Historical Markers
The Great Steel Strike of 1919 Historical Marker
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The Great Steel Strike of 1919

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
1070 Braddock Ave. Braddock

Dedication Date:
September 23, 1994

Behind the Marker

View down the ship line. The nearest ship is the most complete, stretching down about 20 or thirty ships.
The Hog Island Shipyard, Philadelphia, PA, 1918.
"We are all on the firing line once more and we are going over the top as we did in 1918 over there . . . . For we are determined to lick the steel barons and Kaisers of this country as we were to lick the German Kaiser."
                                                                  -Striking steelworker, 1919.

With the ending of World War I in November 1918, many celebrating steelworkers expected their substantial wartime gains to continue. The First World War had provided American steel workers an unprecedented opportunity to improve their wages and work conditions.
Striking Steelmill Workers Holding Bulletins, September 22, 1919
Striking steel mill workers holding bulletins, Chicago, Illinois, September...

To mobilize workers' support for the war, the federal government - aware that a majority of Americans, many of them from Germany and central Europe, at first opposed it - took an extraordinary step. During the war, the federal government's newly created National War Labor Board affirmed "the right of workers to organize in trade unions" without interference or hindrance "by the employers in any manner whatsoever." For the first time in American history, the federal government required owners to bargain collectively with shop committees. The Board arbitrated 1,250 disputes between workers and employers. In the war's last months, employers even offered workers a basic eight-hour day with time-and-a-half for overtime.

Antiunion employers, however, including Bethlehem Steel's markerEugene Grace delayed the labor board's rulings.After the war was over, as American business leaders embraced what President Warren G. Harding would call a return to "normalcy," they simply ignored them. Ever since its organization in 1901 the United States Steel Corporation - the country's largest employer - had consistently maintained a rigid antiunion, "open shop" labor policy. In the labor-friendly atmosphere of the First World War, labor activists had formed a "National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers" to gather together the various union bodies representing crafts employed in steel-making.
1919 flyer urging citizens to wake up and understand that democracy is being trampled.
Ad Appearing in The National Labor Journal, Fall, 1919.
Image of Fannie Sellins
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Fannie Sellins, undated photograph.

After an markerAmerican Federation of Labor - sponsored organizing conference in Chicago during August 1918, the committee drew members and funding from twenty-four separate union bodies that included the machinists, boilermakers, electrical workers, and other craft unions; the mine workers, quarry workers, seamen, and other industry-wide unions; blast-furnace men; and the venerable Amalgamated Association, which limited its membership to skilled workers in selected finishing plants. These unionists hoped to translate labor's wartime gains into the peace. Workers also felt economically trapped between rising prices and their stagnant wages.

Initial organizing successes in the Chicago district raised the hopes of many union men, even as employers began a determined and at times vicious campaign of blacklistings, discharges, intimidation, and spying to roll back labor's wartime gains. In the Pittsburgh district, steel companies pressured towns to forbid union meetings.

A union "free speech" campaign was successful in the mid-Monongahela Valley, where marches by thousands of coal miners led by mineworker organizer William Feeney opened up Monessen, Donora, and Clairton to the union organizing campaign. In the lower Mon Valley, however, where the major U.S. Steel mills were located, company resistance was fierce. "There will be no meeting held in markerDuquesne," warned that town's mayor, James Crawford. "I'll tell you that Jesus Christ can't hold a meeting in Duquesne." Union organizers who tried to conduct a meeting there anyway, including Foster and the colorful markerMother Jones, were jailed and fined $100 each.

Six days after Mother Jones" arrest in Homestead, markerFannie Sellins was murdered while organizing coal workers. The coroner's photo of her battered head hung in steel union organizing offices during the strike.
A conference of leaders of the steel strike at the Pittsburgh headquarters. Seated at the table at left are John Fitzpatrick, organizer of the steel workers, and William Z. Foster, director of the strike.
John Fitzpatrick and William Foster meet with Pennsylvania strike leaders in...
Seven policemen posed with riot guns.
State troopers posing with riot guns, Farrell, PA, 1919.

During the summer of 1919 the loosely organized national committee faced surging rank-and-file militancy. "All over the steel district the men are in a state of great unrest," the national committee heard in mid-July. A week later the Johnstown Allied Mill Workers Council informed the national committee that unless it authorized a national strike immediately, "we will be compelled to go on strike alone here." Angry demands for direct action multiplied when the chairman of U.S. Steel, Judge E.H. Gary, snubbed overtures from the AFL's Samuel Gompers, the national committee itself, and an emissary from President Woodrow Wilson. Finally, with organizing in the central Pittsburgh district only half complete, the national committee called a strike date for Monday, September 22nd.
Ad reads The Strike has failed. Go back to work.
Steel company advertisement, "The Strike Has Failed. Go Back To Work," Pittsburgh...

Initially, the walkout succeeded far beyond the national committee's dreams, as steel mills shut down across the nation. In the Pittsburgh district, the heart of the industry, the picture was mixed. The strike closed plants at Donora and Monessen, slowed the former Carnegie mills at markerHomestead and Braddock, but hardly affected Jones and Laughlin's mill in Pittsburgh and the former Carnegie mill at Duquesne. Mills in the South stayed open. Bethlehem Steel's main plant was struck a week later. The national committee claimed as many as 365,000 strikers at the peak in the second week. Unfortunately, the federal government had disbanded the war labor board, so there was nobody to mediate the conflict.

In 1919 a total of four million American workers went out on strike - one-fifth of the nation's industrial workforce - in one of the largest waves of labor actions in American history. There were pitched battles and bombs exploded - one outside of the Washington D.C. residence of U. S. Attorney General markerA. Mitchell Palmer, a Pennsylvanian with presidential aspirations who responded to the nation's fear of foreign radicals by ordering illegal roundups of thousands of labor organizers and other "anti-American subversives." The postwar "red scare" led many newspapers to brand the national steel strike as a dangerous outbreak of foreign-fired Bolshevism, especially since so many strikers were immigrants.

Once the general public and government officials were convinced that the strikers were dangerous radicals, the steel companies held all the winning cards. Bickering among the twenty-four cooperating unions did not help either. For fourteen long weeks, the strikers held on. As late as mid-December the national committee estimated that 109,000 strikers were still out, but by January 8, 1920, it called off the strike at last: "All steelworkers are now at liberty to return to work pending preparations for the next big organization movement." That movement would not occur until the mid-1930s, when the markerCongress of Industrial Organizations led another great wave of strikes in the bleak days of the Great Depression.
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