Pittsburgh Town is a Union Town
Pittsburgh has a dramatic and rich labor history. A big part of that history is the story of a long and sometimes bitter struggle for solidarity, fairness and democracy in the workplace. It is a struggle that is not over in Pittsburgh or around the world, but this town's story has a particular relevance for union people as we enter a new century and an increasingly global economy.
The original sin was "conspiracy" -- breathing-together, speaking together, acting together. The crime lay in the togetherness. In 1814, Pittsburgh cordwainers (shoemakers) were convicted and fined for conspiring to set their wages, to withhold their labor in order to control the price and the quality of the product of their hands and minds. Now, an individual could quit (he or she was not a slave), but if two or more acted in concert, breathed-together, and withheld their labor, that was a conspiratorial crime. The shoemakers were charged with acting "by malice or coven." Unionism was a witchcraft that demanded suppression.
Women textile workers in old Allegheny (now Northside) undertook the earliest large-scale industrial actions by workers in Pittsburgh. In 1845 and again in 1848, female and children industrial workers, 3-4,000 strong, struck the textile mills. They were fighting for the 10-hour day and 6-day week. The owners wanted 12-hour shifts and few if any concessions to Sunday worship or rest. Militant female strikers twice broke into factories and ejected strikebreakers.
In 1862, seventy women, mostly aged from sixteen to twenty, and three men were killed in Pittsburgh's worst industrial accident making shells for the union armies. The commandant had refused workers requests to clean up the gunpowder dust permeating everything and ignored stone masons protests over the use of hard, flinty, spark-causing stone for internal walks.
Pittsburgh was a center of abolitionist sentiment. Female journalist Jane Grey Swisshelm and African-American doctor, union army recruiter, and Black Nationalist Martin Delaney both published anti-slavery newspapers in the city. Abraham Lincoln carried Allegheny County by record margins in 1860 and 1864 and the city contributed heavily in both soldiers and manufacturing muscle to the union cause.
In 1877, Pittsburgh was the epicenter for perhaps the greatest social explosion in U.S. history, called "the great upheaval." In the midst of the 2nd worst depression in U.S. history, wage cuts and job combinations by the powerful railroad interests provoked a technology based revolt that sped from coast to coast, from Maine to Louisiana, New York to San Francisco. When the Pittsburgh militia refused to move against the strikers, the Philadelphia militia was summoned by the Pennsylvania railroad. When the troops fired into the large crowd, a gun battle broke out and the Philadelphians were driven from town. Over 30 buildings, 100 locomotives, and 1,000 railcars were destroyed. At least 26 were killed. The federal army freshly removed from the occupied South entered Pittsburgh without resistance.
In 1881, the American Federation of Labor was founded in Pittsburgh. It was a confederation of skilled trades and crafts. In 1892, perhaps the best-known event in American labor history pitted 300 heavily armed Pinkerton's (Frick and Carnegie's privatized army) against the town and workers. In a 12-hour gun battle, the Pinkertons' were defeated and forced to run a gauntlet of outraged women and children. The workers demanded the right to associate, to have representation, to be allowed to collectively bargain, and to participate in workplace decisions especially those involving technological change.
They also believed that they had a "certain property right to their job"-- that they should not be dismissed from their livelihood without just cause and due process. Homestead marked a watershed in both Pittsburgh and American labor relations. It set the business community on a determinedly anti-union course that endures to this day.
Following the Homestead strike, the corporations imposed their domination over virtually every aspect of cultural and civic life. Slavic workers, chosen by the steel companies for their supposed docility and lack of democratic expectations, showed they were capable of effective organization and resistance. The 1909 McKees Rocks strike demonstrated that the Slavs could organize and exercise tremendous determination. Women leaders again came to the fore. In the dramatic Westinghouse strikes of 1914 and 1916, Bridget Kenny and Anna Bell provided imaginative and non-violent leadership. They were called the "Joan of Arc of the strikers."
Back to top
In the "Hunky Steel Strike" of 1919, Fannie Sellins, organizer for the garment workers and the mineworkers, was brutally beaten to death outside the gates of the Allegheny Ludlum plant in Brakenridge north of Pittsburgh. Her battered face adorned every union hall during the 1919 steel strike. During the 1919 strike, labor's most famous radical, Mother (Mary Harris) Jones was arrested in Homestead Pennsylvania for calling a prohibited strike meeting on the center of the main street. When asked by the judge who gave her permission she answered, "Tom Paine, John Adams and Patrick Henry."
Massive ethnic intimidation and brute force (the corporation could command 25,000 men under arms in the Mon Valley) broke what became known as the "Great Steel Strike". The cynical importation of black strikebreakers from the boll weevil/Jim Crow infested south sowed bitter division inside the working class. Religious leaders who had the courage to support the strikers demands and expose the brutal suppression of the Slavs helped end the 84-hour workweek in the area's mills.
The Great Depression showed the weakness of the capitalist organization of markets and brought a massive upsurge in worker activity and organization. "Labor Democrats" organized behind Franklin Roosevelt and broke the organized political control of the corporations over the daily life of workers and their families in the mill towns. Aliquippa just down the Ohio River was called "little Siberia" and the ferocious resistance of the J&L management to the deeply held aspirations of its workforce provided the test case for the constitutionality of the Wagner Act. Workers won the right to be represented and to collectively bargain. While the protections afforded by this law have been steadily undermined, it still provides the framework for what remains of U.S. labor "relations".
During World War II, the Pittsburgh region produced more steel than Germany and Japan combined. An immense volume and variety of products flowed from the "arsenal of democracy" to the European, Asian and North African fronts. Women streamed into the factories and mills to replace the men who landed at Normandy and died at Guadalacanal. Women made shells, built gliders, welded landing craft, machined precision guns and contributed greatly to the war effort. When the war returned most women left the factories willingly or under pressure to return home and have families.
The cold war of the 1940's fractured the ranks of organized labor. The issue of Communism deeply split the labor movement. AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers of America president, Pittsburgh's Phil Murray, wanted to avoid the internecine conflict but was pushed into action by the formation of the Progressive Party in 1948 -- an action that split the labor Democrats and threatened to throw both Congress and the Presidency to the Republicans. Anti-communism ultimately, however, became a way to suppress all dissert inside unions. Many unions grew more conservative, speaking less and less often to the problems and concerns of the larger society.
In the 1960's, the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War activism, the women's movement and the environmental movement seemed to bypass or divide the unions. A long and bitter struggle by African American activists led to the integration of Pittsburgh's construction trades unions. Massive changes and shifts in the global economy began to impact Pittsburgh in the 1980's and 90's and few political or union leaders were prepared to confront the new realities. The loss of more than 100,000 industrial jobs deeply wounded the regional union movement. The 1986 USWA strike brought a continuous caster to the historic Edgar Thompson mill in Braddock, a technology change that saved the mill. The 1990's saw a long series of defensive strikes at the Pittsburgh Press, Canonsburg Hospital, Giant Eagle food markets and others succeeded in defending union jobs and standards at great cost.
The 1990's have brought new opportunities and challenges. The most dynamic union organizing has been in the service economy led by SEIU. The union construction sector is experiencing a building boom and is now actively recruiting minorities and women. All the unions that are growing are facing old problems of racism, ethnic division and prejudices of all sorts. The times change but the issues of worker solidarity, of fairness, of justice, of democracy remain. The long rich history of organized labor in Pittsburgh demonstrates that as long as workers continue to breathe-together, speak together, act together there is hope!
Back to top