Stories from PA History
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Chapter Four: Hot and Cold War

Rally to Authorize a Strike. Front View of Large Crowd at Turtle Creek Stadium on Lynn Avenue in Turtle Creek Pennsylvania. Workers Hold Signs Asking for a $2 a Day Increase. Published in the UE News December 3, 1945
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United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), Local 601 pre-strike...
Unions benefited from the huge surge in industrial production in Pennsylvania during World War II. By the end of the war, women represented 16 percent of the state's workforce, and many in a second great migration of southern African Americans to the North poured into steel mills, textiles factories, and shipyards. In return for an agreement by the marker Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) not to strike for the duration of the war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up a War Labor Board that compelled the last holdouts among the "Little Steel" companies, which were led by marker Eugene Grace's Bethlehem Steel, to recognize the steelworkers union.

During the war, SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America. In 1942, workers at the marker H. J. Heinz Co. canning and pickling factories in Pittsburgh also won the Supreme Court's permission to organize. Soon protesting Westinghouse Company workers in Pittsburgh gained a contract under the United Electrical Workers, and at its peak in 1943, the marker Sun Shipbuilding Company employed some 60,000 workers in its yards along the Delaware River, nearly 29 percent of whom were African American.

Unionized workers were less successful in other sectors. President Roosevelt pressured the AFL and CIO for no-strike pledges to guarantee continued production and fewer disputes, and when the federal government froze wages and prices in 1943, workers exploded in Pennsylvania mining districts. UMW president John L. Lewis called a strike of the bituminous and anthracite miners in 1944, but the federal government seized the mines and then temporarily took over the railroads as well.

Min Matheson with ILGWU strike workers.
ILGWU labor organizer Min Matheson speaking to striking garment workers in Pittston,...
After the war, prohibitions on pay raises and promotions were lifted and a surge of workers tried to "catch us up to labor's rightful economic condition." Although many African-American men stayed on in steel, electrical, and rail industries, many women went home. In the Wyoming Valley garment district, however, wives and daughters kept working in appalling conditions doing piece work at break-neck pace. Workers in the marker Garment Industry at Pittston, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton who tried to join the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) faced powerful mobsters, in alliance with local police who tried to stave off garment unions in the valley.

Enlisting the aid of the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters, garment workers spoke out for the ILGWU and joined educational reform leagues. Activist marker Min Lurye Matheson urged women to support Democratic candidates who promised to defend the Wagner Act and improve working conditions in the sweatshops. Finally, in 1949 the union organized the Pittston Apparel Company, and within the next fifteen years 80,000 of 180,000 Pennsylvania garment workers carried ILGWU cards. Strikes also broke out in the mining and railroad industries, where thousands of families demanded-and often won-wages to match the rising cost of living.

A victim of deadly smog is rushed to the hospital.
Smog victim on stretcher, Donora, PA, November 4, 1948.
Concerns about worker safety and the environment also surfaced more frequently after the war. The effects of tedious hours standing at machinery and rising costs of higher education were incorporated into union demands, and fringe benefits became a common point of negotiation for the AFL-CIO. Workers in iron and steel protested the noxious waste and fumes at the marker Donora Zinc Works near Johnstown and Pittsburgh. In late 1948, the pollution mingled with a dense fog that led to some twenty deaths, arousing militant demands to pass clean air acts to regulate industrial pollution. In 1959, the marker Knox Mine Disaster killed twelve men in the Wyoming Valley who were compelled to dig unsafely underneath the Susquehanna River.

President John Nelson addresses Erie City Council.
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John Nelson, President of Local 506 of United Electrical Workers, addresses...
As hot war turned into the Cold War, unions also faced growing public hostility against wage gains that were blamed for intensifying inflation. Within this context, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, over Harry S. Truman's veto, which limited the economic rights of unions and required loyalty oaths to the government. The oath led to the expulsion of nine unions from the CIO in 1949 and the silencing of leftists across Pennsylvania.

Competing unions in the same industries added fuel to these tensions. For example, the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers (IUE) pitted its concerns against the more radical United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). In the midst of vicious union in-fighting, UE president markerJohn Nelson was sued by the federal government for anti-American activities.

In Pittsburgh, strident anti-communist Justice marker Michael Musmanno fueled repression against unions, forcing some to abandon their programs of social improvement and to focus more narrowly on modest wage gains. The AFL and CIO shifted toward a more defensive posture, seeking cooperation rather than conflict with employers, and merged their two great federations of workers in 1955.

Jock Yablonski, Governor William Scranton, and others posing for this photograph.
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Governor William Scranton (center) at signing ceremony amending Pennsylvania's...
But if this merger gave more strength in numbers, it did not protect Pennsylvania unions against the economic recessions that came in waves after 1950. Deindustrialization took root in towns and cities that were home to the oldest basic work sectors, including Allentown, marker Reading, marker Erie, and Philadelphia, which lost two-thirds of its industrial jobs between 1925 and 1975.

Unions fought hard to save jobs in the traditional manufacturing and processing sectors. The steelworkers led with angry and well-organized, but largely unsuccessful strikes in 1952 and 1959, and then faced huge layoffs. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Monongahela Valley's miners and steel workers faced heartbreaking decline. Pittsburgh, the country's industrial capital in 1950, witnessed a downward spiral toward nearly 40 percent unemployment in industrial jobs by 1985. Companies migrated into new regions and new countries, where labor was cheaper and nonunion; trucking overtook much of Pennsylvania's industrial railroad transporting, and surface mining replaced well-paid underground mining jobs.

Male workers pose for this photo and one of them holds an O.I.C. sign.
Erie Opportunities Industrialization Center crew working on the Bayfront Ballet...
Could there be life for the union movement under such conditions? In 1969, UMW leader markerJoseph Yablonski railed that the union's leadership was corrupt and bureaucratic, that it had nothing in common with the daily concerns of miners. At Westinghouse and General Electric, only government contracts kept union membership up. But outside of traditional unionized industries, there were countervailing signs of growth.

In 1970, the Public Employees Relations Act established collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers. marker Public-sector unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), joined by the firefighters' and policemen's unions, brought many women and people of color into the labor movement. They also generated some of the longest strikes of the 1960s and 1970s. The pioneering program begun by Reverend Leon Sullivan called the markerOpportunities Industrialization Centers also struggled to overcome the enduring racial divisions in Pennsylvania workplaces.

People line up to get bags of food at a food bank for unemployed steelworkers in Braddock, Pennsylvania, January 25, 1983.
People line up for bags of food at a food bank for unemployed steelworkers,...
By the 1980s, strikes were less violent and shorter, and their number dropped from 470 in 1952 to a record low of 29 in 1997. In the 1980s, employers replaced striking union workers with nonunion labor. President Ronald Reagan signaled the new direction of the federal government and courts when he ordered the replacement of 8,590 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) after they struck in 1981. Emboldened by his lead, private-sector employers stepped up their own campaigns to cut wages, employ strikebreakers, hire union-busting consultants, and raid pension funds.

American private sector union membership dropped from a high of more than 35 percent of the workforce in 1948 to less than 12 percent nationwide by 2000. In this period, Pennsylvania created tens of thousands of new jobs in real estate, finance, insurance, electronics, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and other high-technology industries, but few of the new workers were organized. By 2002, only 15 percent of Pennsylvania's 5,452,000 employed wage and salary workers were unionized, and only one white-collar worker in eight was unionized. In the more unionized public sector, wages and healthcare benefits barely kept pace with inflation after 1980.

Unions have responded to global and company-based pressures with novel solutions. Some are building coalitions with social movements. Others are combining unions from related occupations into single bargaining units. Still others are hoping to make multinational corporations accountable to their employees in the United States. But more workers are performing their jobs in multiple locations, working longer hours, and facing racial and linguistic barriers.

Migrant workers have faced especially rigid barriers to forming unions in construction andmarker farm work. Pennsylvania teachers, too, periodically confront hostility to union demands because of their position serving families across the state and drawing their salaries from state coffers. In all cases, Pennsylvania's unions are struggling to adapt to the structural changes facing them as producers and citizens.

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