When Ed Sadlowski retired a while back, his friends tried to throw him a surprise party. They failed as far as the honoree was concerned—people on the street in South Chicago just kept telling him they’d see him Saturday night. But many of Sadlowski’s out-of-town friends and supporters were amazed to find it has been so long since his insurgent campaign for the presidency of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and wondered if an era has passed: His? Theirs? The labor movement’s?
At age fifty-six retirement came early for Sadlowski himself, even though it was thirty-seven years since Oil Can Eddie first reported for work at the U.S. Steel South Works. Where the event falls within the life cycle of the American labor movement is not so easy to say. Sadlowski’s son told the crowd at the not-so-surprising party that the evening’s opening round of “Solidarity Forever” was the first time he and his three sisters had sung together since those days when fifty guys sang that song in his family’s basement every night for a month. It’s a safe bet that in the intervening sixteen years fifty people had not gathered to sing “When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run” for thirty nights (or for three nights) straight anywhere in the United States....
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