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This Day in Labor History: March 2, 1937


On March 2, 1937, U.S. Steel signed a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. This victory for SWOC was not only a critical early win for what would soon become the Congress of Industrial Organizations, but also ended an era of U.S. Steel being a leader in opposing any labor organizing. It would certainly not end the resistance of steel companies to unionism, but it would make the eventual organizing of the industry quite likely.

While U.S. Steel was officially founded in 1901, it came out of the buyout by J.P. Morgan, Elbert Gary, and William Moore of Carnegie Steel. That latter company had led some of the shocking resistance to worker organization in American history, most famously at the Homestead Strike of 1892. In that strike, after a surprising win for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in 1889, Andrew Carnegie was determined to destroy the union when the contract ended in 1892. He took off on a vacation to Scotland in order to keep his name pure and told his lieutenant Henry Clay Frick to do whatever he wanted. Fresh off slaughtering the people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania due to his extreme negligence, Frick low-balled the AA, forced them on strike, and then sent in the Pinkertons to bust that strike.

This became the modus operandi in the steel industry. Carnegie and then U.S. Steel remained staunchly anti-union. In 1919, the Great Steel Strike was another attempt to organize the industry but it failed in the wake of the Red Scare and the arrest of organizers. In the 1920s, U.S. Steel bought into the company union craze sweeping corporate boardrooms around the nation. U.S. Steel effectively picked pliant workers to serve on its company union boards, pretending to give workers a voice, but workers knew they had no real voice and U.S. Steel executives wanted to keep it that way.

The steel mills also remained tremendously dangerous and filthy places to work. Accidents remained shockingly common and explosions of molten steel were as horrible as you can imagine. In Crystal Eastman’s 1907 survey of working conditions in Pittsburgh, she counted 526 workplace fatalities in Pittsburgh in the previous 12 months, 40 percent of them in steel. U.S. Steel was responsible for hundreds of dead workers every year, not to mention the amputees and other survivors. The legendary 24-hour shift was especially horrible. Well into the 1920s, U.S. Steel used the 12-hour day. This of course was utterly brutal for workers, as laboring in such dangerous conditions while exhausted only added to the hellish accidents. Workers generally worked the night shift for a couple of weeks and then switched to the day shift. The company certainly would not shut down the furnaces for this shift. Instead, workers would be required to labor a 24-hour shift in making that transition. 24 hours in the steel mill.

In 1935, United Mine Workers of American president John L. Lewis led a group of unions that revolted against American Federation of Labor because of the federation’s disdain for industrial organizing. This became the CIO. But this effort was extremely sketchy and could have easily failed. For Lewis, organizing the steel industry was absolutely critical if his union was going to thrive and if his CIO baby would win. This is where the coal his miners produced went and the steel companies often had major investments in the mines. Lewis formed the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1936. It immediately targeted U.S. Steel, believing that if it could knock down the giant, the rest of the industry would soon follow. He put his top lieutenant, Philip Murray, on the task. It actually took surprisingly little for U.S. Steel to cave. No big strikes, no legendary actions. Basically a new generation of executives saw the writing on the wall after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and decided it would be good business to just come to an agreement. It created the 8-hour day in the industry, the recognition of SWOC as the legitimate bargaining agent of the workforce, and time-and-a-half for overtime.

Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel Out of this Furnace was a generational story of the hard lives of steel workers, culminating in the successful organizing of U.S. Steel. Remembering his family’s life in Braddock, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh, Bell framed the big victory over U.S. Steel as the work of generations of dead and broken steel workers. The organizer Dobie, grandson of the first character to come from the Slovak homeland to Pittsburgh, frames it as “not this or some other Government board, but a jury should have sat in judgment here, a jury of ghosts: Mike Dobrejcak and Mary and Paulilne, Joe Dubik and Kracha — the maimed and the destroyed, the sickly who died young, the women worn out before their time with work and child-bearing, all the thousands of lives the mills had consumed as surely as they had consumed their tons of coke and ore.” It’s an excellent book that is also easy to read in the style of pre-war proletariat fiction. You should check it out.

The U.S. Steel victory was monumental. But the so-called Little Steel companies, which were not that little, were determined to resist and used maximum violence to do so. It would not be until 1941 that those companies would acquiesce to unionization, and then only to get those sweet defense contracts and because the courts had decimated their anti-union plans. They continued to resent organized labor for decades, forcing the 1959 steel strike to try and take back power from what was now the United Steelworkers of America. They failed as the USWA showed massive solidarity, but the decline of the steel industry that began shortly after did severely reduce the union’s power, leaving the union a shell of what was it a half-century ago.

This is the 257th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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