights movement, Chicago steelworker Alice Peurala knew that the 1964 Civil Rights Act covered gender as well as race. So in 1967, when she was denied a promotion from her job in the Metallurgical Division to a better job in one of the product testing labs, she decided to fight. The union would not take her case so she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The product testing lab job was a day job, which would give her more time to be with her daughter in the evenings. She had been told that since the job required overtime and heavy lifting, she was ineligible as a woman. The EEOC determined that the company had lied about the heavy lifting, the onerous overtime, and the education requirements. They recommended that she sue.

She found a lawyer willing to take her case, the young Patrick Murphy, who freely admitted that he knew little about civil rights law, but dedicated himself to the case anyway. After much foot-dragging, and many objections from U.S. Steel attorneys, a compromise settlement was reached with pressure from the judge. Peurala would be next in line for a product tester's job. Then when U.S. Steel tried to circumvent the settlement, the judge hit the roof and Peurala finally got her promotion in 1969.

It was not just a victory for her personally, but a victory for all women in manufacturing. It was also a victory for democracy in the workplace. The 1974 Consent Decree that was signed by nine major steel companies, the steelworkers union and the EEOC was a major step forward in the battle against racial and gender discrimination in the industry. Cases like Alice Peurala's lawsuit helped make that possible. As a socialist, Peurala understood how divisions within the working class weakened the power and moral authority of the labor movement and she was determined to change that.

She was one of the tough, smart working-class leaders emerging in the 1960s who were determined to erase decades of discrimination and challenge the iron-fisted dictatorial control of the steel company owners. They would also challenge the leadership of the United Steel Workers of America and fight for reforms within the union itself. Peurala would eventually be elected the first woman president of a steelworkers' local, but tragically at a time when Corporate America decided to dismantle U.S. manufacturing, sell it off in pieces and move much of it abroad.

A Life of Work and Struggle

Peurala was the daughter of Armenian immigrants. Born in 1928 in St. Louis, she grew up in a family that was well acquainted with persecution. In the wake of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey, her father had deserted the Turkish army and came to the USA on a false passport. Her mom never did find out what happened to her parents in the wake of the killings. While her mom stayed at home, her dad worked as molder in a foundry and served as shop steward in the union. Her family was pro-union and politically involved in trying to recover Armenian lands from Turkey, as had been promised by President Wilson after the First World War. Like the children of most immigrant families, Peurala was well acquainted with hard work, taking her first job at 14:

I think probably when I was at the end of the eighth grade, when I was about 14. I started working as a cashier in a movie house. And then I worked summers in little two by four factories. I remember working when I was about 15 or 16 the whole summer. One was a place where they made soles for shoes. And it was a messy job, you did everything by hand. You had all these things that you cut out and you soaked them in different solutions. Your hands would get messy and the solutions would smell terrible.

I used to think in later years it was probably dangerous to your health. I didn't think it then because we were making money. It was only young people working there. There was a place where they made small tool parts and that. And then I worked in a Venetian blind factory after school. That's when I was in high school. I went [to work] at four and worked until ten everyday. And then I worked all day on Saturday. They really ended at about twelve, but because I was a high school student they let me go home at ten. [From an interview by Elizabeth Balanoff]

After finishing high school, she took a job in retail and plunged into the world of organized labor, making friends with union organizer Bernice Fisher, one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Besides her union activism Peurala joined sit-ins against racial discrimination as a member of CORE. Her was union affiliated with the Teamsters district headed up by Harold Gibbons, a progressive, socialist-minded anomaly in a union better known at the time for its ties with organized crime. Gibbons encouraged women's union activism through labor education, attendance at union meetings and writing articles for the union publications.

A very independent-minded young woman, Peurala left her home in 1950 and traveled to Chicago, much to the dismay of our parents who expected her to stay home until she was married, as was the custom for "good" Armenian girls. She took jobs in Chicago retail stores and factories, each time working as a union organizer, sometimes winning union representation and sometimes not. The conditions in some of the workplaces were terrible, especially where the workers were women. In a candy factory where she worked briefly, the women who had been there for years seemed permanently hunched over from the constant bending that their jobs required.

Because of her leftwing views she was accused of being a communist and had to fight red-baiting charges during a union representation battle at a large Stewart-Warner auto parts plant. There were periods of when she was out of a job because of her union organizing work and she relied on unemployment compensation and the support of her union friends.

Alice Peurala in South Works

She eventually married, took a job at U.S. Steel's South Works as a metallurgical observer, had a child and then quickly divorced the father because of his alcoholism. A single mom on a swing shift with a young daughter, she could not do union work for several years. Fortunately, she found a woman who would do child care for her on a very flexible schedule. Her steelworker wages allowed her the expense of child care, plus enough left over to get by. She found work in the steel mill an interesting challenge:

I found the steel mill very interesting when I first went in it, very unique. I guess it was a challenge in a way. I didn't think too much about the female-male ratio). About my being in a plant that was mostly men except that there were men on the job who still, even though women had been hired in the steel industry during the war and there were some left (many of them had gone).

There were two other women on the job that I was on and I know when they hired me they told me that in that particular occupation in the steel mill they had hired women during the war and there were a number of women still left on that occupation. It seemed to be one that women stuck with. So the other women that were in the mill at that time were not on the occupation I was on. They were either pit recorders ingot buggy operators or oilers. A lot of them were oilers. They had stayed since the war. [From the Balanoff interview]

After her victory in the lawsuit, Peurala started becoming more active in the union. She joined Steelworkers Fightback, a rank-and-file steelworker insurgency group which developed a large following in District 31 of the steel workers union. Led by a third-generation steelworker named Ed Sadlowski, Steelworkers Fightback introduced a progressive militancy into the steel industry that had not been seen since the early days of the CIO. Sadlowski was elected Local 65 president in 1964 at the age of 24 and became District 31 director in 1973. He was unsuccessful in his bid for the national presidency in 1977.

Although steelworkers had finally achieved a modest middle-class lifestyle, the work could still be quite dangerous. There was constant harassment by supervisors and the mills were rife with racial and gender discrimination. The national steelworkers leadership had pushed through the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA), a no-strike clause in exchange for concessions for the company on wages and other issues. Steelworkers Fightback was against the ENA and thought that the national union needed more democracy and more rank and file participation.

After several attempts at union office in Local 65 which represented US Steel's South Works, Peurala was elected to the grievance committee in 1976:

Being a griever is very time-consuming, and it's very exhausting. When you are not working, you're fighting grievances for workers that are getting suspended and fired. You become involved in those human beings who are being fired and need their jobs. You rack your brain to do your best in representing them and it takes a lot out of you. You're also working within the union, trying to make your grievance committee more effective...I have spent a lot of years in the union fighting for certain things. For example, we passed resolutions against the war in Vietnam, probably one of the few steelworkers' local unions that did. I felt pretty good about that. So many people that I personally like, and thought a lot of, really didn't think it could be done. [From the Balanoff interview]

Despite the 1974 Consent Decree, gender discrimination still dominated the mills. Women were being forced to take sick leave for pregnancy and made ineligible for unemployment of medical insurance. There were reports of women feeling compelled to have abortions to survive economically. Women steelworkers suspected that the companies were using pregnancy to rid themselves of women they never wanted to hire in the first place.

There were problems with promotions. Peurala felt that the company was hiring inexperienced women off the street to do jobs they couldn't handle instead of promoting experienced women from inside the plant. They could then get rid of them before their promotion periods were up. The new hires were being set up to fail. Another insidious tactic was suddenly enforcing rules that had been ignored for years when women were hired. According to Local 65 member Roberta Wood:

There was an informal agreement between the men working the blast furnace that they could exchange assignments if they didn't want to work a specific job on a particular day. They traded jobs and took turns on the worst assignments. In the rush to prove that women can't do the job, the company came down hard and stupid. The showed us the rules from the book. This caused a lot of resentment toward the women. I think the company knew it would. [From an interview with Mary Margaret Fonow]

Inexperienced women felt pressured to prove themselves in situations that could be dangerous. Diane Gumulauski was seriously injured that way:

While I was working on the lids (the coke ovens), I was told to move these 100-lb lead boxes. I wanted to prove I could do it. That all women could do it. After the third lift, I ripped open my intestines and had to be rushed to the hospital. It took surgery and a three-month recovery period. What I didn't know at the time was that no man would have lifted that much weight. They would have asked for a helper or simply refused. [From the Fonow interview]

Peurala responded to Gumulauski's story in anger: "We can't allow men to decide what women's rights are. They aren't the ones who'll get hurt, we are. If those bastards try that trick again, tell them where to shove it. The men never put up with this shit."

Peurala helped to organize the Local 65 Women's Committee as well as the District 31 Women's Caucus. Steelworker women activists plunged themselves into a wide variety of campaigns from fighting for stronger affirmative action enforcement to improving the decrepit state of the women's washrooms. They formed alliances with feminist groups across the region, refuting the rightwing smear that feminism was only a movement for privileged white women. They became active in the newly formed Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).

District 31 made a major push for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), sending hundreds of steelworkers, both men and women, to state legislatures to lobby for equal rights. While some local media tried to make a joke out of "burly male steelworkers" campaigning for women's rights, steelworker women didn't think it was funny at all. They understood the importance of working-class solidarity against social injustice. Peurala herself was also active in the antiwar and the reproductive rights movement.

Once dubbed "Alice in Wonderland" by men who thought a woman could never lead a largely male steelworks local, Alice Peurala won the presidency of the Local 65 in 1979.

"I did not win as a woman. I campaigned as a candidate who would do something about conditions in the plant that affect 7500 people--men and women...People in the plant looked on me as a fighter. I think it demonstrates that the men in the plant will vote for someone who is going to for them, make the union work for them." [From Rocking the Boat.]

But Peurala's victory came when the American steel industry was about to collapse. In an atmosphere of fear caused by mass layoffs, she was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1982, but was re-elected in 1985. But by 1985, the local was down to 800 members and Alice Peurala faced a new enemy--cancer. On June 21, 1986, her steelworker's heart went silent and the working class lost one of its finest and most steadfast leaders.

A Legacy to Remember

"You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket."
--Frank Sobotka, The Wire

Today, the dismantling of U.S. manufacturing is usually blamed on "greedy unions". That's nonsense of course. For a brief period, from the 1950s to the 1980s, a little more than one generation, a significant number of unionized industrial workers achieved a modest middle-class lifestyle. But even then the nature of the work could take a heavy toll on mind and body. Their middle class status was always precarious, with workers only one layoff or bad accident away from serious economic troubles.

As cracks in the American economic dream began to appear in the late 1970's, the unions representing America's industrial workers made concession after concession in an effort to save jobs, concessions that were largely unsuccessful in doing that. Somehow it was always the workers who were expected to give up hard-won gains or even their jobs, while top management and financial investors never seem to worry about how to pay the mortgage or put food on the table when hard times hit.

Neither government nor private enterprise stepped up to the plate to create effective job retraining for laid-off workers. The hi-tech and service jobs that were supposed to replace manufacturing proved to be largely illusionary or low-paid.

Both management and union stumbled, but "greedy workers" were not the problem. American manufacturing management was a victim of short-term thinking and a lack of imagination. It did not understand the importance of a government industrial policy. It was clueless about how to operate in a global marketplace. It was organized in a top-down dictatorial bureaucratic manner. Sadly, America's manufacturing unions were organized in much the same way.

For all of our brave talk about "democracy" we don't apply it to the area of economics. As a nation we were right to criticize the dismal results of Soviet-style centralized industrial "planning." We failed to see that having our industrial "planning" done by a relatively small number of centralized corporations run as virtual dictatorships wasn't much of an alternative. The industrial unions clung to much the same model and many workers gradually became alienated and saw them as little more than a kind of insurance policy, resulting in low levels of rank-and-file involvement. When the time came to fight for survival, most workers just were not well prepared.

This lack of a democratic culture within U.S. manufacturing was grossly inefficient. Alice Peurala spent an enormous amount of her time battling company enforced racial and gender discrimination. One of the best grievance handlers at South Works, she also spent entirely too much time fighting back against petty harassment of workers by supervisors who were trying to impose an atmosphere of fear and intimidation demanded from the top. She also spent an enormous amount of her time battling the entrenched leadership of the steelworker's union, which was leading rank-and-file steelworkers to disaster.

Manufacturing is more than just machines and processes. It also about living, breathing people with minds. Imagine if working-class leaders like Peurala had been able to apply their formidable abilities toward improving the manufacturing process with genuine worker involvement instead of having to fight for clean washrooms. What a goddam waste of working class talent, time and energy.

Throughout her life, Alice Peurala was devoted to the idea of democracy. She was on the right track. If we are to revive manufacturing as well as the rest of our economy, we will need to do it differently than in the past. Until we learn how to apply democracy to our economics we will continue to be trapped in an inefficient, wasteful, polluting system that degrades our humanity and the planet we live on.

[I never met Alice personally, but saw her at a number of rallies around Chicago back in the day. A steelworker friend of mine who did know her said that in addition to being a tough smart negotiator, she also played a mean hand of poker.]

First published at Daily Kos.

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