When I hired into the steel mill, Lorain Works, US Steel, in 1970, it was a monstrous place, smoking, churning out tons of steel, with thousands of workers going in and out almost constantly. Around 9,000 workers they said.

The town of Lorain was/is an old mill town, with more bars than churches and more churches than whatever was next. I hadn’t known then there were as many different nationalities on earth as the number of different nationality clubs that were there, supporting the many nationalities of the workers recruited by U.S. Steel to work there (always looking for ways to pit one against another).

The mill itself was over 700 acres, dominating the whole town, pushing out around 8 million tons of steel a year. Lorain was said to have the nation’s third largest Puerto Rican community, large Mexican and African American communities, as well as huge numbers of first/second generations of immigrants from every European country. There was a history of left, working class politics here. They had a Socialist mayor in WW I and the Communist Party had a long presence there, with the entire United Steel Workers (USW) Organizing Committee (SWOC) joining the CP in ’42 when the union came to Lorain Works. For many years a large CP club functioned at the mill and were workers/leaders in many other industries/unions.

It was all damned intimidating to me. With my new friend, Miquel Torres, who worked his entire career there on the same job I had, we went to work nightshift, midnight-8, in the Bar Mill. It was so damn intimidating I remember going off into the racks to throw up. We were part of a big hiring wave, which is how mills hire workers. We were the “young guys,” that were products of the ‘60s, civil rights, peace struggles, and we figured we were going to change everything, and have fun doing it.

When we hired in, however, that left legacy that had marked Lorain Works had been brutalized, intimidated, threatened down to George Edwards, who was a Machinist Instructor with around 35 years seniority. The rest of what had been a large, vibrant party, wider left movement had seen arrests, firings, blacklists, blackmail, threats as people were forced to turn on one another, progressive thoughts driven behind closed doors.

But George stayed! No matter how he was threatened, he refused to buckle. He’d been part of the SWOC (after coming to Lorain to organize a “labor church”), founded USW, local 1104’s paper—Lorain Labor Leader, and the first Veteran’s organization after returning from the fight against fascism. He had a long, exemplary record of fighting against racism, having called for African Americans to be part of USW national leadership from the beginning, calling for a multiracial national USWA executive board in n resolution he authored at the union’s founding convention in 1942. George had single handedly broke all-white housing in nearby Amherst (that’s a different article). He was here, and here he’d stay!

George had reached out to some of us, raising the idea of developing something he called a ‘Rank & File Committee,’ which sounded cool. We talked about what issues something like that could be based on/push. We need big raises, and should push for young folks, Blacks, Hispanics, women to be reps, voting on our contract was key, some said. Health care for all (back then also), stop bosses from being able to fire us and we need for all unions to be in one big union. We had great ideas!

Our union, USW local 1104, and the International, were still then dominated by folks who’d come to power heavily influenced by the red-baiting McCarthy era. We really felt they didn’t care what we wanted, cared about, didn’t really want us around at all.

Imagine our surprise a week later when we heard that George had been fired! Had it been government agents? Had he been set up? Had he been beaten up, arrested? We didn’t know, but we kept hearing it had something to do with some pink hard hat.

We eventually found out, and this is the real story.

As Machinist Instructor, George was in charge of teaching that trade to the young apprentices, who the Machine Shop boss, an old conservative guy that markedly did not like civil rights, peaceniks, lefties and especially did not appreciate young radical guys coming into his machine shop with their long hair and beards. He had a solution! He would harass these young punks, make them cut their damned beards off and cut their hair back to “reasonable” lengths. All this was needed, he stated, for “safety.” The young apprentices were not happy and they said so!

As it happened, that boss was walking by where George was eating lunch and noticed that George had painted his hard hat pink. “What the hell is that, Edwards,” he asked?

“Painted it to look like your bald head,” George answered. “I have to help those guys learn a tough trade, and all you’re doing is screwing stuff up---leave them alone and then I’ll repaint it!”

“You have until end of lunch break to paint it back or you’re fired,” yelled boss!

Guess we all know now whether George jumped right up and painted that hat back or not!

However, US Steel now had a real problem. They didn’t have a Machinist Instructor they needed.  They had a whole bunch of pissed off young apprentices and now the Cleveland newspaper had an inner, front-page piece on this guy with a perfect record, on a key job with 30 years seniority who had been fired by US Steel because they didn’t like the color of his hard hat. This was a big negative and they needed out from under it!

Immediately, the discharge was reduced to a 3-day suspension, which they settled quickly in grievance procedure, with the suspension pulled and George paid for time lost.

More importantly, George got ahold of some of us and helped write up a leaflet calling a meeting to organize a Rank & File Committee. We had a packed room, of mostly young folks, and when we left the room, we had a Rank & File Committee.

The interesting thing, and I think certainly applicable today, is that the “perfect issue” to organize that movement was not at all any of the big ideas we had, it was what the workers wanted to fight about. The important thing that we found was that the most important issue always was what the workers were concerned about. If you were there to help folks out when they needed help, if you’re there with others and bring all our power united to the issue, workers will turn back there when the next issue, and the next one, come up.

As well, from this insignificant little group of steelworkers, developed a multi-racial movement of workers that fought, helped win transfer rights then denied African American workers, right to vote on our contracts, more reps of color, women, and overall, a fighting union that proudly stood for the principles that the SWOC fought for in the first place.

But, before I end this, I do think readers would appreciate one other, related little story.

As that Rank & File movement grew, new committees were set up, expanded, at other mills. At the big Burns Harbor mill, one such committee emerged, with future USW local 6787 president Paul Kaczocha as one of their leaders. At a regional meeting of Rank & File folks in Cleveland, Paul, who was also a machinist brought up that they had some new asshole boss that he heard was from Lorain that was harassing everyone. You guessed it, same guy!

Well, we had a bunch of leftover “George Edwards for President” stickers from the first election the Lorain group had run in. Got those to Paul. The next time we saw him, he laughed like hell.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “Got the stickers to everyone, every worker in the shop, and when the boss came out for the morning meeting, he opened his mouth, said nothing, shut it and turned around and went back into the office.”

The arm of working-class solidarity is a long one!