SOARs George Edwards: Sparkplug for rank & file activism

George Edwards points out he’s the only unpaid worker at the Steelworkers’ Gateway Center headquarters in Pittsburgh. The 87-year-old veteran of the Lorain, Ohio, US Steel mill now wields a phone and a keyboard instead of a pair of calipers, but he’s working just as hard on the class struggle as he did throughout his 39 years in mill. He is putting his energy into building what he calls “probably the most activist organization in the Steelworkers” — the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.

Last month, USWA President Leo Gerard appointed Edwards to the position of SOAR Board Member Emeritus. In his letter to Edwards, Gerard said the appointment was “based on your exemplary record of service to the USWA … and your years of dedicated service to our retirees through your activism” with SOAR.

SOAR held its 20th national convention this week in Las Vegas, just before the USWA convention. Edwards is a charter member. Twenty years ago, when he learned that many steel retirees didn’t belong to a SOAR chapter through their local, he got busy. Now his Pittsburgh-area chapter has some 400 members.

Edwards recalls an early example of SOAR activism. In 1986, when LTV went bankrupt, it unilaterally cut retirees’ health care. Retirees were fired up. A busload of SOAR members traveled to New York for the bankruptcy hearing.

“When we got there, most seats were taken by lawyers in Brooks Brothers suits,” he said. The judge cleared the last eight rows of the chamber for the retirees. They sat in their SOAR T-shirts through the proceedings. The judge ruled against the company. “That really helped us organize SOAR,” Edwards said. “We grew pretty fast then.”

Today’s retirees “have an activist memory,” says Edwards. “These are people who remember the organizing and early struggles of the union that set precedents for today. They participated in strikes and won victories.”

Edwards is happy about the USWA’s grassroots, fightback direction. During the Cold War, when the left was kicked out of unions, the membership was deactivated. “The union got away from voluntarism. Now they’re getting it back,” he said. Labor 2004’s massive membership activism “has its roots” in the volunteer organizing spirit that built the union, says Edwards.

The rank-and-file upsurge in the 1970s helped propel that reinvigoration. Edwards was co-chair of the National Steelworkers Rank and File Committee. “The idea was to make the union more democratic, more of a class struggle union,” he says.

Seeing the importance of multiracial unity for a stronger union, the group pushed for greater representation of African Americans and other workers of color and women in the union’s leadership.

Edwards is proud that, at the USWA’s 1946 convention, he read a resolution from his local asking that the union name an African American vice president. “It took 30 years for it to happen,” he notes. In 1976, as a direct result of the rank-and-file upsurge candidacy of Ed Sadlowski for USWA president, Leon Lynch became the union’s first Black vice president.

Since the 1970s, Edwards says, the Steelworkers union “has moved much more to a class-conscious orientation.”

Edwards’ life story could be titled “From little house on the prairie to the steel mills of Ohio.”

He was born in 1918 in a homesteading family in western South Dakota. His family lived in a tarpaper shack. Later his father built a sod house. “It was a rugged life,” he remembers. “When a blizzard came, you had to crawl out the window to dig out the door.”

His father farmed and taught school for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Later he gave up farming and taught school on Indian reservations around the country. Some of that time George lived on reservations and went to school with Native American children.

Edwards got a degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee, then went to Oberlin Seminary, aiming to become a minister. He left the seminary in 1942 and headed to Lorain to get a job in the mill, with the idea of starting a labor church. Once he got in at the mill, he says, he found working with the union so productive, he’s been at it ever since.

Edwards is married to fellow retired steelworker Denise Weinbrenner Edwards, a member of the Wilkinsburg (Pa.) Borough Council.

Before retiring in 1981, Edwards worked as a machinist and then as an apprentice instructor. He held various offices in Local 1104 including vice president, and was president of the Lorain County CIO. He was the first editor of the local’s newspaper, Lorain Labor Leader.

Edwards is not resting on these credentials. Look for him at the next SOAR picket line.