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Steel Workers Climax 50-Year Struggle,
Close Down Entire Industry

Historic Battles with Steel Kings
Inspire Pickets

(23 January 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 5, 2 February 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 23 – South along the snaky Monongahela, northwest along the broad Ohio, northeast along the Allegheny, immense tentacles of steel plants reach out from this city of smoke and steel and stretch for scores of miles beside the river banks.

For the past three days, these plants have sprawled lifeless. No smoke or flame belches forth from the squatting steel monsters, with their huge spines of stacks rising from the open hearths and furnaces.

Those whose labor fed these monsters and pumped lifeblood through their iron veins have risen up in titanic revolt. Now the steelworkers of all races, creeds, colors and nationalities are on strike. 227,000 of them in this vast steel valley alone, 800,000 throughout the land, are engaged in the mightiest battle of their lives.

New Fires Are Burning Now

When I saw the mills in their immense silence last night, only great ghosts of structures in blankets of snow-covered roofs stood dimly outlined behind iron-spiked or barbed-wire-topped surrounding walls. There was only blackness in the skies instead of fierce red glare and spurting flames.

Other and smaller fires are burning now, visible only as glowing red dots from a short distance. They are far different from the ore-eating, man-eating conflagrations that a few days ago roared and blazed inside the mills. These are friendly fires, meant to warm and comfort pickets in the long, freezing, vigil of the near-zero night.

These glowing coals in coke-fueled steel barrels, called salamanders, form a mighty chain up and down the valley and the river banks. They have become symbols of union strength and hope opposed to the tyrannical power of the steel bosses.

Hundreds and hundreds of these metal-barrel heaters burn night and day at the innumerable gates, entrances and possible entrances to the steel kingdoms. And always near and around them are the slow-circling clusters of men and women of steel, keeping their day and night-long guards in American labor’s greatest strike siege.

Here at the moment there is no outward drama of clashing bodies, the sickening crack of state troopers’ clubs, the metallic ring of the horses’ hooves as they surge forward to ride down and crush the picketing workers, such as I saw in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1941.

But here there is an even more profound and stirring drama. Here there is the inspiring example of hundreds of thousands of workers, rising up out of a half-century of immense labors, hardships and tragedies, out of fierce and bloody struggles and terrible defeats, to forge a new and stronger unity in action.

Whatever the final outcome of the immediate wage issues in dispute, the steel workers have already gained a colossal triumph in the unity they have displayed in this unprecedented struggle for their right to live in decency, comfort and security.

The Heart of Steel

I spent all of today in Homestead and Braddock, two great citadels of Big Steel sprawling their miles of plants along the Monongahela. This is in the very heart of the nation’s greatest steel area, where the steel industry grew from infancy and the earliest struggles of the steel workers took place.

Every foot of ground in these towns is rich in the traditions of the steel workers. Here a worker’s child learns early in life to know the mills as well as its own mother’s face. Here, the grandfathers and fathers of today’s steel fighters fought and shed their blood and died in the cause of labor at a time when they had to stand alone and isolated against the armed brutality of the steel potentates and their government agencies.

Through the morning and afternoon I talked with men and women steel workers in their crowded, busy union halls, in taverns, on street corners and on the picket lines, where I did my turn with the men as I questioned them about their problems and their views.

“Just think,” said Andy Steiner to me this morning at Sam and Jerry’s, the only union bar in Homestead, “just think, it was 27 years from the ‘Battle of the Pinkertons’ in 1892, when we had the first strike, to the next strike in 1919. Now it is going on 27 years – and we got another strike. Make something of that.”

Andy is one of the thousands of active CIO Steelworkers Local 1397 members who are doing their bit to keep a ring of steel-hearted men and women around the big Carnegie-Illinois plant in Homestead. He is doing a special chore helping to build shelters at the entrances to protect pickets from the biting cold.

Building on the Old Traditions

Andy and the others are making something out of the traditions of the old struggles. After each bitter defeat, a whole new generation has risen and carried forward the battle to greater heights. Each generation has built anew on the fighting traditions of the old, transforming the heroic memories of the past into the inspiration for the present battle, the battle which every steel worker I have talked to is convinced must be and will be fought through this time, to victory.

There is scarcely a child in Homestead who cannot recount to you the story of the first great bloody struggle in July 1892. There are still surviving a half-dozen or so men, now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, who stood with their fellow workers on the banks of the river and turned the Civil War memorial cannons against the boat-loads of Pinkerton agents coming in to break that first strike.

Then there are their sons, men in their fifties and sixties, who went down to cruel defeat in the 1919 steel strike but are today marching again in the class fight that can know no final end until the workers eliminate capitalist exploitation forever.

In the Local 1397 union hall, where Andy Steiner took me to see the old framed picture of scenes of the great 1892 struggle, I talked with several old-timers from the 1919 strike.

This Is Different, This Is Better

All said the same thing, in almost the same words:

“This is different – this is better – we’re all together now, here and all over the country. Yes – this is different.”

Among these old-timers, I spoke with several Negro workers who had been brought in from the South by the corporation during the last war to be used as strikebreakers. Then race hatred had been used to the hilt by the company to divide and disorganize the workers.

“Yes,” said one of these veteran Negro workers who has toiled 30 years in the plant, “I worked during that strike. A lot of us did, and a lot of the white workers did. We didn’t know any better then, we didn’t understand what they were using us for. There never was more than 60 per cent of the men out then.

“But now it’s different,” he said, looking with shining eyes of pride around the hall at the workers, men and women, black and white, working and fighting together for their common betterment. “Today, we’re all in this like we should be, standing together.”

And from every white worker I heard only glowing tribute to the union loyalty and lighting spirit of the Negro workers, who today are playing a truly significant role in this gigantic battle.

In the room used for the strike canteen, two motherly middle-aged women were serving coffee and doughnuts. They told me they worked as janitresses in the plant.

Widows, with large families and dependents, one of them takes home $43 every two weeks and the other $47. That’s just one small but telling fact about the “big” wages the steel corporation propagandists have been lying about in the press and over the radio.

Other workers, including one who had been 33 years in the mill, told me they have been working only two or three days a week since V-J Day. Some, among the skilled workers, who were getting $1.24 an hour, have been downgraded to 96 cents, and in their last pay check took home the “magnificent” two-week total of $31. One said, “I asked them to give me what they took off in taxes and insurance and I’d give them my pay check back. I’d be better off that way.”

Are the men and women ready to hold out? A Negro worker told me with a chuckle:

“We made it through the depression, didn’t we? And this isn’t going to be any worse than that. We’ll make it through this no matter how long it lasts.”

Now Everybody’s Together

That’s the spirit of the steel strikers and that’s the spirit I observed on the picket lines after we left the union hall. Out on the picket line at the Open Hearth No. 4 gate, I spoke to the young assistant picket captain, who said enthusiastically:

“It’s really surprising how everybody is doing his bit. Hardly anyone is reneging on the picket assignments. Everything is pretty smooth and well-planned.”

There on the line I marched around for a spell and talked with one foreign-born worker who had been in the midst of the bitterest clashes in the 1919 strike.

“You don’t know what a difference. In the last strike, they called it a ‘hunkies’ strike,’ a ‘foreigners’ strike.’ Right here where we are picketing, the company police and the state troopers beat us on the head with clubs. They went right into the workers’ homes – smashed everything up.

“But now – we got everybody together – everybody,” he said with intense feeling. “Even the company police – they’re organized in a union, they don’t even carry guns any more.”

At that very moment, one of the two young company police sitting in the booth at the gate, came out and strode over to where Eloise Gordon, our Militant representative in this area, was talking to the pickets around the salamander while distributing last week’s issue of the paper.

In the most friendly fashion, the company guard asked for a Militant and bore it off in triumph. A few moments later he came back and pleaded with Eloise for another copy “to take home for myself to read.”

“You’re working,” said Eloise, to the delight of the pickets, “why don’t you get yourself a six-month subscription for 50 cents.” “Oh, I will,” he assured her, “only I can’t right now and I want to take it home and read it first to see what it’s like.” Eloise gave him one more copy.

Later we walked into town to see the simple eight-foot white stone marker put up in 1941 by the steel locals at the entrance to the West Street High Level bridge to commemorate the courageous men who fought and died in the 1892 historic forerunner of the present battle. Right across the road is the Homestead “Roll of Honor” listing the names of the local boys who were taken into the armed forces in World War II. Most of them were the boys of steel workers. Thus stand the two markers symbolizing the steel workers who died in the class struggle and those who died in the imperialist war to enrich the barons who murdered their grandfathers and fathers in 1892 and 1919.

On our way back from visiting the memorial stone, we experienced the most exciting moment of the day in Homestead. Looking down the hill toward the main gate of the plant, we saw a mass picket line circling before the entrance. Strung before the gate was another small straight line of individuals, from which every few seconds one would detach himself and hurry into the plant gates.

We hurried over and learned it was time for the administrative and supervisory people, as well as the CIO maintenance crews to go into the plant under the rigid inspection of the union pickets.

The “white badge” men, better dressed, softer-looking than the picketing workers, were being used by the company to put on a show of marching into the plant in a body. The pickets threw their circle close, so that only one man could pass through at a time. Meanwhile the picket captain and assistant picket captains closely inspected the passes and jerked back the coat collars to inspect each white badge to insure that only legitimate “pushers” and supervisors went in, according to the agreement with the union.

“But if one of them so much as picks up a screwdriver – out he goes and stays out,” the picket captain said. “They can only come in through this one gate, and some of them have to go two miles inside the plant to their departments. There’s nothing to do in there. All they do is play cards. But the management thinks it’s playing ‘psychology.’”

A Veteran Turns the Tables

We watched the most aggressive of the picket captains, a little, wiry young fellow who had recently returned from 33 months’ army service in Europe.

As each “white badge” came up to the line, the veteran’s elbow would jut out and catch the supervisor in the crook of the arm. “Pass?” he would snap. “Badge?” he would bark, pulling open a coat collar to get a better view. “OK.” We watched that elbow jab out methodically and halt the meek “white badge” men.

In one pause, the little tough veteran turned to us and grinned slyly: “That’s psychology, too!” .

That jabbing elbow of the little veteran was a bit of living testimony to the might of the organized steel workers. Never before in all the history of steel have there been such scenes. Who ever heard of the one-time domineering and arrogant supervisory flunkies of the corporation halting humbly before the plant gate at the imperative prod of a steel worker’s elbow?

Braddock Spirit Is the Same

Over in Braddook later on, we witnessed the same determined spirit among the members of Local 1219 at the big Carnegie-Illinois plant there. We talked to the steel militants in the local union hall, crowded to the door. Later we climbed up and down the icy slopes to visit various groups of pickets around the ever-present and ever-welcome glowing salamanders.

As in Homestead and everywhere else in the steel valley, the workers of Braddock are indignant about the propaganda the steel barons are putting out to the effect that the average steel worker’s wage is $1.23 an hour.

In the union hall, the workers eagerly told me some of the true facts of their conditions.

“Since the end of the war,” said one worker, “we have had very little overtime. For unskilled labor alone the 40- hour week has meant a loss of roughly $40 a month in take-home pay. Remember that 70 per cent of the men here are classified as unskilled labor, getting 78½ cents an hour.”

Another, a boilermaker among the top layer of wage earners, exclaimed:

“A buck twenty-three an hour! Why the pushers here only get $1.18. The average boilermaker gets only around $1.05½. The average wage – if you don’t figure in what management gets – runs to about 89 cents an hour. The men in here, a lot of them, been taking home about $48 in cash after two weeks’ work.”

One big, hearty worker stated heatedly:

“If we were supposed to be getting $1.23 an hour like the papers say, then we boys got a helluva lot of back pay coming. Every time I see my foreman, I yell at him, ‘Hey, when am I going to get all my back pay?’”

A New Headline for Labor

On our return from Braddock, we passed once more through Homestead and got a last glimpse of the memorial to the martyrs of 1892. And I suddenly recalled the headline I saw in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Steel Output Hits 50-Year Low” – the lowest, in fact, since the 1892 strike.

And I thought too of another headline being written today by this gigantic national steel strike of 800,000 workers, a headline those old pioneer steel labor fighters would have been proud to see. This headline proclaims that all the struggle, suffering and sacrifice of more than half a century have not been in vain:


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