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Steel Workers Win in Two Bethlehem Strikes

SWOC Shows Strength In Huge Victory Parade

(April 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 14, 5 April 1941, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Score, two runs in a row for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (CIO). The strike of 15,000 steel workers of the Cambria Works of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation at Johnstown, Pa., which began Friday right after settlement of the strike at the parent plant in Bethlehem was ended Sunday, March 30, with a victory for the union. Called to halt a company union election, the strike won an agreement identical with that won in Bethlehem.

* * *

Bethlehem, Pa., March 28 – The victory parade of the Bethlehem steel strikers starts.

“It’s bigger than the day they signed the Armistice!” an exultant steel striker beside me exclaims.

The steel workers pour out. of the smoke-filled, jam-packed Beth-Allen Casino where they have just shouted their acclaim to the agreement with Bethlehem Steel. “Only ‘twenty’ per cent out, huh?” crows a big striker in a leather jacket. “Old Eugene Grace would like to make a profit as big as this ‘twenty’ per cent.”

“God Almighty! Wouldn’t this be some parade if that ‘eighty’ per cent who scabbed were in it?” roars another voice.

“Write this in your paper, will you, Shorty?” says the striker in the leather jacket.

High up in the air they hoist me, on two powerful shoulders. All the way down Broad Street, clear to New Street, is a sea of heads. Eight and ten abreast, pressed chest to back, the steel workers are massed in the street. And behind us I see the line swelling and growing for a block, two blocks, as new hundreds leave the sidewalks and join the parade.

“God Almighty! Eighty per cent!” big Leather Jacket keeps chuckling out loud. “Wait’ll those rats at the plant see our ‘twenty’ per cent.”

The line starts to move. A cheer and a whoop and a holler ripples up and down the marching thousands.

Now They Know

Not until this moment have these Bethlehem Steel workers fully understood what the union is, what it represents, its size, its solidity, its power.

Even inside the only available hall in the area, where three to four thousand had managed to squeeze in, while overflow thousands crowded the broad stairs and out into the streets, the full realization had failed to dawn upon them.

Not even when they heard the details of Grace’s concessions – the first ever granted to a union in Bethlehem’s parent plant – did they fully grasp what the union and this strike really means.

Now, when the parade swings forward, they see the UNION as it really is. They see it whole, its numbers, its dynamic power in action, stretched forward and behind as far as the eye can see. “God Almighty!” Leather Jacket breathes one final exclamation to the world in general, “Bethlehem ain’t never seen a crowd this big before.” And turning to me, he shouts: “Write it in” your paper, Shorty, tell ’em what kind of union us Bethlehem fellows have got here at last.”

The parade turns off Broad, the main business street, heads up New Street toward South Bethlehem; across the Lehigh River, toward Steel Town where the Bethlehem plants sprawl five miles along the south river bank; toward the smoke-blackened worn wooden and crumbling brick houses which are home to many of the steel workers.

We are marching uphill now. The head of the line appears six blocks in the distance, rising over the crest of the company’s toll bridge, with its sign “One Cent for Pedestrians, Three Cents for Motor Vehicles.”

Symbol of Defiance

Day in and day out the workers who have entered the realm of Bethlehem Steel over this little bridge have given their offerings to the power and greed of the corporation. Millions of pennies have paid for the bridge ten times over.

No pennies today! Over the bridge the parade rolls in a solid stream. Ten thousand marchers and not one penny. “Let ’em try and collect their goddam penny today!” A symbol of industrial servitude is ground into dust under 20,000 feet crossing a small bridge.

All along the way we pass thousands of workers, their wives and sweethearts, cheering, yelling greetings, smiles and joy everywhere. Almost everyone on the sidewalks has an SWOC pin, an “SWOC Picket” slip in bold letters, a “Join the Union” sticker proudly displayed on hat or coat.

All traffic is halted. Hundreds of cars, packed tight with strikers and their friends and families, are wedged along the curbs bumper to bumper.

Silent Factories

As we go over the bridge there is a sudden quiet. “Feel that?” “What?” I ask in turn.

“There’s no vibrations. It’s the first time when I didn’t feel the vibrations from the works. If those plants were operating, you could feel the vibrations all through you. Now you know what b—— s—— the company and the Globe-Times have been putting out about 80 and 85 per cent of the men working during the strike.”

A head in front of me jerks sideways and upwards. A huge fist waves high in the air. “Hide you rats, you dirty scabs! Go on, hide! We can smell from here!”

I look where the fist is pointed, I see three pairs of eyes, wide-open, scared, staring over a third floor window ledge of a plant building. “It’ll be a miserable thing for those scabs when this bunch gets back in the plant,” a short, middle-aged Hungarian worker says, almost in half-pity. Another marcher answer with a loud burbling lip-sound, scornful and merciless.

Town Is SWOC

The trolleys are halted on the tracks. They are pasted over with stickers, “Join the SWOC.” From every window and doorway the marchers are cheered and greeted. All one can see is “SWOC”-buttons, stickers, banners, picket tags. The whole town has literally become SWOC. For over 12 miles the parade wends through the town, past the length of the plant, and then returns.

This is the vindication of the strike, this is the moment of triumph.

The workers had left the plants on Monday night, the start of the strike, tense, uncertain, not too sure of their power. But now they know.

They have smashed the Bethlehem myth. “Bethlehem plant in Bethlehem will never be organized,” they had been told. “It’s the heart of the corporation. It’s been a company town for 50 years and it’ll be a company town for the next 50. Grace will never yield to a union in this town.” But Grace has.

The company union, the “Employees’ Representation Plan,” whose attempt to hold a plant election precipitated the strike, has been licked. I saw steel workers this morning lined up in hundreds in the lobby of the meeting hall and all down the stairs, waiting to sign up with the SWOC. Thousands of those who had held out, friendly but waiting to see if the SWOC could pull the trick, are now joining up.

Settlement Terms

In addition to stopping the company from recognizing the company union as sole bargaining agency for the workers, the company has granted recognition to the SWOC for the first time, explained John Kiffe, SWOC regional director, at the meeting prior to the victory parade. The union will be able to post its bulletins in the plant. A regular grievance machinery will be established, whereby the union men will be able to deal with the foremen and supervisors in the departments, all the way up the line to the company heads themselves.

The company union can no longer claim to represent the workers. The SWOC has been granted the right to bargain for its own members, and that will undoubtedly include 99 per cent of the workers after this.

All the strikers are to return to their jobs without any discrimination, the SWOC committee having balked the efforts of the company to exclude arrested strikers from the terms of the agreement.

Workers Know Fight Still Lies Ahead

The demand, formulated after the strike was already on, that the company union be disbanded, remains unsolved. The NLRB election to determine sole collective bargaining rights is to await outcome of the company’s court appeal against the NLRB decision, which 19 months ago ordered the company to disband the company union. This may be a huge stumbling block to the SWOC, in the days ahead, and every worker knows it.

The workers here have few illusions about what it will take on their part to enforce the terms of even this limited agreement.

At this morning’s mass meeting, when the terms were voted on, members of the local strike committee stressed their distrust of the company and advised the workers to carry on their organization drive in the plant with redoubled vigor and crack down hard on every single instance of the company’s refusal to deal with the union according to the terms of the agreement.

“We must back up the contract with strong pressure on the job,” one speaker advised. “We know the company will use every device to evade the contract.”

Another brought resounding. cheers’ when he urged:

“Let’s go back into the plants with our chins out. And when the first damn boss steps on our toes, we’ll have to step back twice as hard. As for the men who haven’t signed up in the union yet, all I can say is, if anybody won’t join up the nice way then we’ll have to use more persuasive ways.”

One committee speaker summed up the feelings of the rank and file in a very picturesque fashion:

“Brothers”, he said, “We have witnessed a marriage today. Bethlehem Steel has just married the SWOC. But it wasn’t a case of love at first sight. This was more in the nature of a shot-gun wedding. Now we have a marriage license, which is this agreement – and a shot-gun. And, brothers, we’d better hold on to both of them.”

Story of the Strike

On Monday night, when the workers first pulled out, there was no disorder or violence. The workers massed in thousands around the plant, with their wives, sweethearts and children out to support them. No one was hurt. There were no scabs coming in, except the few hundred who had remained in the plant after the night shift walked out.

(These scabs had a tough time as some of them admitted later. They were compelled to work a 16 hour shift to keep noisy machinery going to make an impression, live for two days on sandwiches and muddy coffee, sleep on benches. By Thursday night the ambulance was clanging in and out of the main plant gate almost continuously, hauling away the scabs who had collapsed).

The company, aided by the city and county officials who are in its direct or indirect pay, immediately wanted to bring in state police. Six hours after the strike started, and when there had been not a single instance of disorder, County Sheriff Nickel appealed to Governor James for state troopers.

Police Provocation

The pretext for bringing in the Pennsylvania “Cossacks” – the only name the workers have for these government strikebreakers – was manufactured Tuesday morning.

A car with a company cop in plain clothes drove up to the main gate where several hundred strikers were picketing. The strikers were in high spirits. They halted the car, tipped it over, and made the cop get put. He wasn’t hurt the car was righted without any damage, and he was permitted to get back in the car and drive into the plant.

Several city police scout cars immediately began to circle around the pickets. Without a word of warning a tear gas shell was fired point blank at a group of strikers, blinding five of them. Another shell was fired. In self-defense the workers fought off this unprovoked assault.

When the police continued their provocative tactics, the workers continued to defend themselves. By nightfall the police were routed. The company and city officials called for state cops. During the course of the day, several hundred scab cars in the parking lots around the plant had been overturned and generally “renovated.” A dozen or so were tossed off the Minsi Trail bridge into the “Mud Hole.” Neither the company nor the police have been able to bring forth any evidence that this was the work of the strikers. In fact, the strikers have charged the company with organizing the damaging of these cars as a further excuse for James’ sending in the state cops.

Government Strikebreakers

About 8:30 P.M. Tuesday came a dastardly attempt by the state to break the morale of the strikers.

Most, of the active strikers were at a mass meeting of the union at the Beth-Allen Casino several miles from the plant. The union could not get a meeting place in South Bethlehem because the company holds options on all the meeting halls. There were about 1,000 people milling around the area before the main gate.

They included many spectators, women with babies in their arms, children.

A squad of mounted state police rode out of the gates. Without a word of warning they charged into the unsuspecting crowd. Behind them scores more of state cops poured out of the gates on foot, charging the workers with 30 inch riot sticks. Women and children were knocked down, clubbed. The crowd broke and ran. The coppers chased them up side streets.

On one side street the Cossacks encountered a group of women on the porches of a row of frame houses. The women began to jeer the cops. Onto the pavement the police drove their horses, riding along the porches and clubbing the women, driving them into their homes.

Were These Cops?

One of the surprising things about these state police was that most of them were wearing the old style London “Bobbie” helmets of the former State Constabulary, the murderous gangsters and gunmen hired by the coal and steel companies and deputized by the state, who used, to spread terror throughout all the coal and iron towns. These coal and iron police were dissolved in 1936.

Yet the uniforms worn by these thugs during this strike was the old long-coated black uniform of the coal-and-iron cops. Onto their sleeves were sewed the Keystone label with “State Motor Patrol.” These uniforms were “explained” away by a statement in the press by Colonel Adams, State Police head, that these “police” had brought the wrong uniforms!

The regular State Motor Patrol police were there also. These were scarcely less vicious than the coal and iron cops but they showed less experience, were younger, not so beefy as the helmeted cops. The faces of the coal and iron cops were those of the pig-eyed, black-jowled killers who used to be brought from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh underworlds before the outlawing of the coal and iron police four years ago.

When the word of this vicious assault came to the workers at the mass meeting, they wanted to go down in a body. Their instinct was to attack and not retreat.

Riffe Stops Pickets

But John Riffe and other SWOC top leaders, who had shown a certain vacillation throughout the strike, and had done little to help the inexperienced local committee to organize the picketing, urged caution. Many of the workers had tears of anger in their eyes. But they accepted the advice of these leaders to discontinue the picket lines temporarily.

The picket line was pulled off until Wednesday afternoon. This was the most critical point of the strike. Had the company been able to secure scabs enough to operate the plant during this period, the strikers may have become demoralized and the strike broken.

One of the reasons advanced by Riffe for this yielding up of the right to picket was the assertion that the government would make the company come to terms. The-workers soon understood how untrue this was.

On the very day of the assault the government had awarded another $75,000,000 war order to Bethlehem Steel and did not lift a finger to enforce the NLRB order to disband the company union. Riffe also said he had withdrawn the pickets at the request of certain government officials whom he did not name.

Picket Lines Renewed

The workers won this strike themselves, Their insistence on starting heir picket lines again and fighting back led to an ultimatum to the state police on Wednesday that if the workers were not permitted to picket, they would fight for the right ...

The actual weakness of the state police force, when confronted by this bold ultimatum backed by thousands of steel workers ready to give battle, was immediately revealed. The police backed down at once and agreed to permit “limited” picketing. The workers felt that they should enforce their right to mass picketing, but here again accepted the advice of Riffe and on Wednesday afternoon: re-established only small official picket lines of 10 and 11 strikers at each gate.

These were, however, immediately supplemented by an “unofficial” picket line of hundreds of workers formed across the street from the main gate. On that “unofficial” line one heard repeatedly: “Hell, what are we doing picketing these here restaurants? We ought to be on the other side of the street picketing the company.”

Company Tricks Fail

In addition to the police terror, the company used every device used so successfully against the Johnstown, Pa., workers in the 1937 Little Steel strike.

As in Johnstown then, the Bethlehem Globe-Times carried huge headlines every day about the plant being operated at capacity. They quoted the plant management to the effect that 80 per cent of the workers, 85 per cent, were back in the plant,

But as one workers said to me during the parade today, “There was more smoke in our meeting hall this morning than’s coming out of those chimneys.”

These workers know the plant like a mother knows her own child. They couldn’t be fooled.. They knew they had the plant almost completely stopped.

At night there was none of the typical red glare over the plant coming from the huge slag heap after the hot slag is poured on it when the plant is running. The hammers in the drop forges were clanking metallically, “die on die,” because there was no soft hot steel between. The “bleeder” at the coke ovens was the only light to be seen over the plant at night: the pipe which burns off the excess gas generated by the coke ovens. This was burning continuously, and showed that the gas was overflowing the tank and was not being used.

The picket lines began to build up again on Thursday, as the workers kept edging into the lines about the nine gates, “chiseling” away at the picket “limitation.”

On Thursday the company agreed to meet with the union committee. The workers sensed the coming victory then. If the company’s fake reports of plant operations had been true, Eugene Grace would never have consented to such a meeting. And victory did come!

Their One Regret

During the victory parade this afternoon, the mighty forces of the passing strikers contrasted sharply with the feebleness of the state police force who were still out at the plant. I repeatedly heard the regrets of the workers that they had not come out in this great mass after the police attack Tuesday night and given the state cops a lesson.

“Don’t I wish those Cossacks would try to stop us now.”

“They’re not up against women and kids how. We’re ready for ’em now.’’

“If we’d have had a line like this Tuesday and Wednesday, we’d have shipped those bastards out of town in wooden crates.”

AFL Workers Help

Contrary to the lying propaganda put out in the boss newspapers here and everywhere in the country, the people of this town were overwhelmingly behind the strikers.

Particularly inspiring was the example of the AFL union men and women in Bethlehem. The Lehigh County Central Trades and Labor Assembly (AFL) passed a resolution supporting the strike and has invited the CIO to a joint meeting to protest the use of the state troopers.

The AFL Bricklayers, building the new coke ovens, walked out in a body. The International Ladies Garment Workers, girls working at the Lehigh Dress plant, pulled a half-day sympathy strike the first day of the strike, and marched in a body in the victory parade. Any ILGWU member whose husband or brother was found to be scabbing was warned that she would be put out of the union.

The AFL top officialdom, however, tried to get AFL workers to help break the strike. Borrelli, general vice-president of the Structural Iron Workers, wired Local No. 36, with many members in the steel plant, to go through the picket lines or each man would be fined a hundred dollars.

The local wired Borrelli back, telling him where to go. Borrelli flew into Alletttown, six miles from Bethlehem, Wednesday. To avoid losing their union cards, the local SIW members went through the picket lines in a body. This was in technical obedience to Borrelli’s order. In a body, they went and secured their pay. In a body, they quit the job cold.

It was this unity of all the workers in Bethlehem which made the final victory possible. Even when the gates were temporarily cleared of pickets, the company just couldn’t mobilize any scabs. This, more than any other thing, brought home to the strikers the truth of their own slogan, “Cops can’t make steel!”

The Children’s War

The smallest tot in this town is union conscious. After the breaking of the picket line Tuesday night, bands of forty and fifty children, from the ages of 8 to 14, roamed the streets and alley-ways leading off from the plant and made life miserable for the state cops.

They would taunt and jeer the cops, lure isolated police down dark alley-ways, and then pelt them mercilessly with rocks, bricks and broken bottles. One cop, caught in a dark alley between two bands of rock-heaving kids, howled for mercy, and received the bitter answer, “Did you show any mercy to our Daddies?” They put all the lights out on Emery Street, near the Saucon plant, taunted the mounted police to charge them, and tripped up the horses with a concealed cable stretched between two poles. Twelve state cops are reported to have required medical treatment Tuesday night.

Then and Now

The workers outside this city don’t know the full meaning of walking down Bethlehem streets proudly displaying a union button.

This has been a completely company town ever since anyone here can remember. The company has controlled everything, and everyone in this town of 58,000 people, the majority being steel workers and their families. The newspapers, the Mayor, the banks, the property, everything has belonged to the company.

When I was in Bethlehem last, in 1934, unemployed steel workers trying to organize to get relief had to meet in complete secrecy, in the dead of night, in groups of four and five. Even so, the company spies, ever on the alert for the first signs of any kind of workers’ organization, would report back to the company any worker at whose home they had seen a group entering or leaving. These workers would find their relief cut off altogether.

The Bethlehem mayor tried this week to emulate the tactics of the mayor of Johnstown in 1937. He blustered about organizing a “secret” vigilante committee to preserve “law and order.” The members of the committee would remain “secret” because they might be physically attacked if they were known publicly, Mayor Pfeifle declared.

Workers Learn Politics

At the mass meeting this morning one of the local speakers declared: “We steel workers, put Pfeifle in four years ago. But at the next election, we’re going to put one of our own men in, a union man who won’t threaten us with vigilante terror and ask for the Cossacks to come in and ride down our women and kids.” These workers are learning that their struggles must also be extended to the political field!

And they are learning about national politics too. The company and the local press raved about “national defense,” but no striker seemed to bother about it. During the mass meeting this morning, and from individual strikers throughout the strike, I heard repeatedly, “National defense or no national defense, we’re going to get ours now. Grace is getting his aplenty from the government. That national defense line is just an alibi.”

One of the most vicious pieces of strikebreaking slander against the strikers came from Mayor Pfeifle who said he had asked for state cops after learning that “500 to 1,000 gangsters had been imported into Bethlehem by the union.”

The only gangsters I saw were the thugs in the coal and iron police helmets and uniforms. It might be embarrassing to Governor James for the union to ask him to make public the names and records of these men, and how long they have been “State Motor Patrol” members. They look and act just like the gangster scum imported into the coal and iron towns during the days of the State Constabulary.

Incidentally, it is significant that these state cops were housed on the company property, and admittedly were fed by the company in its cafeteria and on dining cars rolled into the plant.

The Next Step

The workers are going back into the plants flushed with a victory. But they know they still have the biggest battle ahead: to force the company to discontinue the company union altogether, to end the speedup group bonus, or “bone-less” system, and get their base pay jacked up from the present minimum of 42½ cents an hour. They must go after a complete signed contract, covering wages, hours, working conditions and sole bargaining rights.

Perhaps the most frequent phrase I heard today was, “The next time we strike ...” The word, “strike,” no longer sounds as forbidding as it did a week ago. It is taken for granted that sooner or later there is going to be another strike, unless the company gives in to the full demands of the workers.

The experiences, the lessons, the mistakes of this strike have sunk deep roots into these Bethlehem workers. The next time they strike, they are going to know who their friends and enemies are. They are going to know that the government and the officials are on the side of the company. They are going to know the tactics the company and the police will use. Above all, they will know their own organized strength and power, and they will use it.

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