The third part of our series on the IWW looks at the victorious battle to unionise steel — an industry dominated by migrant workers.
One of the great historic defeats suffered by the US working class was the crushing of union organisation in the steel industry. The decisive moment was the Homestead strike of July 1892 when the multi-millionaire “philanthropist” Andrew Carnegie declared the plant non-union.
A pitched battle between armed pickets and Pinkerton gunmen on 6 July saw the union men victorious. The company was saved from defeat, however, when the state militia of 8,000 men was sent in to occupy the town and protect the importation of scabs. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers was defeated. After this setback, the union was driven out of plant after plant, seeking to survive where it could by abject class collaboration.
Exploitation in the steel mills was savage and brutal with low wages, long hours (12-hour days, seven days a week) and appalling working conditions. Accident rates were horrific. At the Pressed Steel Car Company plants in McKees Rocks a worker was killed every day on average.
What provoked the revolt in McKees Rocks was the Pressed Steel management’s introduction of a new payments system in the summer of 1909. Wages had already been cut dramatically in response to the 1907 recession, but with the promise of their restoration once business recovered. Now, however, the workers found their already low pay cut by up to a further 30 percent.
On 12 July 1909 some 40 riveters walked out in protest and were sacked. More and more men walked out in solidarity until on 14 July there were over 5,000 men on strike. These men were unorganised, non-union, overwhelmingly immigrants, speaking 16 different languages and completely without funds. They were driven by rage and desperation.
The strikers elected a strike committee dominated by skilled men, the Big Six, and organised mass picketing to keep the company closed. An attempt to bring in scabs by boat failed after an exchange of gunfire, but some 500 deputy sheriffs and state troopers were despatched to break the blockade. Attempts to evict strikers and their families from company housing were called off after they provoked fierce resistance from men, women and children.
While the Big Six were dominated by skilled workers and preached moderation and compromise, another committee, the Unknown Committee, was set up in secret to make sure the interests of the unskilled immigrant workers were looked after. It soon took over the effective running of the strike.
The Unknown Committee was made up of trade unionists, socialists and revolutionaries from all over Europe. It included veterans of the 1905 Revolution in Russia and three IWW members. They called on the IWW to send in organisers.
On 7 August the company once again attempted to carry out evictions and the next day began bringing in scabs. There were continual clashes that saw one striker, Steve Howat, killed on 11 August. Meanwhile William Trautmann, the IWW general organiser, arrived. On 17 August 8,000 people attended an IWW rally. Within a few days the IWW had recruited 3,000 members. Among the IWW organisers involved in the struggle was James Connolly.
Violence escalated until on Sunday 22 August pickets stopped a tram and ordered Harry Exler, a notorious police thug, off the vehicle. He drew a gun and was shot dead. The pickets were then attacked by state troopers and in the battle eight pickets, two scabs and a state trooper were killed.
The state troopers ran wild for two days, beating men, women and children, invading and wrecking homes and carrying out mass arrests. The strike held solid. While many members sympathised with the strikers, the AFL leadership condemned them as “ignorant foreign labour, aliens”.
On 25 August Eugene Debs spoke in the town in support of the strike even though his life had been threatened. Some 10,000 people heard him describe the struggle as “the greatest labour fight in all my history in the labour movement”. The strike had to be won.
Three factors were to lead to victory. The Unknown Committee made it clear that for every striker killed they would retaliate by killing a state trooper. This threat was put into effect on 29 August when five company guards and police thugs were shot in retaliation for the killing of another striker. They also sent incredibly brave volunteers into the plant posing as scabs, who organised mass walkouts. The scabs, many recruited straight off immigrant ships with no idea what they were getting into, were being held prisoner, in appalling conditions, by the thugs of the Bergoff detective agency. There were credible stories that a number of them who had tried to desert had been murdered and their bodies incinerated in the plant.
The third factor was increasing support from rank and file AFL members, including unprecedented solidarity action by railwaymen, and the spreading of the unrest throughout the steel industry. In many steel mills across the country the management headed off trouble by raising wages up.
On 7 September 1909 Pressed Steel capitulated and the following day the strikers marched back into work triumphant. The IWW had made its mark.