Iorwith Wilber Abel

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Iorwith Wilber Abel

Labor organizer Iorwith Wilber Abel (1908-1987) helped introduce industrial unionism during the 1930s. He later served 13 years as president of the United Steelworkers of America.

Iorwith Wilber Abel was born on August 11, 1908, in Magnolia, Ohio, a small town fifteen miles south of the industrial city of Canton. Abel was reared in a typical working-class family by parents of mixed ethnic origins. His father, John, a skilled blacksmith, was of German background, and his mother Welsh. Abel attended the local elementary schools and graduated from Magnolia High School. In 1925 he went to work for the American Sheet and Tin Mill Company in Canton, where he became a skilled iron molder. Abel changed jobs frequently, finding employment in the 1920s with the Malleable Iron Company and Timken Roller Bearing, among other Canton firms. He also found time to study for two years at the Canton Business College. Then in 1930 the Great Depression hit and Abel found himself unemployed. Desperate for work (he had married in June 1930), he took a job in a brickyard where he did unskilled labor for twelve hours a day at minimal wages. Abel subsequently claimed that his experience as an "exploited" worker taught him the need for social reform and the virtues of trade unionism.

By the middle of the 1930s Abel again had a job as a skilled foundryman with the Timken Company. There he participated actively in the labor upheaval of the 1930s which gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and industrial unionism for the nation's mass-production workers. In 1936 he helped found Local 1123 of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) at Timken and served successively as the local's financial secretary, vice president, and president. He was known around Canton as a union hell-raiser and in one year alone allegedly led 42 wildcat (unauthorized) strikes. But he also served as a responsible, competent union official, one who caught the eye of SWOC president Philip Murray.

In 1937 Murray appointed Abel to the SWOC staff as a field representative. Five years later, in February 1942, Murray appointed him director of SWOC District 27 in the Canton region and that same year he was elected to the position by the first constitutional convention of the United Steelworkers of America (USA). He held the district director's position for ten years, until the death of Philip Murray in 1952, when Abel moved up to the secretary-treasurer's office. Abel served as secretary-treasurer for twelve years, during which time he traveled around most of the United States and Canada meeting various local union officers and acquainting himself with the grievances of members. He played a major role in three national steel strikes and kept in closer touch with rank-and-file union members than the increasingly distant and debonair union president, David McDonald.

Elected USA President

As McDonald's aloof leadership style precipitated discontent among USA members, Abel in November 1964 announced his candidacy for the union presidency. In a heated campaign Abel charged McDonald with "tuxedo unionism" and with selling out the workers to the bosses through the steel industry's Human Relations Committee, which was supposed to eliminate strikes. He promised to be more militant and to bargain harder with employers. The election proved so bitter and contested that more than a month passed before final results were tabulated. Abel won by a margin of a little more than 10,000, of which over 7,000 came from Canadian locals. In December 1965, Abel was also elected to a vice presidency of the AFL-CIO.

Although he had promised to give rank-and-file members a greater voice in the union and to be more aggressive in bargaining with employers, Abel behaved in a manner similar to McDonald. In practice, he preferred to reach accommodations with employers rather than call workers out on strike. As he watched technological change raise productivity and reduce the need for labor, Abel sought to win union members a shorter work week, earlier retirement, better pensions, and more leisure time. Working cooperatively with members of the steel industry and federal officials, Abel at first won many of his goals. But as foreign competition increasingly threatened the steel industry in the 1970s, the union found itself on the defensive. Thus in 1973 Abel signed an agreement with the steel companies which promised to eliminate strikes for a four-year period. The so-called Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA) worked well between 1973 and 1977 and was renewed that year. This arrangement was later abandoned when the steel industry went into recession.

When Abel voluntarily retired from office in 1977, the union had increased its membership by over 40 percent, from under one million members to 1.4 million. Abel had campaigned for laws which improved workplace health and safety and to insure pension guarantees. One of Abel's chief critics was Edward Sadlowski, a Chicago union leader who ran for the presidency when Abel stepped down. But Abel supported Lloyd McBride, who won.

After retiring, Abel moved to Sun City, Arizona. Right before his death in 1987 he returned to his roots, settling in Malvern, Ohio, a few miles from Canton. Abel died of cancer a day before his 79th birthday and was survived by his second wife and two daughters. As reported by Robert D. McFadden in the New York Times from an interview with the Associated Press a year prior to his death, Abel thought public opinion in regards to organized labor had turned for the worse. He attributed this decline to people forgetting the struggles of early laborers, current fears as to the state of the economy, and the younger element who "think they get benefits like we have and holidays, vacations, medical insurance and all that because employers want to give them that." Until the end, he remained one of the staunchest advocates for workers, but not against management. Rather, he believed in workers working with management to meet common goals.

Further Reading

There is no full biography of Abel. A brief sketch is available inGary Fink, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders (1984). For histories of the steelworkers' union and Abel's role see Lloyd Ulman, The Government of the Steel Workers' Union (1962); John Herling, Right to Challenge: People and Power in the Steelworkers' Union (1972); and the autobiography of David McDonald, Union Man (1969). For Abel's own ideas on unionism and collective bargaining, see the published version of his Fairless Lectures at Carnegie-Mellon University, Collective Bargaining, Labor Relations in Steel: Then and Now (1976). Obituaries can be found in the August 24, 1987 issues of Time and Newsweek.