Obituary: George Edwards / Wilkinsburg resident was USW activist 'every day of his life'

March 24, 1918 - Oct. 5, 2012

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At the 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of the United Steelworkers of America union this year in Cleveland, George Edwards of Wilkinsburg was one of a kind.

He was the only one who had been at both the founding convention in 1942 and the more recent event.

But at the age of 94, Mr. Edwards was living life with his characteristic activism, including marching the entire length of the Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh this year -- only a stroke in 2000 kept him away -- and participating in a USW civil rights conference in Cincinnati in recent weeks.

"He was an activist every day of his life," said USW International President Leo W. Gerard.

Mr. Edwards died Friday at UPMC Shadyside.

Born in the South Dakota town of Philip, Mr. Edwards graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee. He went on to study theology in Oberlin, Ohio.

He took a job as a machinist in a U.S. Steel mill in Lorain, Ohio, starting with a wage of less than $1 an hour in 1942.

He became involved in the existing union organizing committee and went as a guest to the founding USW convention the same year he started at the mill.

While he once had thought of forming a labor church, he decided he could be more effective working with the union.

His son David of New York City said his father was "very idealistic," adding that many idealistic young people were drawn into the revival of the labor movement.

He worked at the Lorain mill as a member of USW Local 1104 until he retired in 1981, speaking out for collective bargaining and civil rights.

He was the founding editor of the "Lorain Labor Leader," a large labor publication.

He walked the strike picket line a number of times, including a 116-day strike in 1959, his family said. He tapped into the company's electricity and enabled fellow picketers in Lorain to listen to their sports teams on the radio.

His third wife, former Wilkinsburg Councilwoman Denise Edwards, who was with him for 31 years, said her husband's first vote in a presidential election was for socialist Norman Thomas, but Mr. Edwards became active in the Communist Party, staying active until his death.

In the Red scare of the 1950s, his Communist affiliation affected his union work.

His wife, a former steelworker who joined him in activist causes, said he was able to keep his steel job, but he was barred from attending union meetings for a number of years.

His name was removed -- and later restored -- from a plaque in the Lorain union hall, she said.

Later, when living in Cleveland, he opened an enclosed closet for renovations and discovered surveillance equipment, Ms. Edwards said.

In the 1960s, he became active in the civil rights and peace movements, and the national spotlight on communism dimmed.

A U.S. Army veteran, he protested against wars in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.

In the 1970s, he was the co-chair of the National Steelworkers Rank and File Committee, which believed the union was too close to the company.

Ms. Edwards said the group disbanded in the 1980s after union leadership was desegregated and workers won the right to ratify contracts.

"He was absolutely convinced that the people of the United States, especially the workers of the United States, should determine our own destiny," she said. "The only way we were going to have economic justice was if the people controlled and ran the industries of our country.

"He absolutely believed that and believed that inherent in capitalism is all the inequality and the injustice and that system needed to change fundamentally."

She said her husband was democratic in conducting meetings.

"All voices were heard. At the end of the day, you take a vote and whatever the majority decides to do is what we do," she said.

A plaque honoring him after retirement called him "one of Lorain's finest sons of steel" and praised his work in the rank-and-file movement that helped to make a "great fighting union."

In retirement, he became a founding member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, known as SOAR; was the executive board member of SOAR in Pennsylvania; and was appointed an emeritus member of the international SOAR's board.

He also hiked, took art classes, painted and did photography, rekindling an interest he had when he had a small commercial studio in Lorain.

He also made chess sets out of scrap metal, including two that the Communist Party USA presented as gifts in Vietnam and Moscow.

Mr. Edwards moved to Wilkinsburg in 1990.

The couple worked to try to stop the privatization of Turner Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, were arrested on the picket line supporting striking Pittsburgh Press unions and participated in Occupy Pittsburgh.

He got the tent out of the garage, but the couple decided not to camp there because of his health.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Edwards is survived by a daughter, Deborah Sakach of Dana Point, Calif.; three sisters, Dorothy Edwards Dale Hughes of Fairhope, Ala.; Wilma Edwards Neas Loga of Janesville, Wis.; and Marian Edwards Farris of Knoxville, Tenn.; four grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and one great-great grandchild.

A date for a memorial service has not been set.

The family suggests contributions to Next Generation or SOAR at the United Steelworkers Union, attention: secretary/treasurer, 60 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222; or to Peoples World, 235 West 23rd St., New York, NY 10011.

obituaries

Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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