Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC)

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The Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC) was founded in June 1936 at a Washington, D.C., meeting marked by the absence of steel-workers. The reigning assumption was that because the nation's steel companies were rigidly hierarchical and ruthlessly autocratic, the union that developed in the industry would have to mimic its adversary. Thus, throughout its six-year history, SWOC was led by a cadre of trade union "executives" who spoke the language of "centralized" and "responsible" unionism and had little or no regard for rank-and-file democracy. But during those six years the industry witnessed a succession of militant strikes, most notably the bloody "Little Steel" strike of 1937, that challenged the prevailing image of a union characterized by "stability, strength, and unity."

SWOC was an arm of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) and was essentially the brainchild of John L. Lewis, the charismatic but dictatorial president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) and the CIO. Lewis placed UMW vice president Philip Murray in charge of SWOC and staffed it mainly with organizers on loan from the miners' union. Murray had begun working in the mines of his native Scotland at age ten and had become the president of a UMW local in Pennsylvania's Westmoreland County at age eighteen. A long-time Lewis ally and loyalist, one of Murray's first acts as SWOC chairman was to establish the organization's national headquarters on the thirty-sixth floor of Pittsburgh's tallest office building, where he could, literally, look down on the steel barons.

The ties between coal and steel had always run deep. Many steelworkers were the sons of coal miners; some had begun their own working lives "underground." Moreover, Lewis and Murray saw to it that their "union of steel" would bear the mark of the UMW. Four of the top five officials in SWOC were also UMW officials, and as late as 1940 twothirds of the organization's district directors continued to draw their salaries from the miners' union.

Speaking the language of the UMW and the CIO, Murray announced a policy of "absolute racial equality in Union membership." But in the idiom of the day, the word racial could refer to ethnicity and nationality, as well as color. Murray's priority in this regard was not the substantial concentrations of black workers in the industry but the fraternal organizations of the foreign-born, notably the International Workers Order, a Communist-controlled benefit society with more than sixty thousand members, many of them in the steel towns and other industrial communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio. In October 1936, Murray gave the keynote address at a Fraternal Orders Conference in Pittsburgh, where organizations such as the Croatian Fraternal Union, the National Slovak Society, the Lodge of Lithuanians of America, and the United Ukrainian Toilers came together to endorse the steel campaign.

Another key to SWOC's development was the steel industry's company unions, or Employee Representation Plans (ERPs), which the employers had formed after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933. By the end of 1934, more than 90 percent of the industry's workers were enrolled in ERPs, and SWOC decided to capture them from within. Already, the leadership of these unions had demonstrated a remarkable degree of independence, especially in the plants of U.S. Steel's Carnegie-Illinois division, where ERP representatives, such as John J. Mullen and Elmer Maloy from Western Pennsylvania and George Patterson from Chicago, were destined to become important grassroots leaders in the steelworkers' union. By January 1937, many of the ERPs had voted to cast their lot with SWOC, which was claiming a membership of 125,000.

In fact, SWOC was hardly the juggernaut it claimed to be. In early 1937, its leadership had no reason to believe that it could win a representation election at any of the major steel companies. But on March 2, U.S. Steel, the giant corporation that accounted for nearly forty percent of the industry's steel-making capacity, signed a collective bargaining agreement with SWOC. Franklin Roosevelt's overwhelming electoral victory in November 1936, combined with the election of New Deal Democratic governors and mayors in states and municipalities that had long been loyal Republican strongholds, made it appear that government, at all levels, would be more likely to support than to suppress unions. Then, in February 1937, a militant minority of autoworkers, led by defiant sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan, compelled mighty General Motors to come to terms with the CIO. In these radically new circumstances, it must have seemed to U.S. Steel board chairman Myron Taylor that cautious accommodation was a more appropriate response to SWOC than stubborn, and costly, resistance.

With "Big Steel" under contract, SWOC's next great test came with the Little Steel strike that began on May 26. The Little Steel companies—American Rolling Mill, Bethlehem, Inland, National, Republic, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube—were "little" only in comparison to U.S. Steel. In reality, they were major corporations, with abundant resources, and their leaders were rabidly anti-union. U.S. Steel's willingness to recognize SWOC only strengthened their determination to resist any further encroachment on the industry's open-shop tradition. On Memorial Day, at Republic Steel in Chicago, ten strikers and their supporters were gunned down by a vast phalanx of uniformed policemen in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Overall, eighteen men died in the course of the strike, which ended in a crushing defeat for the union.

The Little Steel strike was a major setback for SWOC and the CIO, but the devastating impact of the Roosevelt recession created even greater problems. The nationwide economic downturn of 1937 and 1938 caused a 70 percent drop in steel production and massive layoffs among steelworkers. Even among workers who remained on the job, the number of paid-up union members fell sharply. Often, in giant plants with thousands of workers, only a few hundred continued to pay dues, and SWOC resorted to "dues picket lines," where staffers and loyal union members surrounded the plants and refused to let hourly employees go to work until they paid their monthly dollar.

Recession and employer intransigence caused the steel drive to falter; sympathetic government intervention and a booming war economy allowed it to triumph decisively. Bethlehem Steel fell to SWOC after a strike in the spring of 1941. Republic, the most intransigent symbol of the open shop, capitulated without a strike soon thereafter. With the American Federation of Labor still claiming jurisdiction at U.S. Steel, SWOC called for a representation election at "the Corporation" and defeated its rival by a margin of better than eleven to one. At this juncture, even the paternalistic Murray recognized that the time had come to transform SWOC into an international union. In May 1942 at Cleveland's Public Music Hall, 1,700 delegates gave birth to the United Steelworkers of America. In less than six full years, SWOC had organized the vast majority of the nation' steelworkers—often, they had organized themselves—into one big industrial union, thus breaking an employer stranglehold that had prevailed since the 1890s.



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Bruce Nelson