The steel mills weren’t kind to workers in the 1940s, especially not to black and women workers who were often mistreated and for some time were banned from joining the labor unions that were fighting to improve the lives of white workers.
Young, tough and determined, Korean War veteran Oliver Montgomery (May 31, 1929 – June 6, 2015) wasn’t satisfied with that scenario. He worked at the mills as an industrial brick-layer while attending college. In 1948, he joined USW Local 2163, which became USW Local 1462 after a wildcat strike in 1950.
Two decades before the Civil Rights Act, he became a leader for black and women workers at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. Montgomery started as a shop steward, then grievance chairman and job evaluation chairman. He rose through the union ranks to become Secretary of the Civil Rights Committee, graduate union counselor, local union officer and central labor body officer. All the while, Montgomery was a leader who pushed to get equal pay for equal work. He founded the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Credit Union, where he served as vice president until he was hired by the United Steelworkers International headquarters in 1969, becoming one of the first blacks on the Steelworker staff.
Montgomery served as a research analyst and financial analyst for the International for 24 years before being named head of the union’s retiree department in 1994.
Montgomery’s labor career included so much more than his contributed to the Steelworkers. He became one of the most influential leaders in the movement, particularly in the area of civil and human rights.
He worked with Cesar Chavez, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. – organizing grape and lettuce boycotts for the United Farm Workers, serving the Negro American Labor Council as an organizer, national vice president and national secretary and marching on Washington. In 1972, he helped found the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), where he served as an executive council member and president of the Pittsburgh chapter.
In 1977, Montgomery ran for USW vice president, joining forces with union presidential candidate Ed Sadlowski. Their candidacy was unsuccessful but it challenged decades of company-union policies and helped strengthen the Steelworkers, which is currently the largest North American industrial union, more than 2.1 million members strong.
In 1999, the AFL-CIO asked him to attend the “Conference on Enhancing the Trade Union Role in Social Security Systems in English Speaking African Countries” sponsored by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) African Regional Organization in Kenya.
In March 1999, Mr. Montgomery retired from the USW as national director of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) but he remained an active leader in the labor movement and a mentor and inspiration for many labor activists until his death in June of 2015.
He lived in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Thelma. They raised five children and have three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.