Stories from PA History
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Chapter Three: Between the Wars: 1919-1938

The great demand for wartime production during World War I made it possible for thousands of Pennsylvania workers to demand higher wages and overtime pay. But these gains came at a price, as the federal government's War Labor Board, created in 1918, also cracked down on strikes and coerced many workers into signing yellow dog contracts that halted new union organization.

State Trooper assaulting bystander in Homestead, 1919.
A Pennsylvania State Trooper assaulting a pedestrian, Homestead, PA, 1919.
After the war, a surge of more than four million striking American workers demanded that wages stay at wartime levels, and that employers create pension and benefits plans. The markergreat steel strike of 1919 against U.S. Steel brought out 350,000 workers who shut down the industry in ten states. In Pennsylvania, armed company guards flanked the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company buildings and murdered labor organizer marker Fannie Sellins and miner Joseph Strzelecki. Mayors in mill towns across western Pennsylvania banned public gatherings and arrested, fined, and jailed many, like marker Mother Jones, who dared to speak without a permit in Homestead.

In Pittsburgh, the sheriff deputized 5,000 U.S. Steel employees to keep the peace, while the markerPennsylvania State Police clubbed strikers at meetings in Clairton and Glassport. U.S. Attorney Generalmarker A. Mitchell Palmer, a former pro-labor congressman from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, launched a series of raids to break into union offices, confiscate papers, and arrest 6,000 alleged radicals in thirty-three cities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. By January 1920, the strike ended in tragic defeat and fear of radicalism exploded in a "red scare."

Uncle Sam gathering men ("Spy," "Traitor," "WWI," "German money" and "Sinn Fein") in front of United States Capital with flag, "Sedition law passed."
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"Now for a round-up," a political cartoon in support of the Sedition Act of...
In the years to come, labor organizing went in two directions. On the one hand, post-war economic growth, declining union membership, and the further demise of traditional trades turned many Pennsylvanians toward educational and cultural efforts to improve workers' lives. In 1891,markerThomas J. Foster started a mail order school in Scranton for anthracite coal miners that by the 1920s was the largest correspondence school in the country.marker Unity House, founded in 1919 near Bushkill Falls, provided an educational retreat for garment workers. In 1921, the markerBryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers offered education and leadership training to working women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

On the other hand, a number of Pennsylvania companies won over their workers with health care, insurance and pension plans, and stock ownership. U.S. Steel made its plant at markerDuquesne, a showcase for "welfare capitalism." In Homestead, members of the Carnegie-endowedmarker Athletic Club swim team would set national records and win medals in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Company-run towns such as Butler and Johnstown, and railroad towns such as marker Altoona , stifled labor militancy with a combination of cultural benefits, recreation programs, and community social events.

     This photo shows that committee of men, dressed in suits, and one woman in overalls, entering a mine.
The New York Hirshfield Committee entering a mine, at the Berwind-White Coal...
Many workers, however, did not enjoy rising wages and benefits in the 1920s. Bituminous- coal miners in counties such as Westmoreland andmarker Cambria, like thousands of others, staged a series of bitter, prolonged strikes. When the United Mine Workers called a national strike in April 1922, Pennsylvania miners living in tent colonies after their expulsion from company housing held out for sixteen months in conditions that an official inquiry exposed as deplorable atmarker Windber and other mining camps. Outraged that UMW president John L. Lewis agreed to a settlement omitting the non-union miners of western Pennsylvania,marker John Brophy launched his own unsuccessful campaign to unseat Lewis.

In 1927, bituminous miners staged one of the longest and most bitter strikes in Pennsylvania coal-industry history, prompted by the importation of scabs from around the country. Miners ambushed and beat scabs, while employers evicted some 12,000 miners and their families from company housing, used private armed guards to protect company property, and banned public meetings. The suspension of civil rights again drew national attention when Judge J. N. Langham issued an injunction against hymn-singing and church services on the two lots owned bymarker the Magyar Presbyterian Church. In October 1928, the national strike ended in a major defeat for the UMW.

Photograph of the Senators posing for photograph as onlookers stand in the background. Senators are from Left to right: Senator Wagner, New York; Senator Pine, Oklahoma; Senator Gooding, Idaho; chairman Senator Wheeler, Montana, with newspaper in his pocket.
United States senators visit striking coal miners, Rossiter PA, February 1928....
The Depression redefined efforts to organize labor in Pennsylvania. Between 1927 and 1933, industrial production fell by more than 50 percent, and the state lost 270,000 manufacturing jobs, the third greatest job loss in the country. In three years, the production of bituminous coal fell from 144 million to 75 million tons, and pig iron production dropped from 14 million to 2 million tons. The value of textiles fell 60 percent, wages in metal industry plummeted from $808 million to $260 million, and the total cash receipts of state farmers dropped from $324 million to $175 million. By 1932, Pennsylvania had the largest number of families seeking relief in the country.

To provide work relief, Governor Gifford Pinchot inaugurated amarker construction program, in 1931 that put unemployed men to work paving thousands of miles of roads. Roosevelt's New Deal programs also poured millions of dollars into Pennsylvania, including themarker Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Public Works Administration, which funded construction of the markerPennsylvania Turnpike. But work relief was not sufficient, and workers across the Commonwealth formed unemployed workers councils, staged numerous strikes, and elected pro-labor candidates to public offices. In 1933, "baby strikers" brought national attention to child labor in markerAllentown .

Policeman and miners stand at the entrance of a mine.
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Bootleg coal mine accident, Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, PA, 1936.
New Deal legislation also protected workers' rights to join unions and designate representatives to negotiate their terms and conditions of employment under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. Fed up with a Republican state party that refused to offer aid, Pennsylvanians voted pro-labor Democrats into office. Under Democratic markerGovernor George Earle, the state legislature passed a wave of "Little New Deal" legislation in 1937 that supported Pennsylvania workers and abolished the markerCoal and Iron Police .

Opposition to unions, however, did not disappear. The mayor of Homestead drew public censorship when he prohibited U.S. Secretary of Labor markerFrances Perkins from meeting with steel workers in his city, but Perkins met with them at the federal United States post office anyway. Still, anthracite regions in Schuylkill County were riddled with anti-unionmarker bootleg coal miners who, during the 1930s, sunk thousands of makeshift mines and created a bootleg enterprise of $30 million a year, representing 10 percent of the total anthracite coal produced.

Photograph of a boy and a girl holding strike against sweat shop signs.
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Children striking against sweatshops in Northampton, PA, prepare to meet with...
Elsewhere the AFL, the UMW, and the newly created marker Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) fought back with renewed efforts to organize steel workers in Pittsburgh and towns of western Pennsylvania. The campaign began with the organization of themarker Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in Pittsburgh, on June 17, 1936. Under the leadership of Philip Murray, a veteran of Pennsylvania's bituminous coal wars in the early 1900s, the steelworkers scored major victories in spring 1937 when U.S. Steel signed an agreement that included recognition of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee as the bargaining agent.

Other steel companies still rejected unionization, however. In Aliquippa, the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company appealed an NLRB ruling against its flagrantly antiunion practices all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1937, the Court upheld the NLRB andmarker the right of steelworkers to bargain collectively. In this landmark ruling, the Supreme Court, for the first time in American history, guaranteed American workers the right to collective bargaining and union representation. By May, the SWOC had signed more than 100 contracts with steel companies and boasted 300,000 members.

Other sit-down strikes in 1937 helped the CIO organize workers in the rubber, textiles, and glass industries, but proved unsuccessful in themarker Hershey Chocolate Workers Sit-down Strike. In 1938 members of the AFSCME Local 437 in Philadelphia conductedmarker the first public sector strike in Pennsylvania history.

From 1919 to 1938, labor had wrung great gains in Pennsylvania. But these proved fragile, for the Depression continued, New Deal programs foundered, and corruption scandals in the state Democratic party fueled public outrage. In 1938, Republicanmarker Arthur James, backed by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, won the governor's office. In 1939 James reduced the "Little New Deal" benefits and enabled employers to bring in scabs at striking locations, thus bypassing the state Labor Relations Board. Soon enough, however, World War II initiated a new phase of huge demand for production and renewed Pennsylvania workers expectations for job protection and unionization.

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