THE STEELWORKERS' LANDMARK STRIKE
By Dick Meister
It was 82 years ago this fall -- in 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
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.
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
They won nothing. Yet as George Becker, the current president of the
steelworkers union 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 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.