Alice Peurala, Unionist and Socialist

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Dot Peters

ALICE PEURALA, president of Local 65, United Steel Workers of America, the only woman so far ever to head a local union in basic steel in this country, died June 19 at the age of 58, after a three-year battle with cancer.

Like Steve Zeluck, whose comrade and friend she was for over thirty years, she stands as one of the greats in union work and revolutionary socialist politics. Alice’s life may not make the high school labor history books; the period of history in which she lived was not one where millions of American workers rose in battle. It is the leaders of those sorts of battles who tend to get recorded, yet the struggles she headed, the methods she advocated and the kind of leader she was in the finest tradition of working-class revolutionary socialist principle and practice.

Alice Peurala was born in St. Louis, the child of Armenian immigrants. After high school graduation she became a cashier in a St. Louis men’s clothing store and was active in organizing members for the St. Louis local of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, then headed by Hal Gibbons, himself heavily influenced by revolutionary socialist ideas.

The union lived and grew on the political understanding that its strength depended in all things on the understanding and direct action of its membership. Thus it was that the local met a takeover threat from the Teamsters by enlarging its size and strength in a “Ten in Ten” organizing drive-signing up 10,000 new members in ten weeks, with every member on the streets before and after work and during lunch, talking union and bringing in the unorganized.

Alice, still in her teens and still a department store cashier, organized for the union and also served on the governing board of the union’s Labor Health Institute, where workers and their families received free medical care from 57 parttime doctors.

Her early training in rank-and-file action laid the groundwork for what she did afterwards. During this period she also joined the Congress of Racial Equality and was active in its desegregation sit-ins.

In 1950 Alice left St. Louis for Chicago, working as a clerk in the downtown store of the York apparel chain where our union was conducting an organizing drive.

By this time, well into the McCarthy period, both of us were looking for political direction as well as deeper understanding of how to build unions.

Farrell Dobbs, that master union strategist, was then organizer for the Chicago branch of the Socialist Workers Party. It was he and Steve who recruited us both. Alice remained a member of the SWP until the early 1970s.

We worked for a while in the confectionery industry and Alice then went to the Stewart-Warner plant where she led yet another major organizing drive for the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). The drive was defeated in the end, due to the union leadership’s inaction and hostility to any rank-and-file control of the organizing process.

In 1953 Alice got a job at U.S. Steel’s South Works plant, where she was to spend more than thirty years.

A Long Battle

Early on, she became a leader of women in the mill. She maintained her activity as a union militant while at the same time raising her daughter long before there was any sensitivity to the problems single parents faced. She worked many of those years on a swing shift.

In 1967 she filed one of the first sex discrimination suits, charging U.S. Steel with denying her a promotion because of her sex.

Every step along the way was a struggle, including a six-month challenge by the company to block the suit on a technicality. The case did not get to trial until March, 1969; that May, Alice finally won her promotion. Her fight forced the company to end the practice of segregating women into separate seniority units.

Typically, Alice used her victory to encourage other women to fight for their rights. She led the fight for locker room showers for women (the men already had them), as always, involving the women themselves in the action.

Her reputation as a tough and unrelenting advocate of workers’ rights won her respect among the men in the mill as well. Even before her election in 1976 as one of the ten union grievers in the shop, they were following her advice for job actions and strategies on safety, crew sizes and shift assignments.

She helped individuals and groups of rank-and-filers challenge lung-destroying working conditions, locomotives with faulty braking devices and injuries not properly treated by company doctors. She relied not only on bargaining with the company but on the involvement of the ranks themselves in their working lives. In 1973-74 she helped organize a committee which filed a legal challenge against the union’s no-strike agreement.

In 1978 she was a delegate to the national steel union convention and a leader of its Rank-and-File caucus, which sought to gain for the membership the right to vote on contracts. The caucus received about 10% of the vote, although it was dealt a severe blow when two of its “reform” leaders, instead of presenting the caucus’ resolution, supported a “compromise” engineered by the International. Alice pointed out to the two of them the impermissibility of leaders acting without informing or getting permission from the caucus they were to represent.

The next year the 7,500-member Local 65 elected her president. During Alice’s first term as president, U.S. Steel began its retrenchment, claiming to need protection against foreign imports and seeking union support for that position.

Alice pointed out that protectionism would not save steel workers’ jobs, that the inability of U.S. Steel to compete was the result of the company’s failure to invest in and modernize its own plant, preferring to put its profits into other industries. When U.S. Steel began to ask for givebacks she warned that these too would not save jobs; the company was unwilling to put its promise of a new rail mill into writing.

Her opposition in the local, supported by the International, attacked her militancy, blaming militancy for job losses; a candidate supported by the International defeated her in 1982.

What she had predicted took place. Despite givebacks, employment at the mill dropped to less than 1,000, and the new rolling mill was never built.

Last year, although the members knew she was suffering from advanced cancer, they voted her local president again. During this last year, Alice continued to besiege company managers with grievances over contracting-out work to non-union shops and to fight to keep South Works from shutting down.

I visited her two weeks before her death, in the apartment one block from the South Works plant where she had lived so long. Despite pain and weakness, she continued to watch the news, took time out to insert a check from me for Local P-9 into the envelope that would also include a check from her local union, and to castigate with characteristic vigor a union friend who dropped by to discuss supporting some local politician.

To her death Alice knew which side she was on. She knew that corporations could not be relied on to provide the good life and that no partnership between them and the workers would redound to the workers’ benefit.

She worked willingly with “liberal” and “reform-minded” bureaucrats, but without illusion as to their reliability. If the rank and file did not follow her advice, she did not cast them out in favor of handing leadership to others, but said merely. “We didn’t get our people out. We didn’t work hard enough.”

She never lied to her membership; she said what was, even when it cost her official position. She knew that an informed rank and file relying only on its own power is the only achiever of gain, even in the short run.

The obituaries that have appeared in the daily press have pointed to her militancy and to her uniqueness among labor leaders, conveying in a way that she was an accidental happening.

In fact, she was among the unique, but her work was not accidental. It was the result of her revolutionary socialist philosophy, of her knowledge that revolutionary theory and practice cannot be separated. Alice’s trade union work was part of that practice.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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