Forged in Steel

David Pacchioli
January 01, 1999
person in coat with factory in background

When the steelworkers finally walked out, on the night of May 12, 1937, it was as though the whole of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, had risen from its bondage. The entire population, it seemed, had gathered in the center of town, around the long tunnel that made the main entrance to the immense Jones & Laughlin mill. The mill itself, a clanking, hissing, roaring assemblage of individual manufactories which sprawled for over four-and-a-half miles along the Ohio River and employed 11,000 men—virtually all of the town's workforce—stood nearly empty. "For the first time in years," wrote Meyer Bernstein, a young labor organizer on the scene, "the valley is not brilliant red at night."

Exactly a month before, the Supreme Court had ruled against J&L in a decision that would stand as perhaps the most important in U.S. labor history. Upholding the Wagner Act, the Court ordered the reinstatement of steel workers the company had fired for trying to organize a union, ensuring the fundamental right to bargain collectively. In March, U.S. Steel, the largest steel company in America, had become the first to recognize the newly formed Steel Workers Organizing Committee (or SWOC). The workers of Aliquippa wanted similar recognition.

In Pittsburgh, J&L chairman Horace E. Lewis, after weeks of stonewalling, had dangled a last-minute offer: He would sign no contract now, but would agree to allow an election in ten days or two weeks. If a majority of workers voted for the SWOC, J&L would have to recognize the union. Fearing a trap, and the intense pressure the company could bring on its employees in the interim, the SWOC called the men out. The strike was on.

The first wave of pickets, some 500 men, arrived at the tunnel at 9:30 p.m. and proceeded to drape the main gate with American flags. When the second shift emerged from the plant at 11:00, no one, or almost no one, moved to replace them. "Four or five damn fools, mostly old men who had no notion of what was going on, tried to get thru the gauntlet," Bernstein wrote. "They were pretty badly beaten." The crowd swelled to several thousand, spilling over to the nearby train station and the parking lots across the street. People hung out of windows. The mood was pent-up anger; workers turned over a mail truck they thought was trying to carry food in to "scabs." Trains, which ordinarily brought men to work, were not allowed to stop. "SWOC may have called it," Bernstein wrote of the strike in those early hours, "but it is in the hands of anybody who can lead. . . . We organizers have no more control than our lungs can bring us."

three men in front of store window

Rumors flew—of an armed counterattack making ready; of strikebreakers carried in by boat along the Ohio. The local police arrived with steel helmets and tear gas, but could not penetrate the line. The state cops, more sympathetic to the strikers, kept a respectful distance. As the night wore on, however, there was very little violence.

The next day the mood turned grimly quiet. "There was no singing on the picket lines," Bernstein reported. "It poured and it was cold. Nobody gave a damn. The lines scarcely thinned as the rain came down in torrents." Women and children waited and slept in the tunnel along with the men.

On the morning of the 14th, Governor George Earle, architect of Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal" and a friend of labor, went to Aliquippa to appraise the situation. J&L police, apparently not recognizing the governor's car, met him with raised rifles. Earle got out and gave the offenders a tongue lashing, warning that they had better keep the peace. Significantly, to those observing, he said nothing to the workers.

It was perhaps a turning point. Soon after, Joe Timko, the tough veteran organizer who headed operations in Aliquippa, was called to Pittsburgh. That afternoon Timko returned waving a preliminary contract: the company had agreed to the union's terms. There would be an election within the week. The strike was over, only 40 hours after it had begun. "Think of it," Bernstein wrote. "The toughest corporation in America . . . has been forced to capitulate."

The unionization of the steel industry fits a pattern often repeated across the long and bruising history of American labor. As in coal and other basic industries, steel's management, with precious few exceptions, was fiercely anti-union. Its reigning barons, beginning with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick in the 1870s, were both immensely powerful and utterly ruthless in the protection of their and their stockholders' interests. By convincing the public that unions were dangerously un-American, and by the judicious use of intimidation and violence, they had for decades maintained the "open" shop, where workers remained free to accept whatever management offered.

By the early '30s, union membership across all American industries was at a low ebb, and the Depression was threatening to undo the labor movement once and for all. Then came the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and the strong medicine of FDR's New Deal. Passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932 and the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, both of which included substantial provisions for workers' rights, shocked new life into the labor movement.

A new dynamism also pulsed within labor's leadership. John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and other progressives were pushing the concept of industry-wide unions, an alternative to unions organized by individual trades. Industrial unionism, they argued, was the only way to end the fragmentation and in-fighting that had stymied labor's progress. In 1936, Lewis and others split from the conservative, trade-based American Federation of Labor to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations. One of the CIO's first outgrowths was the Steelworkers Organizing Committee.

Labor historians have tended to emphasize this top-down model of steel's unionization, acccording to Lynn Vacca, a Ph.D. student in history at Penn State. "Steel's original organizers—and the money to organize—did come from outside," Vacca acknowledges, "from the mineworkers and other industries that had already been unionized. So there's this perception that there wasn't a groundswell among rank-and-file steelworkers, that it was more a case of these outsiders recognizing the strategic importance of steel and stepping in."

Even after the union was formed, she adds, "The perception has been that the real development during this period was at the national level, that ordinary workers hadn't done that much to build their union." After five years spent combing the records of one steelworkers' local, Vacca disagrees.

Her own interest in labor history stems from the experience of her immigrant grandparents—and from the difference between their experiences and her own. "My father is Italian and German, my mother Norwegian and Dutch," says the Ventura, California native. "English was a second language for all of my grandparents. Yet very little of that ethnic identity persists in my generation. I have always been intrigued by how quickly my family assimilated. I'm interested in that process of transformation, what goes into it. What role does work experience play?"

Graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1981 with a degree in political science, Vacca had her own work experience for ten years, first in California state politics, then in local government, then with the wine and grape association, before deciding to return to graduate school. In her first semester at Penn State, in the fall of 1993, Vacca had a seminar with labor historian Daniel Letwin. For a term paper, Letwin encouraged her to make use of the voluminous Historical Collections and Labor Archives in Penn State's Pattee library. The HCLA, among other things, is the official repository for the historical records of the United Steel-workers of America. Vacca has basically been there ever since.

Delving into the steelworkers' papers, Vacca was especially taken with the abundance of files documenting the early existence of individual USWA locals, reams of material that open a window into day-to-day union operations. The most comprehensive of these local collections was that for USWA Lodge 1211, of Aliquippa.

"It had a full set of meeting minutes, correspondence, oral histories . . . all the daily operations," she remembers. "The more I looked at the records, the more interested I became. Not just in what happened to immigrant workers, but in the whole story of unionization—what caused it, how it came about, what it did for the lives of these workers." In short, she says, "what happened in Aliquippa goes directly to the question of what is a union? Is it merely an economic lever, or is it an engine for social change?"

Aliquippa in the mid-'30s was the quintessence of a company town. Its history begins in 1907, the year when Jones & Laughlin, looking to expand its operations from Pittsburgh's South Side, bought a large, hilly section of riverfront property at the former site of the Woodlawn amusement park, 20-odd miles northwest of the city. There, during the boom years of the next two decades, the company built a giant modern mill, and, to go with it, an industrial town whose population eventually reached some 30,000 people. In 1928, the name was changed from Woodlawn to Aliquippa, after a local Indian princess. The town's isolation, and the fact that J&L owned almost all of it—houses, utilities, bus system, banks—soon gave rise to another name: Little Siberia.

It was a dizzyingly polyglot place. The company actively recruited immigrants, figuring that they would be both easier to control and willing to do the hard, dirty work of the mill. Freshly arrived Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Greeks, Syrians, Serbs, Croats, and Hungarians worked alongside native-born Irish, African Americans (themselves migrants from the rural South), and Anglo-Saxons. The babel of languages was considered an advantage: Workers who couldn't understand one another would be less likely to fraternize, or to organize. Each ethnic group was assigned to live in one of a dozen numbered housing plans, and strongly discouraged from straying into other neighborhoods. Town and company police forces, whose presence and authority often seemed inter-changeable, patrolled the streets, preventing streetcorner gatherings.

Long-time J&L boss Tom Girdler took pride in having built the Republican political machine that controlled the town's institutions. The newspaper, the Aliquippa Gazette, regularly ran editorials likening union organizers to "bloodsuckers" and "mad dogs" who should be met with violence. On election day, many workers later remembered, the company took no chances. J&L workers were driven in company vehicles from the plant to the polls, where, Vacca says, "they were even timed in the voting booth, given just enough time to vote a straight ticket. If they didn't get out quickly enough they knew their ballots would be destroyed." Voting Democrat, or not voting at all, might well mean a worker would lose both his job and his house.

four men stand in front of sign “Steel Workers Organizing Committee”

During the national steel strike of 1919, Girdler bragged, union organizers hadn't even set foot in Aliquippa: They were turned away at the train station by police. In 1933, when the New Deal legislation emboldened organizers for the AFL-affiliated Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers to try again, the company got even tougher. Oral histories and the transcript of a National Labor Relations Board hearing held in Pittsburgh in November 1934 suggest a reign of terror: organizers harassed and beaten; workers shadowed and threatened, their homes raided by police, their property destroyed. Refused entry into town, representatives of the Amalgamated set up operations across the river in neighboring Ambridge, where J&L's grip was less tight, and snuck across the bridge. Even in Ambridge, they were tailed, shaken down for union cards, rousted from boarding houses. J&L "stoolies," carefully recruited from every ethnic group, routinely infiltrated organizing meetings; the police copied the license-plates of cars parked outside.

Somehow, Vacca relates, the Amalgamated managed to sign up enough workers to start a local affiliate, Beaver Valley Lodge 200. The company's attempts at intimidation only intensified. Lodge officers' homes were subjected to round-the-clock surveillance; neighbors and visitors were followed and questioned. "We received word yesterday," the Lodge president wrote in early 1935 to Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, "that the police department of the Corporation had taken into the plant a machine gun, gas guns, shotguns and rifles, and placed them at convenient places." He adds, plaintively, "We are American Citizens, not Reds, as the police say we are."

In another incident, a laid-off worker who had been seen collecting signatures for the union abruptly vanished, to the dismay of his wife and seven children. It was later found that he had been dragged off the street by police on unspecified charges, held in jail for some days, then spirited 60 miles to a state mental hospital, where he was committed. When union officials finally determined his whereabouts, they contacted the governor, reform-minded Gifford Pinchot, who ordered the man's release. Stirred to anger, Pinchot also sent a detachment of state police to protect Aliquippa's citizens. First lady Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, herself an outspoken labor advocate, traveled to town to give a speech. "I am against Jones and Laughlin first, last, and all the time," she told a large crowd of workers. "I am with you in the fight you are making . . . for the chance to call your souls your own." Several of the men who attended Mrs. Pinchot's speech were fired—veteran workers who suddenly, according to later company testimony, became incompetent or negligent or violent.

In defiance of such tactics, the new local continued to expand; eventually about 6,000 men were willing to risk identification as union members. Then, rather suddenly, things began to fizzle. There were several reasons, Vacca says. J&L fired all the lodge officers. Simultaneously, the company sold many workers on the idea of an in-house, company-controlled union. In May of 1935, the Supreme Court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act as unconstitutional, a deeply demoralizing blow. Finally, Vacca notes, the Amalgamated, a traditional trade union, was simply too conservative for many of its members. By the spring of 1936, membership in Lodge 200 had sagged to fewer than 100 men.

When Joe Timko and his SWOC team showed up in Aliquippa a few months later, however, they were not entering a vacuum. The passage of the Wagner Act in June 1935, heralding the Second New Deal, had given fresh hope to the progressive movement. Some of the more activist members of the old Lodge 200 had already formed an organization called the Democratic Social Club, which would go on to become a potent force in local politics. Timko held his first meeting at the Club, after which 14 of the 18 men who attended were fired. By that time, however, the town was so ripe for change that, as Meyer Bernstein would write, "Only 11 months' work prepared the way so well that the men had to stay out only a day and a half . . . to get the best steel contract yet."

The longer you look, the more you see that the development and growth of the union was not something imposed from outside," Vacca says. "The workers in Aliquippa had been trying to organize themselves for a long time, under very trying circumstances. They needed help—in the form of government support and experienced organizers. But when it came, they were ready for it."

The early years after recognition, 1937-42, form the real heart of Vacca's study. Piecing together the wealth of detail left behind in the Penn State archives and in other collections in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, she has come up with a ground-level picture of the developing union.

There were, she reports, inevitable growing pains. The understandable caution of the CIO's national leadership, its emphasis on building a solid peace with management after having won the war, sometimes clashed with a rank and file whose appetite had been whetted for confrontation. The leadership was keen to demonstrate to both management and the American public that the union was trustworthy, and disciplined. "Strikes, walkouts, sit-downs, and other stoppages of work constitute a violation both of our contracts and the policy of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee," SWOC president Philip Murray reminded workers in the inaugural issue of The Union Press, Lodge 1211's newspaper. "They fortify the position of those reactionary companies who are refusing to sign contracts on the ground that the contracts have no value."

"[The union's] officers and grievance committeemen are working continuously," a Union Press editorial simultaneously re-assures, "but most of the members know nothing about their work." These officers, local men who had stepped into leadership roles after recognition, felt pressure from both sides. "In those early years," Vacca acknowledges, "the local leadership pretty much went along with the national. There weren't many challenges." Directives like the no-strike rule came down, and were dutifully enforced. Resolutions submitted by the local members, on the other hand, numerous as they were, sometimes seemed to be ignored. Some observers have criticized the SWOC for this, Vacca notes, dubbing it an undemocratic, hierarchical institution from the start. She quotes labor historian Steven Fraser, who called the SWOC an effort to build a mass movement "by bureaucratic-administrative fiat."

old photo of union protesters

Vacca reads things differently. The rank and file, she suggests, found ways to make their voices heard. One mechanism they readily adopted was the new grievance process, a system of arbitration for resolving disputes over wages, job assignments, insurance claims, and any other issues covered by the contract. The grievance files for the 1211 fill 13 large boxes in the Penn State archives. For each case, a faded manila folder holds a complaint form filled out in triplicate by a union committeeman, a typed transcript of one or more meetings between representatives of the company and the union, and a tersely worded resolution: the worker's request approved or denied, and the grounds.

A peek into these folders is a glimpse at life in the mill: There's the clean-up man on the graveyard shift who complains that he was wrongly disciplined for leaving the blast pit dirty; the millwright who asks for a rate increase, from 821½ to 90 cents an hour, to match others doing the same work; the group from the seamless-tube division that requests a new bath house and changing room, "the old one being so crowded it is impossible to keep it sanitary." If a case could not be resolved at the shop-floor level, there was a clear chain of appeal; at its upper end sat an outside "umpire" with authority from the National Labor Relations Board.

"This process," Vacca says, "is something the workers really saw as evidence of their economic citizenship. Here was their chance to stand up and say things were unfair, and to get them resolved. Particularly for the immigrant and black workers, who had always been restricted to the lowest, dirtiest jobs, here was protection from the arbitrary decisions of foremen. It was a system they could use—and they used it."

The voices of the workers ring even more clearly from the minute books of the 1211's monthly meetings. A trio of oversized ledgers, their pages somewhat fragile now, these volumes are handwritten in a variety of inks by a succession of recording secretaries with varying degrees of reportorial flair. Amid the motions raised, seconded, and carried or defeated, on matters ranging from political endorsements to establishing a union baseball team (the latter, a supporter argues, "could invade parts of the community that our ordinary publicity couldn't touch, and create good-will there"), are plenty of spirited challenges and complaints:

"We want to be paid every 2d Friday, not on the tenth of the month. What can we do about it?"

"The grievance committee is not doing enough. The shop stewards should be better trained."

"How come the members of the Relief Board are all Republicans?"

"Why isn't our president at this meeting, when he is being paid?"

"The men in the machine shop are complaining about you. They're not getting enough time."

"I don't like the way Mr. Wood is doing things."

Periodically, too, the local officers will speak up in their own defense. "Every man on this platform has the union in his heart from the bottom up . . .," begins one such plea.

A persistent problem in those early years, before the closed (i.e., all-union) shop made a deduction from each worker's paycheck automatic, was the collection of union dues. "Some people would conclude that this means the workers didn't feel a strong connection to their union," Vacca says, "but I think it's just human nature. There was plenty of involvement."

Aliquippa's steelworkers, Vacca writes, "had a vision for how the union would reshape their experiences as steelworkers. They knew what they wanted to achieve both in the mill and community, and took direct action to achieve these goals." The clearest proof of this is the wholesale transformation of the town in the decade after recognition. As Vacca says simply, "The community was redefined." Overnight, it seemed, Aliquippa went from a closely held anti-union stronghold to a proud, pro-union community.

Intimidation ceased. For the November 1937 election, the SWOC put together a slate of Democratic candidates, all but one of whom were victorious over their Republican rivals. A pro-union candidate was elected as burgess, the equivalent of mayor. "It was moved and seconded that local lodge 1211 get behind the burgess and get him to discharge the whole police force," the union minutes record early in 1938. Soon after, the force was indeed reconstituted, with local men hired to replace officers who had been brought in from other towns for more efficient union-busting.

With help from the steelworkers, other job groups in town—the municipal employees, the barbers, the stagehands and movie projectionists—were quickly unionized. The Aliquippa Gazette, once vehemently anti-union, "became very responsive to workers' rights," Vacca says, even offering to print a daily column written by lodge 1211's officers.

Union committees were formed to address housing and public works issues, find jobs for the unemployed, make contact with other steel locals in Pennsylvania and Ohio, organize picnics and forums on current affairs, and prepare members and their families for U.S. citizenship. The union also attempted to heal some of the ethnic and racial divisions that the company had fostered as a way to prevent organizing. Reporting on the reinstatement of 15 workers who had been unfairly discharged, Paul Normile, the local's first president, took pains to note that "the very first man the union negotiated for was a colored man. . . . There is no discrimination whatsoever in union affairs between men of different races, nationalities, and creeds. They're all alike: union steel workers."

By 1940, for the first time in Aliquippa's history, the Democrats had assumed control of the city council, and soon after that they took charge of the school board as well. "Here's where I would challenge those historians who say that the unions coming out of the '30s were narrowly concerned with wage issues," Vacca says. "In Aliquippa, union activism translates into political activism."

Underneath these visible changes, and behind them, there was a deeper change, Vacca argues: a transformation of consciousness. For the first time, the immigrant workers who made up the majority of Aliquippa's population began to think of themselves as authentic American citizens, with real recourse to the civil and economic rights they had up until then only heard about.

"It wasn't that they didn't realize they had rights," Vacca says. "That awareness comes through in the oral histories. These were people who had grown up, many of them, in the coal towns, and seen the miners' struggle. They had been shaped by the Depression, when they were completely dependent on the company. That experience had sharpened their focus. But their rights had never been recognized, and they felt they had no control." Now, suddenly, they had a government that supported them, a union to help them fight. As one worker stated it, urging his fellow workers to wear their union buttons: "Every union man should act like he's free and stand up to the bosses like a man." Said another: "It's worth [paying union dues] to be able to walk down the main street . . . talk to anyone you want and feel like you are a citizen."

"For these workers, certainly, establishing the union is not just work-related," Vacca says. "It is the key component of their citizenship. It involves their voting rights, their rights to be full members of their community—things they had been denied. It was a base of power."

One of the women who had been there, in the tunnel, in the thick of the '37 strike, gives another measure of the union's impact. An interviewer for a public-television documentary asked her, over 50 years later, about the day of the recognition election, the day when J&L, after decades of unchallenged dominance, had finally been forced to acknowledge the right of its workers to organize.

"Oh boy," the old woman remembered. "We were really happy, really happy! We had a parade. . . . I'll tell you that street was loaded with people . . . celebrating, hollering and screaming.

"That was the best day of our lives."

Lynn Vacca is a Ph.D. student in history in the College of the Liberal Arts, 108 Weaver Building, University Park, PA 16802; Her adviser, Daniel L. Letwin, Ph.D., is associate professor of history, 108 Weaver Building; 814-863-0417; Historical Collections and Labor Archives is located in W313 Pattee Library, 863-2505. A description of the archive is available at

Last Updated January 01, 1999