Mary Pullins: Steel union pioneer

Pages from workers’ lives

The steelworkers’ retiree meeting sprung to attention when Mary Pullins walked in. Veteran of 24 years at US Steel and only 103 years old, she walked with sure steps to the speaker’s stand.

“What do you think of the Bush plan to privatize Social Security?” some retirees asked. Pullins clenched her fist and drew her thumb across her throat. “He’s trying to cut our throats. Let’s stop him,” she said. The meeting roared its approval. Her fighting spirit is an inspiration to Chicago SOAR (Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees).

Pullins invited some of the SOAR women to visit her. We rang the bell and her strong voice rang out, “Come on up!” We had to climb the two flights of stairs that Pullins climbs every day. “I walked 116 days on the picket line to fight for what you are enjoying today,” she said. The Steelworkers’ Union won that fight in 1959. But it wasn’t easy.





From Mississippi to Chicago

Little in Mary Pullins life was easy. Born in Aberdeen, Miss., in 1901, Mary Pullins always had a strong streak of independence. At 17, she ran away to get married. When she returned, her father said, “I have never seen anyone run off from a place where you got free rent, free food and free clothing. You must be trying to better yourself!” Asked if she had bettered herself, Mary said, “Oh yes! I got out of the fields and got away from chopping cotton.”

Widowed and the mother of a 4-year-old son, Pullins moved to Chicago to find that “better life.” There she met and married Samuel Pullins, who became her lifetime partner. “He was a charter member of SEIU Local 25,” she proudly said. “He agreed with everything I was doing for the union.” In 1941 her son, Richard Pegue, was drafted “to help stop Hitler from taking over this country.” That same year, Mary Pullins went to work in the tunnels underneath Chicago’s business district. Her job was trucking freight. She pushed a two-wheeler on which she could balance a 500-pound load. “Sometimes,” she said as she raised her arms overhead, “I can still feel it.” The pay was about $7 a week.

When she heard they were paying 41 cents an hour at Carnegie Steel, she decided to apply. She proudly says that she answered the call of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War II, FDR called on women to go into mills and factories to replace men going off to fight. Women workers helped win the war against fascism.

Pullins was hired the same day she applied at Carnegie Steel, later know as U.S. Steel. There she became a union activist. Her local union paper carried her picture with the title, “Go-getter.” She said she got that title by recruiting 100 members into the union. At 103, the title of “go-getter” still fits her.





Union counselor

In 1943, the union sent her to a counselors’ class at the University of Chicago. At the class she met fellow student Charlie Hayes who went on to become a Packinghouse Union leader and a U.S. congressman. As a counselor, Pullins visited the families of steelworkers in the military to find out if they were in need. Then she would arrange for help, whether it was paying the rent or providing medical care.

Her first job at South Works was as a swing grinder. “We rolled stainless steel; we could make anything there,” she said. Women did every kind of job, working on one-quarter-inch to 5-inch stock in the plate mill.

On her next job in the mill, she had to carry test reports to the physical metallurgy lab. The foreman, a great big guy, must have thought she wasn’t working fast enough. He told her, “Sister, you have to take those reports to the lab every hour.” She told him, “My daddy never told me I had a brother who looked like you. If you want to talk to me, call me by my name or by my number.”

“You’re right,” the foreman admitted. Later, she saw her evaluation form. It said, “Very good worker. Learns fast. But very stubborn.”





Fair employment

Pullins always fought racism. In 1941, FDR created the Fair Employment Practices Committee. For the first time, many companies were forced to end their “whites only” employment practices. African Americans were already working at South Works. Still, the superintendent wanted to limit the number. He said, “African Americans are only 17 percent of the population. So we are not going to hire more African Americans than 17 percent.” There were other forms of racist hiring practices in the mill, Pullins said. African American women had to have high school diplomas to be hired. “That job didn’t require a high school diploma,” she explained. The company knew that. They hired white women for the job who had only a sixth-grade education.

Wages were frozen during World War II. When the war ended, Pullins said, “We asked for a $2 an hour raise. We had to strike just to catch up on our pay.” When she reached age 65, she had to retire. Her pension of $343 a month was not bad 40 years ago. It is still just $343 a month. Only $180 is left after her co-pay for medical coverage is deducted. But her Social Security has kept up with the cost of living and is her main support. She will fight anyone who tries to privatize Social Security.

When she retired in 1966, the union presented her with a bronze medallion. It reads: “Mary S. Pullins, for loyal service rendered, is an Honorary Member of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 65.” She has also earned a place in the City of Chicago’s Women’s Hall of Fame. On May 29, at the commemoration of the Republic Steel Massacre of 1937, the Steelworkers will give her yet another honor, the prestigious Union Pioneer Award.