Original Document
Original Document
John Fitch, On the Repression of Steel Workers in Western Pennsylvania, 1910.

[T]he positive influence of these systems of rewards [stock purchase and pensions], binding the working force to the company, is supplemented by the negative influence, far more sinister, of a system of espionage.

I doubt whether you could find a more suspicious body of men than the employees of the United States Steel Corporation. They are suspicious of one another, of their neighbors, and of their friends. I was repeatedly suspected of being an agent of the Corporation, sent out to sound the men with regard to their attitude toward the Corporation and toward unionism. The fact is, the steel workers do not dare openly express their convictions. They do not dare assemble and talk over affairs pertaining to their welfare as mill men. They feel that they are living always in the presence of a hostile critic. They are a generous, open-hearted set of men, upon the whole; the skilled men are intelligent and are able and glad to talk upon a variety of subjects. But let the conversation be shifted to the steel works, and they immediately become reticent. It is safe to talk with a stranger about local option [banning alcohol sales], the price of groceries, or the prospect of war with Japan, but it is not regarded as safe to talk about conditions in the steel industry. Concerning the most patent and generally known facts, intelligent men display the most marvelous ignorance.

Everywhere, even among the comparatively unintelligent, there is the same suspicion. One evening as I was walking on one of the streets of Munhall, the borough in which the Homestead steel works are located, I overtook a workman, dinner-pail in hand, on his way to the mill. I inquired of him the location of the street I was seeking, and as it lay further down the hill, I walked with him. We exchanged a few commonplace remarks, and as there had just been announced a reduction in wages affecting a large number of men, I spoke of that to see whether he would talk about it. His attitude immediately changed from cordiality to suspicion. "I don't know anything about it," he answered, shortly. "I haven't heard of any cut." Yet the reduction was being discussed in every steel worker's home in Homestead and Munhall. On another occasion I was walking through the Homestead steel works. Passing through the yard, I encountered a water-carrier, a man of little mental alertness apparently, so I thought I would see whether he would exercise the same discretion that I observed among the skilled workmen. I walked with him a short distance and asked him about the dangers of mill work. He never had heard of any dangers. When I asked him if accidents did not occasionally take place, he looked at me suspiciously and said, "I have never seen anybody hurt."

When I met the men in their homes, too, there was suspicion to be broken down. Sometimes I could not get an opportunity to see the man whom I was seeking. Business engagements would suddenly be remembered which prevented an interview. Several men refused to talk about mill work. A highly paid employee of the Corporation refused even to see me. I had been at his house, and finding that he was out, I left word that I would return at a specified hour. Returning at the time named, my ring brought the housewife to the door, who told me that her husband was at home, but that he would not see me or talk to me because the company had forbidden its employees to talk with strangers about mill work. Repeatedly I interviewed men who answered my questions guardedly, evidently in great perturbation of spirit, as if they feared that my visit boded them no good. Sometimes when meeting a workingman, and explaining to him my desire to talk over industrial conditions, he would say protestingly, "But I haven't anything to say against the company," although I had not once mentioned the company. On several occasions, at the close of an interview in which only the most careful statements had been made, my canny informant chuckled in evident relief, "There - I haven't told you anything against the company, have I?" One man, of long experience as a steel worker, who gave me a better insight into mill conditions than any other one person, remarked: "I used to write for labor papers a great deal, and sometimes I fairly burn to do it now - to declare before the world, over my own signature, the facts about working conditions in the steel industry. But I can't. It wouldn't be safe."

In spite of all this fear, when I got an opportunity for a quiet talk with the men so that I could show them my letters of introduction and explain my mission, I usually found them sympathetic and helpful, for they said: "We cannot tell about these things ourselves; we cannot write for the papers about our long hours and the unjust restrictions; but we want the public to know and we are glad to tell you - but never mention our names. We must not lose our jobs, for that is all we have." I remember one man who had evidently been waging a battle, during all of our conversation, between his habitual caution and his desire to tell his true feelings. He went with me to the door as I left and followed me out onto the porch into the night, closing the door behind him. Then, certain that no one, not even his family, could hear him, he said, anxiously, "Now you won't ever mention my name in connection with this, will you?"

This self-repression, this evident fear of a free expression of personality, manifests itself in other ways than in a hesitancy to talk with strangers. The men do not talk much with each other about mill conditions. There is little discussion of politics - that, too, could easily bring a man into dangerous waters. There is considerable socialistic sentiment in all of the mill towns. One encounters it not infrequently in going about among the steel workers. I met more socialists in Homestead and Munhall than elsewhere - enough to lead one to expect to find a local organization there. There may be as many in the other mill towns, yet in the four more important steel centers, McKeesport, Duquesne, Braddock and Homestead, there was not in 1907 a trace of a socialist local. I wondered at this until a Homestead steel worker told me that they simply had not dared to have a local within the borough. To be known as a socialist the men thought would be to court discharge, and most of the Homestead socialists held membership in a Pittsburgh local. I have since learned that in the campaign of 1908 a local was organized in Homestead.

These skilled steel workers are very much like other Americans. They are neither less nor more intelligent, courageous, and self-reliant than the average citizen. Their extreme caution, the constant state of apprehension in which they live, can have but one cause. It is the burnt child that dreads the fire. It would hardly be expected that the loss of one strike, disastrous though it was, should have so disheartened the workers that they would never attempt to revive collective bargaining. It has been through a series of such attempts that the men have learned to respect the vigilance and power of their employers, and they have learned the cost of defiance.

In 1895 it was reported in the Amalgamated Association Convention that the Homestead steel workers had received "another reduction, ranging from 48 per cent to 60 per cent." A meeting with a thousand men in attendance had been held January 16 to protest, and officers of the Amalgamated Association had addressed the meeting. The next day the Carnegie Steel Company "discharged men by fives and tens for daring to attend a public meeting." Secret meetings were then held, and 25 men employed in the 119-inch mill were organized into a lodge of the Amalgamated Association. It was not long before the officers of this lodge were discharged, and the president of the lodge was told that it was for organizing. In concluding his report, Vice President Carney of the Amalgamated Association stated that the company was spending large sums of money in order to maintain a system of espionage. One man in each ten was thought to be a spy. Other similar occurrences have taken place at Homestead. On April 29, 1899, "T. J. Shaffer Lodge, No. 13," was organized there. When the convention of the Amalgamated Association met in May, it was reported that some of the members of this lodge had been discharged and the men were on strike for the right to organize. It would appear from the fragmentary account given by the president of the Amalgamated Association that the agitation had been started to protest against Sunday work. On September 30, 1899, the lodge disbanded. Again in 1901, according to an officer of the Amalgamated Association, a secret organization was formed with a thousand members. The movement was discovered and several hundred men were discharged. In the other Carnegie mills near Pittsburgh there has been more acquiescence in the past than at Homestead. Less determined efforts have been made to re-establish unionism at Braddock and Duquesne, but all such movements have been sternly repressed.

The McKeesport mills of the National Tube Company, and the Dewees Wood plant of the American Sheet and Tin Plate Company, have fought the Amalgamated Association for twenty-five years with the weapons now used by the United States Steel Corporation - lockout and discharge. Repeated efforts have been made to organize both mills, with every attempt finally ending in failure. In 1901 the last effort was made in both plants. When the strike was over the president of the lodge in Wood's mill was refused re-employment, and today it is a matter of common report that he is blacklisted in every mill of the Steel Corporation.

These instances serve to illustrate the attitude of the Corporation toward organization on the part of its employees. The independents are not far behind. I t will be remembered that Jones and Laughlin broke with the union in 1897. An employee of this company told me of an attempt in 1906 to hold a meeting to protest against Sunday work, but with no intention of organizing as a trade union. The men who were interested in the matter had engaged a hall. Word was carried to the company. The superintendent called the men together from the departments where the agitators were supposed to be and ordered them, with threats of discharge, to abandon the plan. When the time for the meeting came, a foreman, with several mill policemen, stationed themselves where they could see every man who went into the hall. As a result, no one attempted to go to the meeting.

The steel companies seem to be opposed to any independent activity on the part of the men if it has any connection with their work. A few years ago, a workman told me, a petition was circulated among steel mill workers at the National Tube Works in McKeesport, asking for a change to an eight-hour day, at the same tonnage rate as before, being in effect a request for a shorter working day with a corresponding cut in wages. A large proportion of the employees signed the petition, but it was never presented, for the company let it be known that it did not look upon the matter with favor; so the movement was dropped. A Braddock employee told me that either in 1906 or 1907, a similar petition was drawn up by the men employed about the heating furnaces in the Edgar Thomson plant. The men sent it, through their foreman, to the general superintendent of the plant. It was refused, apparently without consideration. No formal reply ever reached the men.

The officials of the steel companies make no secret of their hostility to unionism, and I have been told by two leading employers that they would not tolerate it. Any movement toward organization, they assured me, would mean discharge. That this was no idle boast is evident from the record of all attempts at organization since 1892.

All of the steel companies have effective methods of learning what is going on among the workmen. The Jones and Laughlin Company has some organization that keeps it sufficiently informed as to the likelihood of sedition breaking out, and the United States Steel Corporation has regular secret service departments. Its agents are thought by the men to be scattered through all of the mills of the Corporation, working shoulder to shoulder at the rolls or furnaces with honest workmen, ready to record any "disloyal" utterances or to enter into any movement among their fellows. The workmen feel this espionage. They believe it exists, but they do not know who the traitors are. It may be that the friend of long standing who works at the next furnace is one of them, or, possibly, the next-door neighbor at home; they do not know. Is it any wonder, therefore, that they suspect each other and guard their tongues?

This book is not intended to be condemnatory except as the facts speak for themselves. There may be considerable defense, from the standpoint of shop management, for much that has been pointed out to be socially bad. But no justification of any sort presents itself for this "spy system."

Let us look at it clearly and understandingly. It is detective work of a different stripe from that which would weed out grafting among foremen, or would protect tools and metals from theft. The steel companies have large properties which they must protect. But I assume that neither the officials of the Jones and Laughlin Company nor the directors of the United States Steel Corporation would bribe a bookkeeper in a competing company to give them its trade secrets. If a representative of organized labor during a recess in a conference with an employer were left alone, on his honor, in the employer's private office, and he took advantage of the opportunity to examine the correspondence lying on the desk, I have no doubt that these same steel company officials would agree with me that such action was despicable. They would be right. That is the other side. What do they think of buying information about their workmen, not intended for them; of sending paid spies into the workmen's committees? Such things are justified in war. Does war exist in western Pennsylvania?

Credit: John Fitch, "Repression," The Steel Workers (Russell Sage Foundation, 1910), 214-20.
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