Steel strike of 1919
The Steel Strike of 1919 was an attempt by the weakened Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (the AA) to organize the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 steel industry in the wake of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. The strike began on September 22, 1919, and collapsed on January 8, 1920.

The AA had formed in 1876. It was a union of skilled iron and steel workers which was deeply committed to craft unionism
Craft unionism
Craft unionism refers to organizing a union in a manner that seeks to unify workers in a particular industry along the lines of the particular craft or trade that they work in by class or skill level...

. However, technological advances had slashed the number of skilled workers in both industries.


In 1892, the AA had lost a bitter strike at the Carnegie Steel Company
Carnegie Steel Company
Carnegie Steel Company was a steel producing company created by Andrew Carnegie to manage business at his steel mills in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area in the late 19th century.-Creation:...

's steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania
Homestead, Pennsylvania
Homestead is a borough in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, USA, in the "Mon Valley," southeast of downtown Pittsburgh and directly across the river from the city limit line. The borough is known for the Homestead Strike of 1892, an important event in the history of labor relations in the United...

. The Homestead Strike
Homestead Strike
The Homestead Strike was an industrial lockout and strike which began on June 30, 1892, culminating in a battle between strikers and private security agents on July 6, 1892. It was one of the most serious disputes in U.S. labor history...

, which culminated with a day-long gun battle on July 6 that left 12 dead and dozens wounded, led to a wave of de-unionization. From a high of more than 24,000 members in 1892, union membership had sunk to less than 8,000 by 1900.

The union attempted to organize workers in the tin industry, but a sudden wave of industry consolidations left the union facing the gigantic U.S. Steel
U.S. Steel
The United States Steel Corporation , more commonly known as U.S. Steel, is an integrated steel producer with major production operations in the United States, Canada, and Central Europe. The company is the world's tenth largest steel producer ranked by sales...

 corporation. In the U.S. Steel Recognition Strike of 1901
U.S. Steel Recognition Strike of 1901
The U.S. Steel Recognition Strike of 1901 was an attempt by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers to reverse its declining fortunes and organize large numbers of new members. The strike failed....

, the union struck the fledgling company and won nearly all its demands. But the union's executive board wanted more and rejected the pact. U.S. Steel was able to muster its resources and break the strike.

By the end of World War I, the AA was a shell of its former self.

Roots of the crisis

The American Federation of Labor
American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...

 (AFL) began organizing unskilled iron and steel workers into federal unions
Directly Affiliated Local Union
A Directly Affiliated Local Union is a U.S. labor union that belongs to the AFL-CIO but is not a national union and is not entitled to the same rights and privileges within the Federation as national affiliates.Legally, the AFL-CIO is the parent union of the DALU, and the AFL-CIO is responsible...

 in 1901. Local unions of wire drawers, house men, tube workers, blast furnace men and others had all formed unions. The Federal Association of Wire Drawers was chartered in 1896, the Tin Plate Workers' Protective Association in 1899, the International Association of Blast Furnace Workers in 1901, and the International Association of Tube Workers in 1902. Most internationals disbanded after a short time, but many local federal unions became deeply entrenched in the workplace.

But the AA's insistence on retaining its craft union identity kept it from establishing a stronger presence in the metals industries. The union was in crisis, however. The steel industry was growing quickly, and the skilled jobs in which AA members worked were disappearing. The union had to act in order to save itself. At the November 1909 AFL convention, AA president P.J. McArdle introduced a resolution, which quickly passed, calling for an organizing drive at U.S. Steel. By December, organizers were flooding plants throughout the Northeast
Northeastern United States
The Northeastern United States is a region of the United States as defined by the United States Census Bureau.-Composition:The region comprises nine states: the New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont; and the Mid-Atlantic states of New...

 and Midwest
Midwestern United States
The Midwestern United States is one of the four U.S. geographic regions defined by the United States Census Bureau, providing an official definition of the American Midwest....

. But workers remained skittish after the failed 1901 strike, and the drive never got off the ground.

The AFL then attempted to organize workers on the AA's behalf. The AFL's strategy was twofold. First, the federation would wait for a strong upturn in economic conditions. When workers felt less dependence on their employer and showed signs of restiveness, the organization would initiate an organizing effort. Second, the federation would create staff-driven unions run from national AFL headquarters. Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers was an English-born American cigar maker who became a labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor , and served as that organization's president from 1886 to 1894 and from 1895 until his death in 1924...

 and other AFL leaders had a nativist view of the unskilled immigrants working in steel plants. Distrusting immigrant workers to manage their own affairs, the AFL intended to run unions for them.

These assumptions doomed the organizing drive. The AFL did not account for the hardening anti-union attitudes of U.S. Steel executives and plant managers, and the federation had no real plan to counterbalance the vast financial resources the company would pour into anti-union espionage, strikebreaking and union avoidance measures. When the AFL did organize a local union, the federation's patronizing attitudes and management style alienated workers and left the local union powerless.

During World War I, the AA saw some limited growth. Inflation pushed restive employees to demand wage increases which the AFL and the AA were quick to claim credit for. But membership growth remained weak and scattered rather than substantive and strategic. To encourage more organizing, the AFL formed a National Committee for Organizing the Iron and Steel Workers. More than 15 AFL unions participated in the committee, while 24 claimed jurisdiction over portions of the steel industry. John Fitzpatrick
John Fitzpatrick (unionist)
John Fitzpatrick was an Irish-born American trade union leader. He is best remembered as the longtime head of the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor from 1906 until his death in 1946.-Early years:...

 and William Z. Foster
William Z. Foster
William Foster was a radical American labor organizer and Marxist politician, whose career included a lengthy stint as General Secretary of the Communist Party USA...

 of the Chicago Federation of Labor
Chicago Federation of Labor
The Chicago Federation of Labor is an umbrella organization for unions in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It is a subordinate body of the AFL-CIO, and as of 2011 has about 320 affiliated member unions representing half a million union members in Cook County....

 were the committee's leaders.

But the organizing drive was hampered by the refusal of many of the participating unions to provide resources and support, and by the committee's lack of a mechanism to enforce jurisdictional agreements and requisition funds. Although the National Committee had some initial success in establishing local steelworker councils, these councils never received formal recognition from the AFL or the AA.


Shortly after Armistice Day
Armistice Day
Armistice Day is on 11 November and commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day...

, AFL organizers in and around Pittsburgh began to be harassed by the steel companies: permits for meetings were denied, meeting halls could not be rented (when they were, the local Board of Health closed the hall), Pinkerton agents stopped organizers at the train station and forced them to leave town, and literature was seized. The AFL sought assistance from its political allies, but the harassment continued. The anti-union pressure spread to the Midwest and West
Western United States
.The Western United States, commonly referred to as the American West or simply "the West," traditionally refers to the region comprising the westernmost states of the United States. Because the U.S. expanded westward after its founding, the meaning of the West has evolved over time...

. As the post-war recession affected the economy, plant managers targeted union supporters and those with large families for dismissal in order to ensure that union efforts were stifled.

The AFL pushed back. On April 1, 1919, thousands of miners in Pennsylvania went on strike
Strike action
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...

 to demand that local officials allow union meetings. Terrified town mayors soon issued the required permits. The mass meetings whipped up pro-union sentiment. Steelworkers felt betrayed by the broken promises of employers and the government to keep prices low, raise wages and improve working conditions.

The AFL held a national steelworkers' conference in Pittsburgh on May 25, 1919, to build momentum for an organizing drive but refused to let the workers strike. Disillusioned employees began to abandon the labor movement. The National Committee debated the strike issue through June and July. Worried committee members, seeing their chance for solid membership gains slipping away, agreed to a strike referendum in the mills in August. The response was 98% in favor of a general steelworker strike to begin on September 22, 1919.

As the strike deadline approached, the National Committee attempted to negotiate with U.S. Steel chairman Elbert Gary. The committee also asked for President Woodrow Wilson's help. Telegrams and letters were sent back and forth, but Gary refused to meet, and Wilson—on his ill-fated tour to drum up support for the League of Nations
League of Nations
The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace...

—was unable to influence the company.

The steelworkers were forced to carry out their strike threat. The September strike shut down half the steel industry, including almost all mills in Pueblo, Colorado
Pueblo, Colorado
Pueblo is a Home Rule Municipality that is the county seat and the most populous city of Pueblo County, Colorado, United States. The population was 106,595 in 2010 census, making it the 246th most populous city in the United States....

; Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...

, Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

, Wheeling, West Virginia
Wheeling, West Virginia
Wheeling is a city in Ohio and Marshall counties in the U.S. state of West Virginia; it is the county seat of Ohio County. Wheeling is the principal city of the Wheeling Metropolitan Statistical Area...

; Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Johnstown is a city in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, United States, west-southwest of Altoona, Pennsylvania and east of Pittsburgh. The population was 20,978 at the 2010 census. It is the principal city of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Cambria County...

; Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio and is the county seat of Cuyahoga County, the most populous county in the state. The city is located in northeastern Ohio on the southern shore of Lake Erie, approximately west of the Pennsylvania border...

; Lackawanna, New York
Lackawanna, New York
Lackawanna is a city in Erie County, New York, U.S., located just south of the city of Buffalo in the western part of New York state. The population was 18,141 at the 2010 census. The name derives from the Lackawanna Steel Company...

; and Youngstown, Ohio
Youngstown, Ohio
Youngstown is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio and the county seat of Mahoning County; it also extends into Trumbull County. The municipality is situated on the Mahoning River, approximately southeast of Cleveland and northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania...

. The steel companies had seriously misjudged the strength of worker discontent.

But the owners quickly turned public opinion against the AFL. The post-war Red Scare
First Red Scare
In American history, the First Red Scare of 1919–1920 was marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. Concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and alleged spread in the American labor movement fueled the paranoia that defined the period.The First Red...

 had swept the country in the wake of the Russian revolution of October 1917. The steel companies took eager advantage of the change in the political climate. As the strike began, they published information exposing National Committee co-chairman William Z. Foster's past as a Wobblie and syndicalist
Syndicalism is a type of economic system proposed as a replacement for capitalism and an alternative to state socialism, which uses federations of collectivised trade unions or industrial unions...

, and claimed this was evidence that the steelworker strike was being master-minded by communists
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 and revolutionaries. The steel companies played on nativist fears by noting that a large number of steelworkers were immigrants. Public opinion quickly turned against the striking workers.
Only Wilson's stroke on September 26, 1919, prevented government intervention, since Wilson's advisors were loath to take action with the president incapacitated.

The federal government's inaction permitted state and local authorities and the steel companies room to maneuver. Mass meetings were prohibited in most strike-stricken areas. Veterans and tradesmen were pressed into service as deputies. The Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a U.S. state that is located in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The state borders Delaware and Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, New York and Ontario, Canada, to the north, and New Jersey to...

 state police clubbed picketers, dragged strikers from their homes and jailed thousands on flimsy charges. In Delaware
Delaware is a U.S. state located on the Atlantic Coast in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It is bordered to the south and west by Maryland, and to the north by Pennsylvania...

, company guards were deputized and threw 100 strikers in jail on fake weapons charges. In Monessen, Pennsylvania
Monessen, Pennsylvania
Monessen is a city in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 8,669 at the 2000 census. In 1940, 20,257 people lived there. In 1990 the population was 13,026. Steel-making was a prominent industry in Monessen, which was a Rust Belt borough in the "Mon Valley" of...

, hundreds of men were jailed then were promised release if they agreed to disavow the union and return to work. After strikebreakers and police clashed with unionists in Gary, Indiana
Gary, Indiana
Gary is a city in Lake County, Indiana, United States. The city is in the southeastern portion of the Chicago metropolitan area and is 25 miles from downtown Chicago. The population is 80,294 at the 2010 census, making it the seventh-largest city in the state. It borders Lake Michigan and is known...

, the U.S. Army took over the city on October 6, 1919, and martial law
Martial law
Martial law is the imposition of military rule by military authorities over designated regions on an emergency basis— only temporary—when the civilian government or civilian authorities fail to function effectively , when there are extensive riots and protests, or when the disobedience of the law...

 was declared. National guardsmen, leaving Gary after federal troops had taken over, turned their anger on strikers in nearby Indiana Harbor, Indiana.

Steel companies also turned toward strikebreaking and rumor-mongering to demoralize the picketers. Between 30,000 and 40,000 unskilled African-American and Mexican American
Mexican American
Mexican Americans are Americans of Mexican descent. As of July 2009, Mexican Americans make up 10.3% of the United States' population with over 31,689,000 Americans listed as of Mexican ancestry. Mexican Americans comprise 66% of all Hispanics and Latinos in the United States...

 workers were brought to work in the mills. Company officials played on the racism of many white steelworkers by pointing out how well-fed and happy the black workers seemed now that they had 'white' jobs. Company spies also spread rumors that the strike had collapsed elsewhere, and they pointed to the operating steel mills as proof that the strike had been defeated.

The AFL sabotaged the strike in several ways. When the AA demanded that the AFL contribute to strike relief, Gompers sarcastically asked how much money the AA intended to contribute. Few unions on either the National Committee or in the AFL contributed relief funds.

As October and November wore on, many AA members crossed the picket lines to return to work. AA affiliates collapsed because of the member infighting this caused. Unions on the National Committee, squabbling over jurisdiction in the steel mills, publicly accused one another of failing to support the strike.

The Great Steel Strike of 1919 collapsed on January 8, 1920. The Chicago mills gave in at the end of October. By the end of November, workers were back at their jobs in Gary, Johnstown, Youngstown and Wheeling. The AA, ravaged by the strike and watching its locals collapse, argued with the National Committee for a unilateral return to work. But the National Committee voted to keep the strike going against the union's wishes.

The strike dragged on in isolated areas like Pueblo and Lackawanna, but the job action decimated the AA. AA president Michael F. Tighe demanded that the National Committee disband; his motion failed. Tighe withdrew from the National Committee. Absent the union with primary jurisdiction over the steel industry, the National Committee ceased operating.

The steel strike of 1919 had been a complete rout for the American labor movement.


Almost no union organizing in the steel industry occurred in the next 15 years.
Advances in technology, such as the development of the widestrip continuous sheet mill, made most of the skilled jobs in steelmaking obsolete.

When the AA considered calling a national strike in 1929 to demand that the new technology be rejected, nearly every AA affiliate returned its charter to the international rather than obey the strike order.

By 1930, the AA had only 8,600 members. Its leadership, burned by failed strikes in 1892, 1901 and 1919, turned accommodationist and submissive.

The AA, which had only a minor role to play in the steel strike of 1919, remained moribund until the advent of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee
Steel Workers Organizing Committee
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee was one of two precursor labor organizations to the United Steelworkers. It was formed by the CIO in 1936. It disbanded in 1942 to become the United Steel Workers of America....

in 1936.
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