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United Steelworkers of America


UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA. The United Steelworkers of America began life on 17 June 1936 as the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) formed the CIO in order to encourage the American Federation of Labor, the umbrella organization for nearly all labor unions in the country, to organize the largely unorganized manufacturing industries. Steel making in America had been mostly nonunion since the Homestead Lockout of 1892. Of all the organizing campaigns the CIO undertook, Lewis was particularly concerned about the steel industry because some steel firms controlled nonunion mines that the UMWA wanted to organize. The UMWA vice president Philip Murray served as the first head of the new committee.

The SWOC concentrated its early efforts on the United States Steel Corporation, by far the largest firm in the industry at that time. Like many other companies worried about organized labor's growing strength during the Great Depression, U.S. Steel had set up "company unions" in their plants, employee organizations that management created and controlled. By satisfying the collective bargaining requirements of the National Labor Relations Act, company unions were supposed to keep independent unions like the SWOC out of the mills. However, the SWOC convinced many of U.S. Steel's workers who served on these company unions to support independent union representation. As a result of this campaign, the U.S. Steel chairman Myron Taylor agreed to conduct secret talks with Lewis. These negotiations culminated on 17 March 1937 with a signed contract between the SWOC and U.S. Steel. This marked the first major victory for steel unionism in decades and was all the more surprising because the SWOC won the contract without a strike.

Other large firms in the industry known as "Little Steel" (because they were smaller than U.S. Steel) chose to fight the SWOC on the picket line rather than sign a contract. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was marked by violence and ill will on both sides. The most famous incident of this dispute was the Memorial Day Massacre. Police killed ten strikers during a march on a Republic Steel plant in Chicago. Although the Little Steel firms managed to delay organization, the union filed multiple grievances under the National Labor Relations Act as a result of the strike. Thanks to legal victories in these cases and pressure for production due to war mobilization, the vast majority of steel firms in the United States recognized the USWA by the end of World War II.

The SWOC changed its name to the United Steel-workers of America (USWA) on 22 May 1942 and elected Philip Murray its first president. The union made strong membership gains during World War II thanks to a decision not to strike in exchange for government mandates to employers that spurred organizing. Dues collected from new members under government auspices solved the organization's chronic financial problems. The USWA entered the postwar era determined to improve upon progress made in wages and working conditions won during the conflict.

Employers had other ideas. The industry fought the USWA over wages, benefits, and working conditions throughout the immediate postwar era. The USWA led five nationwide strikes between 1946 and 1959, and it at least threatened to strike during most years of this period.

These strikes resulted in great gains for the union. In 1947, the USWA completed a massive effort to evaluate and classify every job in the steel making industry. This allowed it to bargain for the first industry wide wage rate structure in U.S. history. The earlier system had been widely recognized as grossly unfair. During the 1949 strike, the USWA won the right to negotiate pensions for its members. By 1960, steelworkers were among the best-paid manufacturing workers in America.

The cost to employers of these wage and benefit victories contributed to the collapse of the American steel industry in the face of foreign competition. In order to forestall strikes that might have further damaged the industry, the USWA agreed to an unprecedented arrangement that required that all bargaining issues be submitted to arbitration, the Experimental Negotiating Agreement of 1973 (ENA). The plan failed to save the industry. By the time the parties abandoned the ENA in 1983, plant closings and the layoff of union workers had devastated the USWA's membership rolls.

The USWA has to some extent counteracted the decline in membership brought on by the collapse of the American steel industry by adding other industries to its jurisdiction. In 1967, it merged with the 40,000-member International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. In 1970, it added 20,000 members of the United Stone and Allied Product Workers of America. In 1995 the USWA merged with the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum, and Plastic Workers of America, which had 98,000 workers at that time. In 1997, the USWA merged with the Aluminum, Brick, and Glass Workers International Union. As of 1996, the USWA had approximately 700,000 members. Only 150,00 of them were employed in the American steel industry.

The USWA has frequently championed the notion of cooperation with both management and government in order to gain wage and benefit increases. During World War II it proposed creating joint works councils in order to oversee production. It has offered strong support to the Democratic Party since the late 1930s. In 1974, the union agreed to a precedent-setting consent decree with the industry and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to compensate African American and Hispanic steelworkers for past racial discrimination and prevent it from happening in the future. By the end of the twentieth century, the leadership and rank and file of the union had become considerably more militant and more racially diverse.


Brody, David. Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Clark, Paul F., Peter Gottleib, and Donald Kennedy, eds. Forging a Union of Steel: Philip Murray, SWOC, and the United Steel-workers. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1987.

Hoerr, John P. And the Wolf Finally Came. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.

Tiffany, Paul A. The Decline of American Steel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Homestead Strike .

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United Steelworkers v. Weber


In United Steelworkers Union v. Weber, 443 U.S. 193, 99 S. Ct. 2721, 61 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer could grant preferential treatment to racial minorities under a private, voluntary affirmative action program. Affirmative action is a concerted effort by an employer to rectify past discrimination against specific classes of individuals by giving temporary preferential treatment to individuals from these classes when hiring and promoting until true equal opportunity is achieved. The use of affirmative action to correct past racial discrimination in employment resulted from the passage of title VII of the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.). Affirmative action has proved controversial; many white people claim that it is in fact "reverse discrimination."

Brian Weber, a white production worker at a Kaiser Aluminum plant in Gramercy, Louisiana, claimed that the company's efforts to increase the number of African Americans in historically segregated categories of employment unfairly prejudiced white workers like himself. In 1974 Kaiser and the United Steelworkers signed a collective bargaining agreement that contained an affirmative action plan designed to eliminate the substantial racial imbalance in Kaiser's craft workforce. Craft trainees were to be selected on the basis of seniority, with the provision that 50 percent of the openings would be reserved for African American workers until the percentage of African American craftworkers in a plant equaled the percentage of African Americans in the local workforce. During the first year the plan was in operation, seven African American and six white workers were selected for craft training. Several of the successful African American applicants had less seniority than Weber.

Weber filed suit, claiming that the minority admissions quota violated the ban in title VII on racial discrimination in employment. The district court and the court of appeals agreed with him, but the Supreme Court, on a 5–2 vote, with two members not participating, reversed the lower courts and held that the Kaiser plan was valid.

Justice william j. brennan jr., in his majority opinion, agreed that Weber's literal interpretation of the act had some justification but noted that the whole purpose of title VII was to "better the plight of the Negro in our economy." African Americans had been excluded from craft positions such as carpenter, electrician, plumber, and painter throughout U.S. history. To adopt Weber's position would prevent employers from voluntarily seeking ways of correcting past discrimination. Brennan wrote that "[i]t would be ironic indeed if a law triggered by a Nation's concern over centuries of racial injustice [constituted] the first legislative prohibition of all voluntary, private, race-conscious efforts to abolish traditional patterns of racial segregation and hierarchy."

The Court held that an affirmative action program was legal if it did not "unnecessarily trammel" the interests of white employees, lead to their discharge, or permanently prevent their promotion. The Kaiser plan was not permanent but ended when the percentage of skilled African Americans in the plant matched the percentage of African Americans in the local workforce. Therefore, the Court concluded that the affirmative action program was designed to correct a manifest racial imbalance rather than maintain racial balance.

Justice william h. rehnquist, in a dissenting opinion, contended that the language of title VII made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race. He argued that Congress made a commitment to equality in hiring, not to "preferential treatment of minorities." The Kaiser plan, even though temporary, imposed a "racial quota."

further readings

Bernhardt, Herbert N. 1993. "Affirmative Action in Employment: Considering Group Interests While Protecting Individual Rights." Stetson Law Review 23 (fall).

Farmer, Victoria E. 1980. "United Steelworkers v. Weber and Its Impact on Title VII Remedies in the Fourth Circuit." Wake Forest Law Review 16 (June).

Meyer, David D. 1989. "Finding a 'Manifest Imbalance': The Case for a Unified Statistical Test for Voluntary Affirmative Action Under Title VII." Michigan Law Review 87 (June).

"Rethinking Weber: The Business Response to Affirmative Action." 1989. Harvard Law Review 102 (January).


Civil Rights; Employment Law; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Equal Protection; Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education.

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