It was 86 years ago this month — September of 1919 — that angry steelworkers launched one of the most fierce, most bloody and most important of the many battles that created the American labor movement.
Just 10 months earlier, the United States and its allies had emerged victorious from World War I. The steelworkers whose labor had contributed much to the war effort — and much to their employers’ huge profits — had set out to organize a union, so as to gain some control over their working lives and increase their miserly share of the profits their work brought employers.
Miserly is an understatement. Steelworkers, most of them eastern European immigrants, commonly worked 12 hours a day in what was the country’s largest and most profitable industry. Yet only a very few made more than what was then considered a poverty level wage. They had almost no fringe benefits, and no rights other than working under whatever conditions the steel companies imposed. They dared not complain, on pain of losing their jobs and being ousted from company-owned housing.
Organizers from the American Federation of Labor helped the workers win shorter workdays and other concessions from steel companies in the Midwest, upper New York state and West Virginia just after the war. But their major targets — and major opponents — were in the heart of the industry in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas of western Pennsylvania.
Led by U.S. Steel, the country’s largest corporation of any kind, the companies refused to even talk with union representatives who were seeking collective bargaining rights — not even AFL President Samuel Gompers, not even after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson urged them to.
The companies did more than refuse negotiations. They fired just about anyone who showed any interest in unions, and put them on a blacklist that kept them from being hired by anyone else in the industry.
Not surprisingly, a strike finally erupted. By the end of that September of 1919, 350,000 steelworkers were off the job — 90 percent of the industry’s entire workforce. Never before had there been a strike of such magnitude in any U.S. industry.
Employer propagandists labeled the walkout “un-American,” playing on the fact that many of the strikers were immigrants. At the same time, they attempted to convince the immigrants that by striking they were rebelling against the government and so could hurt their chances for citizenship.
As it turned out, in some cases they were right.The Justice Department arrested and deported hundreds of strikers it labeled as dangerous Bolsheviks, the political bogeymen of the day. It marked the first stage of the “Red Scare” that eventually led to the arrest of more than 6,000 alleged Communists in 33 cities across the country in raids — the infamous Palmer Raids — led by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his chief aide, J. Edgar Hoover.
From Pittsburgh to Clairton, 25 miles along the banks of the Monongahela River, jails were jammed with strikers and their supporters. Many were brought in by armed vigilantes and even strikebreakers, who had been deputized by the Allegheny County sheriff.
Eventually, there were more than 350,000 strikebreakers. Most were black workers who had no compunction about taking the jobs held by white workers whose unions denied them admission.
Municipal officials throughout the strike area forbade all union meetings. Strikers were likely to be arrested anywhere, at any time, for any reason, if only on charges of being “radicals” or “suspicious persons.” Strikers were clubbed, beaten, shot at. Hundreds were injured, some seriously. Twenty died.
Employers took advantage of the many ethnic divisions among them, hiring spies to infiltrate their ranks and stir up hostility. One company, for instance, instructed its agents to “spread data among the Serbians that the Italians are going back to work. Call up every question you can in reference to racial hatred between these two nationalities. Urge them to go back to work or the Italians will get their jobs.”
Racially divided, legally prohibited from meeting together in any case, told constantly by local newspapers that their strike was failing, and with few financial resources, the striking steelworkers nevertheless held out for 3 1/2 months.
They won nothing. Yet as former steelworkers union president George Becker noted, the strike was not a failure.
“It is never a failure,” he said, “when 350,000 workers take their destiny into their own hands.”
As Becker observed, “It was a step on the ladder that led to the founding of the United Steelworkers union and changed the course of history” by pointing the way for the unionization throughout all of American industry that finally came in the 1930s.
Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator ([email protected], www.dickmeister.com).