Bob Simpson

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So who is this guy? Well, my name is Bob “Bobbo” Simpson.I am a retired teacher and former web production guy. I am also 1/2 of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team.

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FEBRUARY 10, 2012 2:11PM

Alice Peurala: A Woman of Steel

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Alice Puerala

 “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 Puerala 1928-1986.


The fires of steelmaking burned all along the southern shores of Lake Michigan when Alice Peurala entered US 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 in 2012. 

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%. 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.

South Works
 The fires of South Works light up the night in this vintage postcard 

 

South WorksUS Steel’s South Works 1970 

 

South Works site todayThe South Works site today.

A Woman Who Refused to Take No for an Answer

When Puerala 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 WWII 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 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 US 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 US 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 9 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 Puerala’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 1960’s 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 US 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 come 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 World War I. 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 fifteen or sixteen 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 her 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 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 Puerala in South Works 

She eventually married, took a job at  US 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 childcare for her on a very flexible schedule. Her steelworker wages allowed her the expense of childcare 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 & gender discrimination. The national steelworkers leadership had pushed through the Experimental Negotiating Agreement(ENA), a no-strike clause in exchange for concessions from 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, Puerala 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 or 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. Puerala 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  a lot of resentment toward the women. I think the company knew it would.”—from conversations 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 recover 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 conversations.

Puerala 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.”

Clean Moms

Puerala 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 important of working class solidarity against social injustice. Peurala herself was also active in the anti-war 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 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 is 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 SobotkaThe Wire

Today  the dismantling of US manufacturing is usually blamed on “greedy unions”. That’s nonsense of course. For a brief period, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, 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 topdown 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 US 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 steel worker friend of mine who did know her said that in addition to being a a tough smart negotiator, she also played a mean hand of poker. Several retired steelworkers have contacted me and told of their high regard for her integrity.

Sources Consulted

Interview with Alice Puerala by Elizabeth Balanoff

Harold Gibbons from Wikipedia

Alice Peurala Regains Reins Of Steel Union Local By James Warren.

Alice Peurala, 58, Steel Union Leader By James Warren

The Role of Management in the Decline of the American Steel Industry by Robert E. Ankli and Eva Sommer

Chicago’s Southeast Side Industrial History by Rod Sellers

Union women: forging feminism in the United Steelworkers of America by Mary Margaret Fonow

Rusted dreams: hard times in a steel community by David BensmanRoberta Lynch

Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices by Brigid O’Farrell & Joyce L. Kornbluh

 

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Comments

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Wonderful, enlightening post, Bob. She was a working class heroine. So sad that the corporations have sold us out and sent manufacturing overseas. I hope we get it back. Rated for integrity.
Thanks for the wonderful tribute to Alice. She was an exceptional woman, encouraged and backed up the younger women and she never bit her tongue. She was also a great cook, and you're right, a sharp poker player. All the men respected her whether they liked her or not, and even more impressive, their wives and the clerical staff at the union hall respected her. I can remember one wife telling me she never worried when she knew her husband was out all night playing poker with Alice and the guys cuz she knew Alice would keep her eye on him.
Alice was also indefatigueable. Once she asked me at the union hall to do her a favor since she had an important meeting and couldn't leave. She gave me her house keys and asked me to bring back some medicine. She had taken the chemotherapy medicine that morning and now it was time for the antidote. If she didn't take it by a certain time that afternoon it could be fatal, so she wanted me to pick up the antidote. I rushed out for it in a panic of course. She, however, was more concerned with the grievance meeting than her meds.
Sadly she died anyway a few months later. I still think of her often.
I don't recall hearing much about her but we need more people like her and other protestors now; the corporations are trying, with a great deal of success, to roll back everything she and others accomplished and it will come at a bigger long term cost if they're not stopped since the wars and environmental damage around the world are escalating and this can't go on indefinitely.

It may not seem quite as bad in some areas if people keep their heads in the sands but that wont last forever.
Amazing. I had never heard about her until this post. You also sourced so beautifully...this must have been in the works for awhile.
Blessings...J
Former teachers' local union president and history/English teacher here: Well done. Timely. We need to resurrect the term "working class". I am NOT middle class--even with a doctorate and a decade as a college professor--I have always, proudly declared myself working class.
Roberta Wood: Thank you so much for sharing your recollections of Alice Puerala. I was teaching high school on the West and South Sides of the city and never set foot in South Works.

Yet I knew about Alice and the wonderful things that she and the other District 31 activists were doing. I read about your work in the mills for the first time when I was researching this article. All of you had so much to teach us about what intelligence, persistence and a faith in working class solidarity can accomplish.
I thank Erica for pointing me here, otherwise I'd have missed on reading about someone I'd not heard of before. Thank you for your informative piece.

With all due respect, I have one objection to the "Armenian genocide" link you've placed. It is neither informative nor relevant; and I find it inaccurate because no Armenian (or other nationality)would have been accepted into the Turkish army. Just a minor point of correction, unrelated to the topic, of course.
Rated♥
According to the Armenian Youth Council, 40,000 Armenians were serving in the Turkish Army at the outbreak of WWI. According to their sources, these men were forcibly disarmed and put into what amounted to slave labor battalions.

Alice Peurala told the story of her dad's time in the Turkish Army as related by him when she was interviewed by Elizabeth Balanoff. http://www2.roosevelt.edu/library/oralhistory/31-Peurala.pdf

I realize there is much controversy Turkey and Armenia, but in my opinion, her dad's account helped shape her life's dedication to social justice.
Thank you, Erica K, for directing me here. This is a wonderfully composed tribute. I learned much and enjoyed the read immensely. Excellent post. R
I love learning about people like Alice Peurala. So much history and so many impressive people who worked so hard to make this country a success, but they are always overshadowed by the "bosses" whose only goal is the money.

Questions- How do these bosses expect to make money once we're all picked clean? And how do the people with the anti-social agenda always end up in charge?
I heard again today that corporate profits are, once again, higher than ever.

Thanks for this.
Excellent post! Very inspiring! [r]