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Abel, Iorwith Wilbur

Born: 1908 AD
Died: 1987 AD
Nationality: American
Categories: Labor Leader

1908 – Iorwith Wilber Abel was born on August 11, 1908, in Magnolia, Ohio, a small town fifteen miles south of the industrial city of Canton.

1925 – 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.

1930 – Desperate for work, 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. He was married in June 1930.

1936 – 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. 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.

1937 – Murray appointed Abel to the SWOC staff as a field representative.

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).

1952 – 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.

1964 – 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.

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.

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.

1977 – Abel voluntarily retired from office, 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.

1987 – On August 10, 1987, Abel died of cancer a day before his 79th birthday and was survived by his second wife and two daughters.