Edward Sadlowski, a union activist who represented thousands of steelworkers in Chicago and Gary, died Sunday in Florida after a long battle with dementia, family members said. He was 79.
Sadlowski, father of 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, was a district union chief with United Steelworkers. He gained national attention as an insurgent during an unsuccessful bid for the union presidency in 1977.
More recently, Sadlowski served on the local panel of the Illinois Labor Relations Board from 1993 to 2012, according to his family. He was inducted into the Illinois Labor History Society’s Union Hall of Honor in 2012.
“He was the voice of the working class,” Sadlowski Garza said in a phone interview Sunday. “He gave power to the working class men and women that were in the trenches.”
Born to a steelworker on Sept. 10, 1938, Sadlowski grew up in the Southeast Side’s South Chicago neighborhood, watching his father organize at the Inland Steel Company.
When Sadlowski began working as a machinist at United Sates Steel South Works in 1956, he quickly earned the nickname “Oilcan Eddie” and took to unionizing himself.
He clinched the top position at the site’s union in 1964, overseeing about 23,000 workers, family said. And in 1975, Sadlowski became president of District 31, United Steelworkers’ largest region — encompassing 128,000 members in Chicago and Gary — with the platform “Steelworkers Fight Back.”
In that campaign and throughout his career, Sadlowski championed workers’ right to strike and to ratify their own contracts, said his son, Edward Sadlowski, Jr.
Sadlowski Jr. said he was encouraged to see all the support pour in on social media, showing that his dad’s ideals of “clean Democratic trade unionism” have created profound and lasting influence.
“Edward Sadlowski rose from working as a machinist’s apprentice on Chicago’s Southeast Side to being elected shop steward of his steel mill to leading the largest local Steelworkers union in America,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Sunday. “He served bravely in the Army and fought passionately for the rights of workers in Chicago and across America.”
Sadlowski is survived by a wife Marlene; four children, Susan Garza, Patricia Hoyt, Edward Sadlowski, Jr. and Diane Agelson; 11 grandchildren, David Garza, Ryan Garza, Kate Garza, Tyler Garza, Deanna Hoyt, Adrianne Hoyt, Faith Sadlowski, Evelyn Sadlowski, Ed Sadlowski II, Angela Agelson and Hallee Agelson; and two great grandchildren, Aria and Sofia Garza.
Photo Credit: Edward Sadlowski at a press conference confirming that he will be running for president of the United Steelworkers Union in 1976. (Sally Good / Chicago Tribune)