Curtis Strong

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Curtis Strong...died on Sept. 16. 2003.

Life of activism

Strong was born in Westpoint, Miss., in 1915 and raised in Dixon, Ill., where he attended the same high school as President Ronald Reagan. Big for his age, he was a star on the track, basketball and football teams. After school, Curtis moved to Gary, Ind., to live with his sister and continue his education in hopes of becoming an Air Force pilot.

In 1937 he hired into U.S. Steel and became a member of Local 1014 of the Steelworkers Union. He was a witness that same year to the police riot against marching steelworkers at Republic Steel in Chicago, which resulted in ten deaths and is referred to as the Memorial Day Massacre. “I ran like hell when the shooting began,” Strong said.

Curtis was a griever in the coke ovens for over 20 years. He built a powerful Black caucus in the plant which was instrumental in changing discriminatory practices and rules not only for workers in the coke ovens, but in the rest of the huge U.S. Steel complex and eventually the entire steel industry. He put an end to everything from segregated locker rooms to “white only” jobs like pipefitters and other maintenance jobs.

Strong recognized that Black workers could not fight discrimination without the support of white workers and saw the building of Black-white unity as a key element in moving the union forward. White workers also benefited from some of the changes like job preferences over new hires.

Ruth Needleman, labor history professor at Indiana University, summarized the situation in her book Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: “You have to remember,” Strong told her, “we’re talking about a time when we had some extreme leftists in the plant. We had some members of the [Communist] Party in the plant, and progressives. Back then we had a saying: ‘Black plus white makes red!’ Because I had a white man as my assistant [griever],” Strong added, “one of us had to be a communist!”

As a leader in the National Ad Hoc Committee of Black Steelworkers, Curtis carried the fight to end discrimination within the union to the convention floor. His outspoken approach almost got him killed when he was thrown out a third storey hotel window by “union goons,” and narrowly missed landing on a spiked wrought iron fence. He was eventually appointed to the staff of the International Union where he continued a struggle for Black representation in the union.

Curtis was also active in the community helping build and lead the local NAACP chapter. His wife Jeannette Strong, who also was a steelworker activist and head of the NAACP, traveled to Mississippi to participate in the voter registration campaigns of the ’60s. He was also a leading figure in the 1968 campaign that elected Richard Hatcher mayor of Gary.

Curtis inspired generations of labor and community activists, including retired steelworker and current Calumet Township Trustee, Mary Elgin. Elgin was a child when she first heard Curtis speaking out on the radio and didn’t meet him until the 1970s. “Curtis and I were on the same page. Being a woman in the mill and an activist in the union, he provided me courage by telling me not to worry about the consequences of speaking out and standing my ground for what I believed in.”

Steelworker Paul Kaczocha, who spent three weeks with Curtis in the Soviet Union in 1983 and who knew him for almost 30 years, said, “He cannot be replaced. Curtis helped shape my workplace, my city and my country. Few people have a resumé like his. The world is a better place because of him.”

He is survived by his brother, Archie Strong, and four children: Curtidean Haynes, Penelope Blackmore, Erica Mason and her husband Demitrious, and a son Lawrence Strong, now living in the Philippines. [1]

Communist Party's May Day Salute

In 1995 the Communist Party USA newspaper People's Weekly World, published a "May Day salute" to the "heroes in the class war zone". More than 100 unionists/activists endorsed the call, mostly known affiliates, or members of the Communist Party.

Curtis Strong, USWA Staff 9retired) Indiana, was one of those listed[2].

Steelworker struggles

Paul Kaczocha was barely 21 when I first met Ed Sadlowski. Al Samter, a U.S. Steel coke oven worker with a long history of struggle in the mill and the union, asked me if he could bring Ed over to talk to me about his campaign to run for director of District 31 of the Steelworkers. The district which covered the Gary-Chicago area, District 31, was the largest.

Al was a veteran of union struggles. He was a former Bronx New Yorker who, as a young newlywed communist, had moved to Gary in 1949 to be a union activist.

Al brought Ed, 12 years my senior, to my apartment in Gary one summer evening. I remember thinking that Ed, who at the time was an overweight staff representative for the union, was the stereotypic fat cat union rep. However, he talked the talk of trying to change the union and take out the same people who had run the district for the 30 years since the union’s inception.

I was spellbound as Ed’s rap touched a nerve in me. I was a young new union representative at a shop full of young people at a plant that was the newest built basic steel mill in the U.S. – Bethlehem Steel’s Burns Harbor, Indiana plant. It remains the last basic steel mill built in the U.S. making steel with coke ovens and blast furnaces and finishing it in rolling mills.

Like Ed’s father, my grandfather helped build the union. He had been a staff representative for the same district that Ed was trying to lead. My grandfather warned me to stay away from Ed because, he said, he hung out with communists. Ed convinced me to join the cause of changing the union by taking it over. “You CAN beat City Hall,” he was fond of saying.

Like me, hundreds of steelworkers became convinced that change was possible. We went into action around the district to organize for the Sadlowski campaign, a movement which became bigger than Ed himself.

Organizing for the February 1973 election was fast and furious. It was done out of South Chicago at a campaign office down the street from the U.S. Steel Local 65 hall where Ed was once the president and where he got his nickname “Oil-Can Eddie.” It was a hall that was named after Hilding Anderson, a 29-year-old known as a red in some circles. Hilding Anderson, along with nine others, was killed by the police at the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre.

My local was one of the first to nominate Ed to get him on the ballot, and the local’s election vote also went for him. However, the election was fraught with corruption. Ed was declared the loser by a narrow margin. He immediately filed a federal law suit which was settled with a federally supervised election held in November 1974.

Organizing continued after the loss in ’73. The momentum built by all the new people energized by the first campaign made for a landslide win in the rematch between the “official” candidate, Sam Evett, and Ed. Leading this organizing, as in the first match, were Jim Balanoff from Inland Steel’s Local 1010, Jim’s brother Clem Balanoff, Ola Kennedy, Curtis Strong, one of the first African Americans appointed to the USWA staff, Cliff Mezo, also from 1010, a fresh young Pennsylvania attorney, George Terrell, and an assortment of old and young union activists, men and women, Black and Brown.

Rank and file caucuses eventually sprung up in local unions across District 31 which spanned metropolitan Chicago through Indiana, from Hammond, East Chicago and Gary to South Bend. A compilation of many of those local organizations was even formed later on, called the Indiana Steelworkers Caucus.

Immediately after Ed was elected director, the campaign for the 1977 USWA international president began. The rank-and-file energy of the district campaign, “Steelworkers Fightback,” spread across the U.S. and Canada. The national campaign brought in old union activists like George Edwards from Cleveland and young ones too, like Bruce Bostick at U.S. Steel in Lorain, Ohio.

Based on the movement, the 1976 local union elections brought many new faces to the union leadership, like Bill Andrews and Mike Olszanski at Local 1010, including my election for Local 6787 president. Ed had been convinced by George Troy, who became financial secretary of our local, and me one night in Chicago to give a written endorsement of our slate in that election. Those new leaders and the rebel old ones went to the convention in Las Vegas to try and change the union. A lot of hell was raised on the convention floor in Las Vegas from locals across the country. The stage was set for the January election the following year.

Sensing this surge of opposition and responding to the pressure, the “Official Family” added another vice president position to the Board which they filled with Leon Lynch, an African American union representative who had originated in District 31.

Campaigning by Ed took on a scope larger than running for president of the U.S., since the Union spanned not only coast to coast but also Canada. But the election was lost. Many involved in the campaign felt it was stolen in Canada.

The narrow loss of “Steelworkers Fightback” did not stop the push for reform in the union. Women such as Roberta Wood and Alice Peurala, both of Local 65, became more involved and formed an active Women’s Caucus. Alice was elected president of Local 65, the first woman to head a basic steel local. Eventually, the right to vote on the contract was won and women were elected to international offices of authority. The Steelworkers Union was 1.5 million strong at the time of the Sadlowski presidential bid.[3]


  1. Remembering Curtis Strong, 1915-2003 october 3 2003
  2. People's Weekly World May 6 1995 p 2
  3. NEWS Ed Sadlowski – Remembrance of a life even bigger than the manAugust 7, 2018 10:10 AM CDT BY PAUL KACZOCHA]