George Patterson moved to the United States with his family when he was a teen-ager. His father was a Scottish machinist who had been blacklisted in Great Britain for union activity. George, however, had little interest in unions when he first started working in the roll shop at South Works in 1924. That changed after the Great Depression hit. As he told labor leader Ed Sadlowski in an oral history, “My wife and I got married in 1931. And I had said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll always do all right.” But I began to work…one day a month, and my son was about to be born, and I found out I couldn’t buy a bottle of milk. That makes a man sit up, the economic pinch really hurt.”
During the 1920s, companies had created their own unions or “employee representation plans” to discourage independent unions. Patterson ended up as a representative on one at South Works. After learning firsthand that workers had no influence in company unions, he founded an independent union at South Works in the heady months after the passing of the 1935 Wagner Act that gave workers the right to unionize. This group was a precursor to Local 65 and the first in the United States to affiliate with the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in its official drive to organize the steel industry in 1936.
After Patterson was fired by Carnegie Illinois/US Steel for his union activities, he ended up as a full-time organizer for SWOC. In the build-up to the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in which ten strikers were killed at Republic Steel, Patterson helped organize Republic Steel’s Local 1033 as well as other Locals in the Calumet region. In an interview, crane operator and Local 1033 secretary Emil Badornac said, “[Patterson] was a real leader, pushing behind us, and organizing that mill. George Patterson takes the whole credit for us having a union at Republic Steel…[He] was a man looking out for everybody. Every one of us, every individual in that mill.” Patterson, a former Sunday School superintendent, was soft-spoken, but physically courageous. While at South Works, he was arrested for handing out union literature at mill gates and was later interrogated by the clandestine Chicago police “red squad” which falsely accused him of being a communist (red-baiting of union activists being common at the time). According to Badornac, Patterson was the only SWOC leader who stood at the front of the line with Local 1033 members during the Memorial Day Massacre. As Badornac noted, “There’s only one man that’d walk with us in that picket line, and walked no matter where we went [i.e. in the face of physical violence], [that] was Patterson.”
After the steelworkers’ union became fully established during the 1940s, it became increasingly bureaucratized and hierarchical. Patterson would be pushed out of union leadership in the Calumet district by establishment union figures who distrusted his popularity with steelworkers as well as his belief in rank and file democracy. This interview was conducted in 1974 by William Bork for a master’s thesis on the Memorial Day Massacre. Bork was himself raised in Southeast Chicago and the son of a steelworker.