Stories from PA History
Making Steel
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Making Steel
Overview: "Making Steel"

Image of the Steel Works.
Edgar Thomson Steel Works, 2006.
For just over 100 years, Pennsylvania was truly "the steel capital of the world." Making steel was a great drama of wealth and poverty, of soaring skyscrapers and gritty mill towns, of the clash between the imperatives of profit and human dignity.

Pennsylvania's steel built the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State building. Its forging mills hammered out the seventy-ton axle used in George Ferris' world-famous 2,000 passenger wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as well as the Panama Canal's 110-foot-high lock gates. In turn, Pennsylvania's steel mill towns created a distinct type of industrial society portrayed in such films as Deer Hunter (1978), Flashdance (1983), and Robocop (1987).

Photograph of Homestead Steelworkers, Circa 1890.
Homestead Steelworkers, Circa 1890.
The coming of mass-produced steel in the 1870s created a modern industrial society in Pennsylvania. Farm hands from Chester County, sharecroppers from Alabama, and peasants from Slovenia became industrial workers, yoked to the time discipline of the mill whistle and the work discipline of the industry's hard driving practices.

You entered a steel mill as a laborer, in the steel mill itself if you were lucky. Common labor in the coke ovens, blast furnaces, or mill yard was just as difficult, paid less, and had little prospect for advancement. Everywhere you would meet workers of different nationalities and cultures. Ex-soldier Charles Walker learned the ropes from the casting-pit work gang - immigrants from Italy, Croatia, Germany, Russia, and Poland - then got onto the steel floor by talking with a Pennsylvania-Dutch melter. One morning Walker arrived five minutes late and got docked forty-three cents, about the price of a good pair of work gloves.

Photograph of officials from the Carnegie Companies, gathered together in a lavish ballroom.
Carnegie Company banquet in celebration of impending creation of the U. S. Steel...
A select few of Pennsylvania's citizens, Andrew Carnegie first and foremost, made indescribable wealth from steel. When he sold his holdings to J.P. Morgan, Carnegie became "the world's richest man," and for nearly two decades made every effort to give away his wealth. Amazingly enough, he succeeded after funding 2,811 public libraries, 7,689 church organs, numerous large-scale philanthropic ventures, and countless pensions - spending a total of $380 million.

In The Romance of Steel (1907), historian Herbert Casson struggled to illustrate the vast capitalization of Morgan's U.S. Steel. It took him three pages to understand the sum of $1.4 billion. The sum might build ten Panama Canals, or pay the salary of 7,000 U.S. presidents for 28,000 years, or buy gold enough to fill a forty-four car train, or provide a small fortune of $9,000 for every person in the corporation's employ.

View of the East End of Johnstown, Cambria City, Pa.
A view of the Cambria Steel Works and the East End of Johnstown, PA., circa...
There is no need for three pages of fanciful statistics to represent the modest sums that workers earned. Men sought steel mill jobs because they paid comparatively well, even though the work was grueling, hot, and dangerous. At the turn of the century, unskilled laborers in Pittsburgh steel mills made around fifteen or sixteen cents an hour, considerably less than the $3 a day needed to support a family decently. Most other workers were on tonnage rates, not hourly ones.

In 1907, the average daily pay in Homestead's open-hearth department was $2.70. Skilled "first helpers" might average $5 a day. At the time, only one worker in a hundred earned more than $6 a day. With few exceptions, a twelve-hour day was the rule until the mid-1930s.

While Carnegie enjoyed Pennsylvania's cool mountain breezes in the summertime and New York's glitzy society in the winter, mill town residents suffered the social and environmental costs of poor housing, smoky air, and fouled water. "The women in the steel towns fly a flag of defiance against the dirt," wrote journalist Mary Heaton Vorse. "It is their white window curtains. You cannot go into any foul courtyard without finding white lace curtains stretched on frames to dry. Wherever you go, in Braddock or in Homestead or in filthy Rankin, you will find courageous women hopefully washing their white curtains. There is no woman so driven with work that she will not attempt this decency." In the mill, clouds of ore dust or rolling mill scale or other grit coated workers' lungs. "Many a workman," noted labor investigator John Fitch in 1907, "justifies his daily glass of whiskey on the ground that it ‘takes the dust out of my throat."

Pressed Steel Car Company strikers gathered for a meeting.
Striking workers at McKees Rocks, PA, 1909.
Great labor battles littered the Pennsylvania landscape for decades. Trade unions in the iron industry proved unable to organize steel workers. Sadly, skilled white American trade unionists showed little interest in raising the living standards or improving the working conditions of the unskilled and semiskilled steelworkers, even though they made up three-fourths of steel mill employment. These unskilled immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were typically dismissed as "Huns" or "Hunkies."

Steel companies - before, during, and after the epic Homestead strike of 1892 - actively fought workers' efforts to form unions. With a pliant state government on their side, steel companies ran the towns, organized the police, spied on workers, and jailed, fined, or blacklisted union organizers as they saw fit. Despite numerous strikes during the long non-union era, from the 1891 Morewood Massacre through the great steel strike of 1919, workers still faced long hours and low pay.

Steel Worker Biting Picketer During Labor Strike, Aliquippa, Pa.
Reverend H.L. Queen attempting to pass through the picket lines outside the...
Steel unionism finally flourished with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal reforms. The Wagner Act of 1935 notably placed the federal government firmly on the side of organized labor. Changes in the Pennsylvania state government mattered, too. Progressive governor Gifford Pinchot (1923-27, 1931-35) reined in and finally abolished the notorious Coal and Iron Police, which for decades had served at the command of the mine and mill owners.

When the United Mine Workers helped organize steel in 1936-37, the union's secretary-treasurer was none other than lieutenant governor Thomas Kennedy. Pinchot's wife Cornelia was a force in her own right. About a showdown in Aliquippa in 1937, one union later recalled, "I thought there was going to be [a] thousand people killed. There were thousands and thousands of people congregated in the center of town. And do you know the company [Jones and Laughlin] had manual machine guns in the windows in the hotel. If need be, they was prepared to ‘mow "em down." Hard to believe, Mrs. Pinchot came into town and led the parade of steelworkers. They marched up to the Polish hall . . . and she [gave] a speech there. She spoke for the organization of the steelworkers. That was the first real break."

For a generation after World War II, active steel unionism and ample steel profits gave many blue-collar workers a middle-class lifestyle. During the repressive Cold War years the United Steel Workers of America actively expelled its communist members, the strongest supporters of increased African-American participation in the union and employment in the mills.

Furthermore, the workplace seniority system entrenched racial segregation by channeling workers' promotions within certain job lines. Black workers advanced within the blast furnace department's job lines, for example, while white workers advanced in the better-paid maintenance department. Little noticed was that, for the first time, imports of steel became larger than exports during the 116-day-long 1959 strike.

Blast Furnace Bethlehem Steel
Blast Furnace, Bethlehem, PA., 2006, by Don Giles.
This fully mature industry, with its abundant profits and high wages, simply collapsed in the 1980s. In just ten years, half the country's steelworkers marker lost their jobs. Losses were catastrophic in many Pennsylvania mill towns. Management bungling, union inflexibility, government ignorance, waves of global competition - each contributed a measure to this sad outcome.

Bethlehem Steel, once hailed as "the arsenal of America," is now a division of the International Steel Group. Steelworkers in America increasingly work not for hometown companies, but for corporations based in Europe and Asia. marker World Steel Companies. In this brave new world, mill workers struggle for new jobs, and mill towns strive for new futures.
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