Steel strike of 1919

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Steel strike of 1919
Cossacks in action unprovoked assault upon individual during the Great Steel Strike of 1919.jpg
An unprovoked attack by mounted state police during the strike in Pennsylvania in September 1919.
DateSeptember 22, 1919 – January 8, 1920
Methods Striking
Parties to the civil conflict
U.S. Steel
Steel companies
Lead figures
365,000 [2]

The steel strike of 1919 was an attempt by the weakened Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (AA) to organize the United States steel industry in the wake of World War I. The strike began on September 22, 1919, [3] [4] and collapsed on January 8, 1920. [5]

United States federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country composed of 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.


The AA had formed in 1876. It was a union of skilled iron and steel workers which was deeply committed to craft unionism. However, technological advances had slashed the number of skilled workers in both industries. [6]

Craft unionism refers to a model of trade unionism in which workers are organised based on the particular craft or trade in which they work. It contrasts with industrial unionism, in which all workers in the same industry are organized into the same union, regardless of differences in skill.


View of a steelworker at his work of puddling, where he is "working up" his "ball of iron". (1919) The threatening big steel strike. A view of one of the strikers who is asking for more pay, at his work of puddling, where he is "working up" his "ball of iron" to be carried to the LCCN2002695622.jpg
View of a steelworker at his work of puddling, where he is "working up" his "ball of iron". (1919)

In 1892, the AA had lost a bitter strike at the Carnegie Steel Company's steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The Homestead strike, which culminated with a day-long gun battle on July 6 that left 10 dead and dozens wounded, led to a wave of de-unionization. From a high of more than 24,000 members in 1892, [7] union membership had sunk to less than 8,000 by 1900.

Carnegie Steel Company

Carnegie Steel Company was a steel-producing company primarily created by Andrew Carnegie and several close associates, to manage businesses at steel mills in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area in the late 19th century. The company formed in 1892 and was subsequently sold in 1901 in one of the largest ever business transactions of the early 20th century, to become the major component of the United States Steel Corporation. The subsequent sale made Carnegie one of the richest men in history.

Homestead, Pennsylvania Borough in Pennsylvania, United States

Homestead is a borough in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, USA, in the Monongahela River valley 7 miles (11 km) 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 States. The population of Homestead was 3,165 at the 2010 census.

Homestead strike

The Homestead strike, also known as the Homestead Steel strike, Pinkerton rebellion, or Homestead massacre, was an industrial lockout and strike which began on July 1, 1892, culminating in a battle between strikers and private security agents on July 6, 1892. The battle was one of the most violent disputes in U.S. labor history, third behind the Ludlow Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain. The dispute occurred at the Homestead Steel Works in the Pittsburgh area town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company. The final result was a major defeat for the union of strikers and a setback for their efforts to unionize steelworkers.

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 corporation. In the U.S. Steel Recognition Strike of 1901, 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. [8]

U.S. Steel US steel-producing company

United States Steel Corporation, more commonly known as U.S. Steel, is an American integrated steel producer headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with production operations in the United States and Central Europe. As of 2016, the company was the world's 24th-largest steel producer and second-largest domestic producer, trailing only Nucor Corporation.

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

In 1892, The American Federation of Labor (AFL) began organizing unskilled iron and steel workers into federal unions in 1901. Local groups 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. [9]

American Federation of Labor Federation of U.S. labor unions, 1886-1955

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was a national federation of labor unions in the United States founded in Columbus, Ohio, in December 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor union. Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers' International Union was elected president at its founding convention and reelected every year, except one, until his death in 1924. The A.F. of L was the largest union grouping in the United States for the first half of the 20th century, even after the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by unions which were expelled by the AFL in 1935 over its opposition to industrial unionism. The Federation was founded and dominated by craft unions throughout its first fifty years, after which many craft union affiliates turned to organizing on an industrial union basis to meet the challenge from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1940s.

A Directly Affiliated Local Union (DALU) 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.

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 and Midwest. But workers remained skittish after the failed 1901 strike, and the drive never got off the ground. [10]

Peter J. McArdle (1874-1940) also known as P.J. McArdle was originally from Muncie, Indiana but moved to Western Pennsylvania by 1905. He was a rolling mill worker and union council member influential in Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Steel strike of 1919. McArdle was elected to Pittsburgh City Council in 1911 with a source recording him in office for over 27 years. He was a member of the City Planning Commission when the Mt. Washington Roadway was proposed in 1912. McArdle's home in later life was on Bigham Street in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Northeastern United States region of the United States

The Northeastern United States, also referred to as simply the Northeast, is a geographical region of the United States bordered to the north by Canada, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Southern United States, and to the west by the Midwestern United States. The Northeast is one of the four regions defined by the United States Census Bureau for the collection and analysis of statistics.

Midwestern United States region that includes parts of Canada and the United States

The Midwestern United States, also referred to as the American Midwest, Middle West, or simply the Midwest, is one of four census regions of the United States Census Bureau. It occupies the northern central part of the United States. It was officially named the North Central Region by the Census Bureau until 1984. It is located between the Northeastern United States and the Western United States, with Canada to its north and the Southern United States to its south.

Union voting ballot for whether to go on strike. Stike ballot for the Steel Strike of 1919.jpg
Union voting ballot for whether to go on strike.

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 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. [11]

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 and William Z. Foster of the Chicago Federation of Labor 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. [12]


Labor leader rallying striking steel workers in Gary, Indiana. (1919) Strike leader at Gary, Ind., advising strikers LCCN2002695621.jpg
Labor leader rallying striking steel workers in Gary, Indiana. (1919)

Shortly after Armistice 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. 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. [13]

The AFL pushed back. On April 1, 1919, thousands of miners in Pennsylvania went on strike 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.

Steel workers listening to a labor organizer. (1919) The threatening steel strike LCCN2002695618.jpg
Steel workers listening to a labor organizer. (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—was unable to influence the company. [14]

The steelworkers carried out their strike threat. The September strike shut down half the steel industry, including almost all mills in Pueblo, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois, Wheeling, West Virginia; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Lackawanna, New York; and Youngstown, Ohio. The steel companies had seriously misjudged the strength of worker discontent. [15]

But the owners quickly turned public opinion against the AFL. The post-war Red Scare 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, and claimed this was evidence that the steelworker strike was being masterminded by communists 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 advisers were loath to take action with the president incapacitated.

Women steel workers in car on picket duty on steel mill property in Indiana. (1919) Girl steel workers (in automobile) on picket duty on steel mill property LCCN2002695617.jpg
Women steel workers in car on picket duty on steel mill property in Indiana. (1919)

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 state police clubbed picketers, dragged strikers from their homes and jailed thousands on flimsy charges. In Delaware, company guards were deputized and threw 100 strikers in jail on fake weapons charges. In Monessen, Pennsylvania, 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, the U.S. Army took over the city on October 6, 1919, and martial law was declared. National guardsmen, leaving Gary after federal troops had taken over, turned their anger on strikers in nearby Indiana Harbor, Indiana. [16]

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 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. [17]

Coming out of the smoke.jpg
Go back to work poster telling workers to go back to work during steel strike of 1919.jpg
Steel companies used the Red Scare to turn public opinion against the strike, and had friendly papers convince the workers the strike was lost.

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. [18]

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. [19] The steel strike of 1919 had been a complete rout[ citation needed ] 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 steel making 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. [20] 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 in 1936.

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  1. ""Mother" Mary Harris Jones urging on steel workers during the 1919 Steel Strike". Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  2. Foster, William Z. (1920). The Great Steel Strike and its Lessons. B. W. Huebsch, Inc. p. 1.
  3. Foster, William Z. (1920). The Great Steel Strike and its Lessons. B. W. Huebsch, Inc. p. 1.
  4. "The Great Steel Strike of 1919 Historical Marker". Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  5. Brody, David (1965). Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. University of Illinois Press. p. 28. ISBN   9780252013737.
  6. Brody, David (1965). Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. University of Illinois Press. p. 17. ISBN   9780252013737.
  7. Brody, David (1965). Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. University of Illinois Press. p. 26. ISBN   9780252013737.
  8. Brody, 1969, p. 130-132.
  9. Brody, 1969, p. 132-133.
  10. Brody, 1969, p. 140-45.
  11. Brody, 1969, p. 199-225; Dubofsky and Dulles, p. 219-20.
  12. Rayback, p. 285-286; Brody, 1969, p. 231-33.
  13. Dubofsky and Dulles, p. 220; Rayback, p. 286-87; Brody, 1969, p. 233-36.
  14. Brody, 1969, p. 233-44.
  15. Rayback, p. 287; Brody, 1969, p. 244-253; Dubofsky and Dulles, p. 220; .
  16. Rayback, p. 287; Dubofsky and Dulles, p. 220-21; Brody, 1969, p. 254-55.
  17. Brody, 1969, p. 255-58.
  18. Brody, 1969, p. 258–62.
  19. Brody, 1969, p. 277-78; Dubofsky and Dulles, p. 258.