Steel strike of 1959
The steel strike of 1959 was a 1959 labor union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

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...

 by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) against major steel
Steel is an alloy that consists mostly of iron and has a carbon content between 0.2% and 2.1% by weight, depending on the grade. Carbon is the most common alloying material for iron, but various other alloying elements are used, such as manganese, chromium, vanadium, and tungsten...

-making companies in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...


The strike occurred over management's demand that the union give up a contract clause which limited management's ability to change the number of workers assigned to a task or to introduce new work rules or machinery which would result in reduced hours or numbers of employees. The strike's effects persuaded President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army...

 to invoke the back-to-work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act
Taft-Hartley Act
The Labor–Management Relations Act is a United States federal law that monitors the activities and power of labor unions. The act, still effective, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr. and became law by overriding U.S. President Harry S...

. The union sued to have the Act declared unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 upheld the law.

The union eventually retained the contract clause and won minimal wage increases. On the other hand, the strike led to significant importation of foreign steel for the first time in U.S. history, which replaced the domestic steel industry in the long run.


USWA founding president Philip Murray
Philip Murray
Philip Murray was a Scottish born steelworker and an American labor leader. He was the first president of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee , the first president of the United Steelworkers of America , and the longest-serving president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations .-Early...

 died in November 1952, and David J. McDonald
David J. McDonald
David John McDonald was an American labor leader and president of the United Steelworkers of America from 1952 to 1965.-Early life:...

 was named acting president by the USWA executive board. Although observers felt that Murray had intended to push McDonald out of the union, his sudden death left McDonald in a position to take control. In 1953, the USWA executive board named McDonald president.

As president, McDonald emphasized enhanced fringe benefits
Employee benefit
Employee benefits and benefits in kind are various non-wage compensations provided to employees in addition to their normal wages or salaries...

. The election of Dwight Eisenhower as president and Republican
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

 majorities in the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 (at least from 1952 to 1954) made expansion of social programs unlikely (but Eisenhower indeed did extend many of Roosevelt's programs). Subsequently, McDonald focused negotiations
Collective bargaining
Collective bargaining is a process of negotiations between employers and the representatives of a unit of employees aimed at reaching agreements that regulate working conditions...

 on benefits such as unemployment compensation, health insurance
Health insurance
Health insurance is insurance against the risk of incurring medical expenses among individuals. By estimating the overall risk of health care expenses among a targeted group, an insurer can develop a routine finance structure, such as a monthly premium or payroll tax, to ensure that money is...

, pension
In general, a pension is an arrangement to provide people with an income when they are no longer earning a regular income from employment. Pensions should not be confused with severance pay; the former is paid in regular installments, while the latter is paid in one lump sum.The terms retirement...

s, tuition reimbursement and other items. Throughout the 1950s, however, McDonald felt an intense rivalry with the United Auto Workers
United Auto Workers
The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, better known as the United Auto Workers , is a labor union which represents workers in the United States and Puerto Rico, and formerly in Canada. Founded as part of the Congress of Industrial...

 (UAW). The UAW often won better wage and benefit packages than the Steelworkers, and were able to obtain the closed shop
Closed shop
A closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to hire union members only, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed....

. McDonald's negotiating stands often reflected this inter-union jealousy.

McDonald led the Steelworkers out on strike in 1956, winning substantial wage increases, unemployment benefits, lay-off rights, and improved pensions.

Causes of the 1959 strike

Prior to the 1959 strike, the major American steel companies were reporting high profits. This led McDonald and Steelworkers general counsel Arthur J. Goldberg to request a major wage increase. But industry negotiators refused to grant a wage increase unless McDonald agreed to substantially alter or eliminate Section 2(b) of the union's national master contract.

Section 2(b) of the steelworkers' contract limited management's ability to change the number of workers assigned to a task or to introduce new work rules or machinery which would result in reduced hours or lower numbers of employees. Management claimed that this constituted featherbedding
Featherbedding is the practice of hiring more workers than are needed to perform a given job, or to adopt work procedures which appear pointless, complex and time-consuming merely to employ additional workers. The term "make-work" is sometimes used as a synonym for featherbedding.The term...

 and reduced the competitiveness of the American steel industry.

McDonald characterized management's proposals as an attempt to break the union. Negotiations broke off, and the contract expired on July 1, 1959.

The strike

President Eisenhower asked both sides to extend the agreement and resume bargaining. McDonald and Goldberg offered to extend the contract by one year. They also proposed creating a joint committee to study changes to Section 2(b) and to the contract's benefit structure. Steelmakers rejected the offer.

On July 15, 500,000 steelworkers went on strike. The strike shuttered nearly every steel mill in the country. By the end of August, the Department of Defense
United States Department of Defense
The United States Department of Defense is the U.S...

 voiced concern that there would not be enough steel to meet national defense needs in a crisis.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, commonly AFL–CIO, is a national trade union center, the largest federation of unions in the United States, made up of 56 national and international unions, together representing more than 11 million workers...

 quickly began to pressure McDonald to end the strike. AFL-CIO president George Meany
George Meany
William George Meany led labor union federations in the United States. As an officer of the American Federation of Labor, he represented the AFL on the National War Labor Board during World War II....

 was willing to support the strike, but not if it meant negatively affecting national security
National security
National security is the requirement to maintain the survival of the state through the use of economic, diplomacy, power projection and political power. The concept developed mostly in the United States of America after World War II...

. The strike was also affecting the automaking industry
The automotive industry designs, develops, manufactures, markets, and sells motor vehicles, and is one of the world's most important economic sectors by revenue....

, which was threatening to lay off tens of thousands of Walter Reuther
Walter Reuther
Walter Philip Reuther was an American labor union leader, who made the United Automobile Workers a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic Party in the mid 20th century...

's members due to a steel shortage.

On September 28, 1959, Eisenhower met privately with McDonald and Goldberg, and threatened to invoke the back-to-work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. But McDonald was unwilling to budge on Section 2(b) without other concessions from the steelmakers. The steel companies, realizing they only needed to wait until Eisenhower forced union members back to work, refused to make any such concessions.

Invocation of Taft-Hartley

Eisenhower set in motion the Taft-Hartley machinery on October 7, and appointed a Board of Inquiry. However, Eisenhower limited the Board's mandate to clarifying the issues rather than recommending a settlement. Realizing that the strike could linger despite the use of the Taft-Hartley provisions, management offered a three-year contract with small improvements in pay and fringe benefits and binding arbitration
Arbitration, a form of alternative dispute resolution , is a legal technique for the resolution of disputes outside the courts, where the parties to a dispute refer it to one or more persons , by whose decision they agree to be bound...

 over Section 2(b). McDonald rejected the offer. He proposed a contract similar to his proposal of early July, but reduced the union's wage and benefit demand and limited the contract to two rather than three years. Working from a plan devised by Goldberg, McDonald also proposed a nine-member committee consisting of three members from labor, management, and the public to study and resolve work-rule issues. Management rejected the new proposal.

The Board of Inquiry issued its final report on October 19 and declared that there was no chance of a negotiated settlement.

On October 20, the Department of Justice
United States Department of Justice
The United States Department of Justice , is the United States federal executive department responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice, equivalent to the justice or interior ministries of other countries.The Department is led by the Attorney General, who is nominated...

 petitioned the federal district court for western Pennsylvania
United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania
The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania sits in Pittsburgh, Erie, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is composed of ten judges as authorized by federal law. The Honorable Judge Gary L. Lancaster is currently Chief Judge of the Western Pennsylvania District...

 for a Taft-Hartley injunction
An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties and may have to pay damages or accept sanctions...

 ordering the steelworkers back to work. Goldberg argued that the Taft-Hartley Act was unconstitutional, but the district court ruled for the government on October 21. However, the court agreed to a stay of the injunction until the matter was fully settled. The union appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is a federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts for the following districts:* District of Delaware* District of New Jersey...

 in Philadelphia, and lost again on October 27. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari
Certiorari is a type of writ seeking judicial review, recognized in U.S., Roman, English, Philippine, and other law. Certiorari is the present passive infinitive of the Latin certiorare...

 and set argument for November 3, 1959.

Settlement with Kaiser Steel

Meanwhile, a budding friendship between Goldberg and Kaiser Steel
Kaiser Steel
Kaiser Ventures is an American corporation, headquartered in Ontario, California. It was founded by Henry J. Kaiser to provide steel plate for the Pacific Coast shipbuilding industry, which expanded during World War II, then shrank, then expanded again during the Korean War...

 heir Edgar Kaiser
Edgar Kaiser
Edgar Fosburgh Kaiser, Jr is a Canadian financier and a former owner of the Denver Broncos American football team. He was born in Portland, Oregon on 5 July 1942 and is the grandson of shipbuilding industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. He earned a BA degree from Stanford University and an MBA degree...

 led to an independent settlement between the union and Kaiser Steel on October 26. Although the Steelworkers won only a fractionally higher wage increase than the steelmakers had proposed, the settlement included the nine-member committee proposed earlier by Goldberg and McDonald.

Defeat in the Supreme Court

On November 7, 1959, on the 116th day of the strike, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's findings. In Steelworkers v. United States, 361 U.S. 39
Case citation
Case citation is the system used in many countries to identify the decisions in past court cases, either in special series of books called reporters or law reports, or in a 'neutral' form which will identify a decision wherever it was reported...

 (1959), in an 8-to-1 per curiam decision, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Taft-Hartley Act. The justices affirmed the district court's injunction ordering the workers back to work for an 80-day cooling-off period.

McDonald reluctantly ordered his members back to work, but productivity
Productivity is a measure of the efficiency of production. Productivity is a ratio of what is produced to what is required to produce it. Usually this ratio is in the form of an average, expressing the total output divided by the total input...

 slowed due to extremely poor relationships between workers and managers. The Taft-Hartley Act required management to make a last offer and for union members to vote on this proposal. Management proposed minimal improvements in wages and benefits and the elimination of Section 2(b). McDonald turned management of the union over to Goldberg, to concentrate the legal and bargaining work in one set of hands. Goldberg convinced the leadership of the union to reject the proposal, and the members followed suit.

Nixon's intervention

Rejecting the contract was a dangerous tactic, one which could have broken the union if not for the support of Vice President
Vice President of the United States
The Vice President of the United States is the holder of a public office created by the United States Constitution. The Vice President, together with the President of the United States, is indirectly elected by the people, through the Electoral College, to a four-year term...

 Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. The only president to resign the office, Nixon had previously served as a US representative and senator from California and as the 36th Vice President of the United States from 1953 to 1961 under...

. Nixon planned to run for president in 1960
United States presidential election, 1960
The United States presidential election of 1960 was the 44th American presidential election, held on November 8, 1960, for the term beginning January 20, 1961, and ending January 20, 1965. The incumbent president, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, was not eligible to run again. The Republican Party...

, and offered his services in the hopes of negotiating a settlement which might win him labor's backing.

The Board of Inquiry, meanwhile, reconvened on November 10 and issued a second report on January 6, 1960. The major issues, the Board said, remained the size of the wage increase and Section 2(b).

In December, Nixon met privately with the steelmakers and cautioned them that the Democratic
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

 Congress would soon begin hearings on the steel strike. Neither Republicans nor Democrats would support the steel companies if the strike triggered an election-year recession, and Nixon urged management to accept the terms of the Kaiser Steel settlement. Industry executives agreed to a new contract similar to the Kaiser Steel settlement the last week of December.

Settlement of the strike

On January 15, a new 20-month contract was signed. Section 2(b) was preserved. Workers received a 7-cent an hour pay increase, 4.25 cents an hour lower than the Kaiser Steel settlement and far lower than anything McDonald had demanded. For the first time, however, the union won an automatic cost-of-living
Cost-of-living index
Cost of living is the cost of maintaining a certain standard of living. Changes in the cost of living over time are often operationalized in a cost of living index. Cost of living calculations are also used to compare the cost of maintaining a certain standard of living in different geographic areas...

 wage adjustment as well as greatly improved pension and health benefits. McDonald trumpeted the settlement as great victory (given what might have happened).

Impact of the strike

In the long run, the strike devastated the American steel industry. More than 85 percent of U.S. steel production had been shut down for almost four months. Hungry for steel, American industries began importing steel from foreign sources. Steel imports had been negligible prior to 1959. But during the strike, basic U.S. industries found Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

ese and Korean
South Korea
The Republic of Korea , , is a sovereign state in East Asia, located on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula. It is neighbored by the People's Republic of China to the west, Japan to the east, North Korea to the north, and the East China Sea and Republic of China to the south...

 steel to be less costly than American steel, even after accounting for importation costs. The sudden shift toward imported steel set in motion a series of events which led to the gradual decline of the American steel industry.

The strike also eventually ended McDonald's tenure as president of the Steelworkers. Eager to avoid a repetition of the 1959 strike, McDonald worked with steel industry executives to widen the mandate of the new nine-member commissions (now known as "Human Relations Committees"). A three-year national steel contract was signed on March 31, 1962. The union agreed to not enforce Section 2(b) and permitted increased automation, with a percentage of the profits from automation going to wage increases. But union members began to feel McDonald was not protecting their interests.

In 1965, I.W. Abel
Iorwith Wilbur Abel
Iorwith Wilbur Abel , also known as I.W. Abel, was an American labor leader.-Early life and union career:...

challenged McDonald for the presidency of the union. The February 9, election was a bitter one. Voting irregularities and challenged ballots delayed a final result until April 30. Abel won by a razor-thin margin of 10,142 votes out of 600,678 cast.
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