The US national steel strike, 1919 - Jeremy Brecher

Striking Chicago steelworkers in 1919

Jeremy Brecher's history and analysis of the huge strike across the steel industry in 1919, which was defeated by a combination of massive repression and undermining by the unions.

Out of the many strikes at the time, the conflict that most held the nation's attention in 1919 was the great strike in steel.

Trade unionism in the iron and steel industry, broken in the Homestead struggle of 1892 and faced with organized and violent opposition by the steel trust, remained quiescent until World War I. This did not prevent workers from striking, however, especially as labor became scarce toward the beginning of the war. "Workmen of the most docile tendencies have been making demands. . . insignificant little rebellions verging on strikes here and there," reported an investigator.1 In early 1916 an explosion came in Youngstown. Laborers struck for a twenty-five percent increase at a Republic tube plant; the strike spread spontaneously to other steel plants in the town. On January 7th, East Youngstown laborers gathered near a plant. As they pressed forward, a guard fired on them, the strikers replied with bricks, and the guards opened general fire. Enraged, the crowds marched through the streets and burned property worth one million dollars. The National Guard was rushed in to suppress the movement. Twenty strikers were wounded, three fatally.2

A similar strike broke out four months later in the Pittsburgh district, heart of the steel industry. Workers at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh struck in late April. They started marching from plant to plant spreading the strike, and steelworkers at points throughout the district began joining in. At the second march to the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock the company guards opened fire, killing two. The crowd's response, as at Youngstown, was fury. According to a local paper, they "charged plant after plant, and many of the places were wrecked." Some mills shut down to avoid trouble, and "the whole Pittsburgh district was threatened with industrial paralysis," until troops were sent in, the Westinghouse strike leaders arrested, and the strike suppressed.3

Frank Morrison, Secretary of the A.F.L., visited Pittsburgh during this strike, but left in despair, considering the situation "too turbulent to be exploited by the A.F.L."4 Nonetheless, the A.F.L. was interested in taking advantage of wartime conditions to expand its membership in the steel industry, and in August, 1918, it established the National Committee for Organizing the Iron and Steel Workers. It was composed of twenty-four trade unions which claimed jurisdiction in the steel industry and was headed by president John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor, a liberal trade unionist. Secretary-treasurer in charge of detailed work was William Z. Foster, a syndicalist who at that time believed that building the A.F.L. was all-important; later he became the leading trade union figure (and eventually chairman) of the American Communist Party. The unions, in the words of the Interchurch World Movement Report on the Steel Strike of 1919-the basic contemporary study of the strike- "had no doubt about what they wanted - more numbers for each of their separate craft organizations . . . "5 For Foster, as Theodore Draper wrote, "if only the trade unions - even A.F. of L. unions - could become big and strong enough, the revolution would take care of itself."6

Meanwhile, the mills seethed. The IW.M. Report found "that three-quarters of steel employees [the unskilled] developed a frame of mind of more or less chronic rebellion, largely the physical reaction from exhaustion and deprivation. Rebellious reactions from having no 'say' in the conduct of the job was also chronic, though less so. These were fundamental facts in steelworkers' minds, of which they were constantly reminded by endless 'grievances' . . . "7 This discontent was reflected at an individual level by high absenteeism and a phenomenal labor turnover - at Homestead, for example, 6,800 out of 11,500 workers in a year.8 Further, a new psychology had been created during the war: steelworkers were the object of intensive propaganda stressing their essential role in the "battle for democracy." They expected after the war that their importance would be recognized with some of the fruits of democracy; instead they were met by renewed discrimination and repression. Finally, the predominantly Eastern European laborers were stirred by the overthrow of autocracy in their homelands. As the I.W.M. Report concluded on the basis of extensive interviews, the immigrant workers in general possessed little radical ideology, but-

they have a vague idea that big rich people who run things "arbitrarily," even in mills, are coming down in the world. Russia, moreover, means to them the rise of workingmen to power. They have a vague idea that poor people who have been run for a long time, on farms and in mills, are coming up in the world and are beginning to run themselves.9

Under these conditions an explosion was bound to come. But the steel companies through long experience had developed powerful techniques to prevent the steelworkers from organizing themselves. The first key was the division of the labor force: thirty nationalities worked in the mills, each speaking only its own language, segregated in its own community, isolated within its own traditions and customs. Nor was this a matter of chance; the divideand-rule strategy was understood as early as 1875 by a Carnegie plant manager who wrote, "My experience has been that Germans and Irish, Swedes and what I denominate 'buckwheats' [young American country boys], judiciously mixed, make the most effective and tractable force you can find."10 The traditional leaders within these communities were powerful, conservative, and often directly dependent on the steel companies. Finally, the companies did everything possible to instill fear in the workers - fear of firing, blacklist, labor spies, informers, arrest, and deportation made steelworkers afraid even to talk to each other, let alone organize. They knew that as soon as a man started talking union he was fired.

But when the A.F.L. began holding mass meetings in September, 1918, around the steel district, far from having to persuade men to join all they had to do was pass out membership cards; 1,200 were signed up in one day in Joliet, 1,500 in South Chicago.11 By the spring of 1919, nearly 100,000 workers had signed Up.12

Conflict soon arose over the form of organization. According to the I.W.M. Report, "in many plants the instinct of the immigrant recruit was to associate with his shopmates of different 'crafts' rather than with his 'craft' mates from other shops. He fell more easily into a shop or plant union."13 The local leaders, "finding that organization by shops, departments and plants was often the most natural to their inexperienced fellow-workers. . . followed that plan even though the result was industrial unionism in miniature."14 This was heresy to the A.F.L.; "the twenty-four crafts smothered this drift,"15 And William Z. Foster "combatted the natural tendency of sections of the rank and file toward industrial unionism."16 The workers of each shop and plant were split up among the twenty-four unions.

The heart of the steel industry was the Pittsburgh district, including dozens of steel towns through western Pennsylvania. It was here that the decisive battles would be fought. But the mayors and burgesses of the Monongahela Valley met early in the campaign and decided to forbid all union meetings in their towns; as Mayor Crawford of Duquesne put it, "Jesus Christ himself could not speak in Duquesne for the A.F. of L.!"17 The free speech fight in the district began in Monessen, where the Burgess had forbidden union meetings for months. To break the ban, the local organizer called a meeting for April 1st. On the date set, 10,000 miners from the surrounding coal country marched into Monessen, uniformed veterans at their head. The right to hold meetings was thereby established in fact if not by permission, and was gradually spread by similar tactics through the rest of the district.

The basic conflict between the steelworkers and the unions became more evident the stronger the movement grew. The I.W.M. Report characterized their positions thus:

The raw recruits, particularly the immigrant workers, wanted to strike soon after they joined up, since they could conceive of both protection and "results" only in a universal walkout.

The 24 old unions willingly put money into a campaign for new members but hesitated greatly over backing a strike in behalf of the new steel locals, which might possibly jeopardize their old membership outside the steel industry.18

The rank and file was particularly impatient to strike because the new union members were being fired by the hundreds up and down the steel district. In order "to give the men who have waited so long something tangible to look forward to" and to "pacify the restless spirits," the National Committee called a conference May 25th with 583 representatives from local unions in eighty steel centers.19 They came with specific instructions from their own members. They assumed they were empowered to call a strike and tried to do so, but the Internationals' representatives quickly asserted that only they had the authority to call a strike. The result was that workers began dropping out of the unions in large numbers.

The demand for a strike continued to mount. At the National Committee's meeting July 11th it was reported that in Johnstown, Youngstown, Chicago, Vandergrift, Wheeling and elsewhere great strikes are threatening. The men are letting it be known that if we do not do something for them they will take the matter into their own hands. Where they are not threatening to strike they are taking the position that they will pay no more dues until they can see some results from their efforts.20

On July 20th the National Committee finally decided to authorize a strike vote, for they were faced with such ultimata as this telegram from the Johnstown Steel Workers Council:

Unless the National Committee authorizes a national strike vote to be taken this week we will be compelled to go on strike here alone.21

Believing a strike was imminent, workers flooded into the unions - membership increased fifty percent while the strike ballot was being taken. 22 The vote was virtually unanimous for the strike. 23

Union organizers made a series of last-ditch efforts to head off a strike. Fitzpatrick, who headed the nationwide organizing drive, believed that "if only both sides could get together around a table, it could all be straightened out," 24 but labor's appeals to Judge Gary, head of U.S. Steel and spokesman for the industry, were repeatedly rebuffed. Finally an appeal was sent to President Wilson, stating that a conference with management was the only demand. A week later union leaders wired Wilson that "it is exceedingly difficult to withhold or restrain the men. . . . We cannot now affirm how much longer we will be able to exert that influence." 25

Finally, a strike date was set for September 22nd. President Wilson requested that the strike be postponed, but a flood of telegrams like this one forced the National Committee to go ahead with the strike:

W.Z. Foster

303 Magee Bldg.

Pittsburgh, Pa.

We cannot be expected to meet the enraged workers, who will consider us traitors if strike is postponed.

Organizers Youngstown District 26

The extent of the strike surprised union leaders as well as management. More than 350,000 walked out, crippling most of the steel industry. Many of those who struck were not union members; as Foster had predicted, "In iron and steel, where men work together in big bunches, we can get everybody to strike even though we have only ten percent" organized. 27 The unskilled immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who made up the great majority of the steelworkers, formed the backbone of the strike. Some of the skilled, predominantly native-born workers, long favored by the employers, joined the strike; others continued to go to work. In some places, even office workers joined the strike.

The strikers in western Pennsylvania, the heart of the industry, were met with a complete suppression of civil liberties and a reign of terror. Sheriff Haddock of Allegheny County issued a proclamation forbidding outdoor meetings anywhere in the county, and swore in 5,000 strikebreaking employees of U.S. Steel as deputies. Foster charged that the county had 50,000 deputies under arms. Indoor meetings in most steel centers were forbidden by local authorities. The isolation of the strikers, unable to meet with each other, undermined morale; investigator George Soule, comparing towns, concluded that "the absence of the right to assemble naturally had its result in the non-effectiveness of the strike. . . the effectiveness of the strike was. . . proportional to the amount of civil liberty permitted." 28

The reign of terror was equally powerful. The I.W.M. study, based on on-the-spot investigations and hundreds of affidavits, shows the strategy of the local officials.

In Monessen, where the strikers held out solidly for a long time, with the exception of the arrest of many Russians on vague charges of "radicalism," the policy of the State Police was simply to club men off the streets and drive them into their homes. Very few were arrested. In Braddock, however, where some of the mills were partly operating, the State Police did not stop at mere beating. Ordinarily, when a striker was clubbed on the street he would be taken to jail, kept there over night, and then the Squire or the Burgess would fine him from $10.00 to $60.00. In Newcastle, the Sheriff's deputies carried the Braddock policy much further. Many of those arrested in Newcastle, who had lived in the town almost all their adult lives, were charged with being "suspicious" persons and were ordered not to be released until the strike was over. Others were released in Newcastle after they furnished bail ranging from $500 to $'2,500 each. The other towns in western Pennsylvania generally followed one of the methods described above. 29

In Newcastle, Pennsylvania, the Sheriff (also Chief of Police) admitted to arresting 100 people the first week of the strike and planning to hold at least forty of them as "suspicious persons" "until the strike is over, even if we have to build a new jail to house them."30 The State Police, Foster admitted, felt free to brutalize the strikers because "they realize fully that they can depend upon trade-union leaders to hold the strikers in check from adopting measures of retaliation."31

The U.S. government, too, played its role in breaking the strike. It no longer needed labor's support for the war effort, and felt itself threatened by the revolutionary movements sweeping the world. The Department of Justice conducted "red raids" among the steelworkers, locking up and deporting immigrants, and Attorney General Palmer warned publicly that the strike threatened Bolshevism. At Gary, Indiana, the National Guard occupied the city and forbade parades, then Federal troops were sent in when the Guard proved incapable of suppressing an "outlaw parade" of uniformed ex-soldiers and other strikers organized independently of the strike leadership. The commanding general, declaring that "the army would be neutral," had strikers arrested and picket lines broken up; soldiers were sent to arrest union officers in other trades for such offenses as threatening to call a strike on a local building operation. The army continued to occupy Gary until the strike was called off.32 The strikers, who at the beginning had expected Wilson's public support for trade unionism to be shown in the steel industry, became bitter and disillusioned about the Federal government, convinced it was on the side of the companies.

The repression in Pennsylvania threatened all workers in the state, and pressures for a general strike grew as the strike continued. Already the coal miners were out on their own strike. On November 1st and 2nd, the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor held a special convention which resolved that "the Executive Council of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor shall issue a call for a Statewide strike, when in its judgement it is necessary to compel respect for law and the restoration of liberty."33 Such a general strike, of course, went against every A.F.L. principle, and according to the I.W.M., "Mr. Foster was constantly complaining of fighting the 'radicals,' meaning those who wanted to have a general strike called."34

One critical element in the strike was the railroad workers on lines serving the steel plants; if they had struck, production would have been stopped throughout the Pittsburgh district. The railroaders' sentiment strongly supported the strike, but their national leaders did not. As one local strike leader put it, "If the railwaymen in the steel plant yards had struck, this strike would have been won. In October the railwaymen's locals near Pittsburgh voted to strike but got no assurance of support from their Brotherhoods."35 In Youngstown and other places where railroadmen did join the strike their unions not only gave them no strike benefits, but did not stop other members from taking their jobs around the mills.

The leadership of the most important union in the industry, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (A.A.I.S.W.) constantly undermined the campaign. In May, they tried to arrange separate negotiations with U.S. Steel, offering to help allay the "serious disturbing element in the industrial world at the present time, a great spirit of unrest that has spread over our common country."36 Had Judge Gary not turned down this offer, it would have broken the entire strike. When the strike started, workers at mills where the A.A.I.S.W. had contracts generally joined the strike, but six weeks later the union ordered them back to work, saying the contracts would be honored "at whatever cost." Lodges that refused to break the strike had their charters revoked. According to Iron Age, the order "broke the strike in every plant in the [Youngstown] district with which the Amalgamated had a contract."37 As a local strike leader described it, "When Mike Tighe [A.A.I.S.W. president] ordered back his men at that mill near Cleveland, he started an avalanche. One Amalgamated organizer got 400 men into one big union with an Amalgamated charter at a mill near Steubenville and they all struck. Mike ordered them all back and tore up that organizer's card.''38

The employers played powerfully on the divisions among the workers. Native workers were bombarded with propaganda that it was just a "hunkie" strike; immigrants were told that the Americans had already sold them out. The following written instructions to an operative of a labor detective firm hired to fight the strike gives an indication of the company tactics:

We want you to stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can between the Serbians and the Italians. 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; make them realize to the fullest extent that far better results would be accomplished if they will go back to work. Urge them to go back to work or the Italians will get their jobs.39

Such operatives were employed by the hundreds. Between 30,000 and 40,000 black workers were brought into the steel districts as strikebreakers. They had few compunctions about this, since traditionally most A.F.L. unions had been white-only. The only way blacks could enter unionized jobs was as strikebreakers. At Youngstown, one lone black machinist striker, though he stayed on strike to the end, was still not admitted to the machinists' local.

To pay strike benefits to 350,000 strikers was out of the question. To prevent workers with no resources from being starved back to work, an enormous commissary system handled food distribution for the entire strike zone. Goods were bought from the grocery co-op suppliers, packaged into half-week allotments for large or small families, and shipped to forty-five local commissaries for distribution to those in need. The total commissary cost for the entire strike averaged less than $1.40 per striker.40

Few workers returned to the mills under the pressure of deprivation; as long as they were convinced that the strike was succeeding they stayed out week after week, living on next to nothing. But the overwhelming power of the steel companies over communications gradually began to grind down the strikers' morale. The newspapers constantly reported that the mills had been reopened and the strike broken, for this was true in some places and therefore could be made to seem true generally. With little labor press, no public meetings, and visits to strikers' homes impossible without arrest for "intimidation," workers gradually came to believe that the strike no longer stood a chance and slowly began to filter back to work. By the end of ten weeks the number of strikers was down from 365,000 to 110,000, and on January 8th, 1920, the National Committee declared the strike at an end.

The objective of the strike from the point of view of the A.F.L. unions involved was simply to establish trade union collective bargaining. As the I.W.M. Report concluded,

It is possible that the workers throughout the whole steel industry might much more easily have been organized on a radical appeal. But the Strike Committee were opposed in principle to any such appeal . . . the methods of organization used in the steel strike were old fashioned and became ostentatiously so as the organizers recognized the radical possibilities of the strike. . . . By the end of the year, it was evident that the strikers were getting an old-fashioned licking.41

The meaning of the strike to the strikers was different, both more vague and more radical. As David Saposs described it on the basis of an intensive study of immigrant communities in the steel district,

The determination of the immigrant worker to assert himself in spite of all the opposition of dominant opinion in his own community, was the chief reason why the foreign and English press. . . considered the strike as having deeper motives than mere demands of ordinary trade unionism. Not only the mill managers, but all the governing classes in steel towns were accustomed to seeing the immigrant docile and submissive; to them any strike was indeed a revolution. . . . Thus the strike was also an outburst of the inhibited instincts for self-expression. . . The immigrant wanted not only better wages and shorter hours. He resented being treated as a chattel or a "hunkie."42

As the l.W.M. Report put it, the strike was not only for trade unionism, but was "the workers' revolt against the entire system of arbitrary control."43 The local leaders, in contrast to the A.F.L. unions, talked freely of the workers "sharing in industrial control."

As Mary Heaton Vorse said after many interviews and discussions with the strikers, "What they believed was not formulated into a dogma. It was not narrowed down to trade union bargaining."44 Perhaps the most general sentiment was expressed by an American steelworker in Youngstown:

If my boy could give his life fighting for free democracy in Europe, I guess I can stand it to fight this battle to the end. I am going to help my fellow workmen show Judge Gary that he can't act as if he was a king or a kaiser and tell them how long they have got to work!45

The steel industry agreed. "If it came to a question of wage demands alone," wrote Iron Age, the steel companies "might meet the union officials in a conciliatory spirit." But the real issue was whether unions "shall be allowed to dictate to the employer how he shall operate his plant."46 Or, as The Nation concluded, it was

no mere squabble over wages and hours and collective bargaining and the open shop. . . . The real question is, Who shall control our steel industry?47

This text has been excerpted from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike! and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone text by libcom.org.

  • 1. Cited in Brody, Slee/workers in America. p. 181.
  • 2. Ibid., pp. 181-2.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 183.
  • 4. A.F.L., Weekly Newsletter, Jan. 15, 1922, cited in Brody, p. 199.
  • 5. I.W.M. Report, p. 160.
  • 6. Theodore Draper, The Rools of American Communism (N.Y.: The Viking Press, Compass Books Ed., 1963), p. 320.
  • 7. I.W.M. Report, p. 147.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 148.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 151.
  • 10. Letter of manager of Edgar Thomson Works, quoted in "Inside History of Carnegie Steel Co.," by J.H. Bridge, p. 81, cited in I.W.M. Report, p. 127, n.l.
  • 11. Brody, p. 216.
  • 12. Ibid., p. 233.
  • 13. I.W.M. Report, p. 160.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 37.
  • 15. Ibid., p. 160.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 35.
  • 17. William Z. Foster, The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons (N.Y.: B.W. Huebsch, Inc., 1920), p. 62.
  • 18. I.W.M. Report, p. 168.
  • 19. Brody, p. 236.
  • 20. I.W.M. Report, p. 171.
  • 21. Cited in Brody, p. 237.
  • 22. I.W.M. Reporl, p. 154.
  • 23. Brody, p. 238.
  • 24. I.W.M. Report, p. 165.
  • 25. Brody, p. 239.
  • 26. Cited in I.W.M. Report, p. 172.
  • 27. Cited in Brody, p. 241.
  • 28. Supplementary Reports of the Investigators to the Commission of Inquiry, The Interchurch World Movement, Public Opinion and the Steel Strike (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1921), p. 173. (Cited hereafter as I.W.M. Opinion.)
  • 29. Ibid., p. 178.
  • 30. Ibid., p. 177.
  • 31. Foster, p. 133.
  • 32. Brody, pp. 140-2.
  • 33. Foster, p. 115.
  • 34. I.W.M. Report, p. 39.
  • 35. Ibid., p. 181.
  • 36. Foster, p. 70.
  • 37. Strike Investigation, 11,632-61, Iron Age, Feb. 5, 1920, p. 415, cited in Brody, p.257.
  • 38. I.W.M. Report, p. 181.
  • 39. Ibid., p. 320.
  • 40. Foster, pp. 216-20.
  • 41. I.W.M. Report, pp. 39-40.
  • 42. I.W.M. Opinion, pp. 239, 241.
  • 43. I.W.M. Report, p. 119. 143
  • 44. Mary Heaton Vorse, Men and Steel (London: The Labour Publishing Co., Ltd., 1922), p. 166.
  • 45. I.W.M. Report, pp. 131-2.
  • 46. Iron Age, cited in Brody, pp. 242-3.
  • 47. "The Revolution-1919," The Nation, Oct. 4,1919, p. 452.