CHICAGO – In the early 1900s, American working women demonstrated for union rights and the right to vote. Their fight inspired the International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910 to declare March 8 International Women’s Day. Today, the women of Chicago’s Wisconsin Steel are continuing this fight for workers’ rights.
On March 28, 1980, the Wisconsin Steel community faced the greatest tragedy of its 105-year history. The plant closed suddenly without paying over 3,000 workers their benefits. Paychecks bounced and the one-company union folded. The workers were suddenly jobless, without medical insurance or earned benefits and without an organization.
The story has been told before in these pages of how Frank Lumpkin came forward to organize a Save Our Jobs Committee. In the end, they did not save their jobs but did succeed in forcing the employers to pay the workers $19 million. This is the story of some of the women who made that victory possible.
In the 1970s, African Americans and women filed a lawsuit against the steel companies. They won a consent decree that required hiring and opening up apprenticeships for women and workers of color.
As a result, Wisconsin Steel hired 500 women. But there was nothing in the court order that said the company had to keep the women. Many of the women working in production had already been laid off before the plant closed.
The women who came forward to join Save Our Jobs were mostly spouses of the steelworkers, and community activists. By the hundreds, women joined the marches, attended rallies and rode buses to Springfield, Ill. and Washington DC. Here is the story of four of their leaders.
Juanita Andrade was raised with stories of the Mexican Revolution, proud of her aunt
who was a guerrillera. Pancho Villa was camped outside Mapimi, Durango, and had heard that government troops were on the way. Juanita’s aunt, who lived in Mapimi, was assigned to listen for an approaching train. She waited for hours, her ear pressed against the railroad rails. Then her sensitive ear picked up a slight vibration from distant troop trains. She alerted Pancho Villa, who was able to surprise the government troops.
Andrade’s mother proudly told the World that la Valentina, the famous guerrillera, often visited their Mapimi home and slept in her bed. To anyone who knew Andrade’s revolutionary background, it was no surprise that she became a leader of the Women’s Committee of Save Our Jobs.
Andrade’s husband José was the work partner of Frank Lumpkin. Still, she and Beatrice Lumpkin, Frank’s wife, never met until after the mill shut down.
However, the whole Lumpkin family knew and enjoyed Juanita’s tamales and gorditas, leftovers from the huge lunches she packed for her husband. Her cooking skills helped keep Save Our Jobs going for 17 years of fundraising dinners and rallies. But after the dinners were cooked and served, Juanita took off her apron and made sure she had her chance to speak.
When the mill closed in 1980, the Andrades had two children still in grade school and one in college. What would they do? Few of the Mexican-American workers’ wives had worked outside of the home.
Steel’s rotating shifts and weekend work put the whole burden on the woman to prepare family meals and take care of the children. When the mill closed, it was the steelworker who was home, day and night, and the wife who had to go out and work.
Juanita Andrade tried everything. She cooked tamales by the hundreds to sell. She baked huge pans of flan for parties. And she cared for small children in her home while their parents worked. Then she went outside the home to work in factories, whenever they were hiring. But that work was usually seasonal, such as at Jay’s Potato Chips and Solo Cup. The work was hard and the pay was minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Andrade never missed a meeting, demonstration or picket line in 17 years. She joined the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and became a part of the national fight for women’s rights. Her militant determination inspired her children. Despite the hardships, all three children finished college, earned advanced degrees and did community service in a child care center. In recognition of the family achievement, the Andrades were named Midwest Hispanic Family of the Year.
Juanita summed it up best, saying of the struggle: “La lucha es un arbol con las raices y del fruto de esas raices nació en nuestras esperanzas, fé y unidad, tiempo, sacrificios (en el sol y en el frio), contra todas las adversidades.” “The struggle is a tree with its roots, and the fruit of these roots, born in our hope, faith and unity, time, sacrifices (in the heat and the cold), overcoming all adverse conditions.”
Rhoda Thompson, like most African-American women in Chicago, was working when Wisconsin Steel suddenly closed. Her husband, Robert, had been one of the first six African Americans hired there, breaking down the company policy of refusing to hire African Americans. When the mill closed, he had over 37 years in the plant.
The Thompsons’ son was grown and was also working at Wisconsin Steel at the time of the unexpected shutdown. The practice of hiring relatives made the work force more tightly knit but left whole families devastated by the plant closing.
Thompson liked her job at Northwestern Hospital. She helped the nurses and learned many skills. After her husband became unemployed, she continued to work for 10 more years.
Robert had Rhoda’s full support when he volunteered as the unpaid office manager of Save Our Jobs, a position he held for 21 years. Rhoda was among the first women to welcome the Save Our Jobs organization. Many women were saying, “The Save Our Jobs fight kept my husband from going crazy. It gave him something to do to help himself and the other workers.”
Thompson took her support one step further by becoming an active member of the women’s committee. At first, she helped the committee raise money by baking her famous pound cakes. Then she began to attend the meetings with Robert. When Save Our Jobs decided to march in front of the closed mill to demand their benefits, Rhoda was ready.
Her hospital job gave her a choice of shifts. So she marched with the steelworkers during the day and worked at the hospital at night. In 1990, she retired from her hospital job. That gave her more time to take part in the Wisconsin Steelworkers’ long fight for justice.
One of the first to join Save Our Jobs Women’s Committee, Beatrice Lumpkin was an experienced labor activist and Communist. At 19, she took