Historical Markers
United Steelworkers of America Historical Marker
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United Steelworkers of America

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Grant St. between 3rd and 4th Aves., Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
June 17, 1986

Behind the Marker

Lee Pressman, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) counselor; Philip Murray, CIO president; and Harold Ruttenberg (speaking), research director, United Steel Workers (USW), at the "Little Steel" hearing held by the War Labor Board at the Hotel Washington in Washington, D.C., July 1.
Donald Nelson, Chairman of the War Production Board, meets with AFL president...
"Our first problem was to banish fear from the steel worker's minds," recalled Philip Murray, chairman of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. And Murray knew something about fear. Since 1920 he had served under John L. Lewis as vice president of the United Mine Workers. Toughened by combat with coal mine owners, both men drew crucial lessons from the markersteel strike of 1919. That strike's loosely organized "national committee" had led to a union disaster. American steel workers made little progress during the 1920s. The Great Depression, however, provided America's industrial workers the public and governmental support they needed to make unprecedented gains. SWOC's tight structure and bold organizing strategies formed a turning point in the nation's labor movement.

Industrial unionism in the United States got rolling when John L. Lewis broke with Samuel Gompers' trade-union dominated marker American Federation of Labor and formed the rival markerCongress of Industrial Organizations. While Gompers was content to protect "jurisdictional rights" and "craft lines," Lewis tackled the daunting job of organizing workers in America's giant automotive, electrical, mining, and other mass-production industries.

After 1933, when the New Deal's labor-friendly industrial "codes" came into effect Lewis successfully organized thousands of coal miners, but his effort ran into a stone wall with the "captive mines" owned by steel companies. Organizing steel workers might hit two birds with one stone.

Unionists were emboldened in July 1935, when Congress passed the landmark labor-friendly Wagner Act. It set up a National Labor Relations Board and required that employers bargain in good faith with union representatives. In early June 1936 Lewis and Murray inked an agreement with the venerable Amalgamated Association, a remnant of the once-mighty union that had led the markerHomestead Strike of 1892. The Amalgamated would provide charters to new local "lodges," cut loose from the AFL (it had been a charter member), and join the CIO. SWOC would fund the campaign, manage the money, and control the show. "You stand to have great power," Lewis told the Amalgamated's leaders, but no one really believed that.

The campaign to organize steel began on June 17, 1936, when SWOC took up offices in downtown Pittsburgh. Philip Murray was its chairman; he picked David J. McDonald as secretary-treasurer. As it turned out, Murray and then McDonald would lead the steelworkers' union for three decades. Initially located in the Commonwealth Building, SWOC soon moved to a handsome suite on the thirty-sixth floor of the Grant Building, at the time the city's tallest. Several prominent steel companies also had offices there, on lower stories.

SWOC kicked off the organizing campaign with spirited rallies at McKeesport and Homestead and a stirring nationwide radio address by Lewis. It staffed the new headquarters with paid professionals, and soon launched its weekly newspaper, Steel Labor. The miner's $500,000 had worked wonders.
Group portrait
USWA Amalgamated Convention, Canonsburg, PA., 1936.

During the summer of 1936 hundreds of SWOC organizers fanned out into the mill towns. They made it easy for workers to sign up, waiving the $3 initiation fee and deferring the $1 monthly dues. In six months SWOC collected 125,000 membership cards, perhaps a quarter of the entire workforce. In many ways, this was an exceptionally favorable time for unionism.

That same summer a Senate investigating committee found out that the nation's companies were spending $80 million a year fighting unions, often with unsavory and illegal tactics. Even so, fully paid-up memberships to SWOC only trickled in. Its critics wrote off SWOC as merely a paper union.

A real breakthrough came early the next year. Early in January 1937, John Lewis was lunching at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. So too, as it happened, was Myron C. Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel. The two men chatted informally for twenty minutes, then agreed to meet the next day. It was an odd moment: the head of the country's powerful mine worker's union talking cordially with the head of the country's most powerful, antiunion corporation.

Over the next weeks Lewis and Taylor met in secret perhaps a dozen times, often at Taylor's townhouse in New York City. (The meetings were so secret that both Philip Murray, Lewis' right-hand man, and Benjamin Fairless, president of the corporation, were kept in the dark. Fairless heard of the new compact only three days before the public announcement.)

The exact course of these discussions remains a mystery. However, confronted with growing union organizational muscle and with war preparations in Europe creating a heavy demand for armor plate, the corporation sought labor peace and stability. On March 2, 1937, U.S. Steel announced to the public that it had agreed to a substantial wage hike, to $5 a day in northern mills; an eight-hour day and forty-hour week, with overtime; seniority protection; a basic grievance procedure; and, most noteworthy, full recognition of SWOC as a bargaining agent for its members.

The agreement was downright shocking to anyone who remembered the union-busting tactics from the Carnegie-Frick days. Two weeks after the public announcement, the two sides met in U.S. Steel's imposing conference room to sign the formal papers. There, someone noticed a new face among the portraits of corporation executives. "Whose picture was there yesterday?" he asked. "Old markerH.C. Frick," went the reply. "They took him out. Didn't think he could stand it."
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