Steel Strikes

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STEEL STRIKES. The mass production of steel began in the United States during the 1870s. Since that time, the American steel industry has gone back and forth between being heavily unionized and hardly unionized at all. It was highly unionized until the Homestead Lockout of 1892, almost entirely nonunion from 1892 until U.S. Steel recognized the Steelworkers Organizing Committee in 1937, and highly unionized again from 1937 until steel production capacity began to disappear in the late 1970s. At present, the industry is largely nonunion. Major steel strikes have marked periods of both union growth and decline.

The First Union Era

The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, the first national union to include steelworkers, formed in 1876 after winning a series of local labor struggles across the steelmaking areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. That union's strength, however, was in the iron industry. As iron manufacturers began to switch to steel production during the 1880s and early 1890s, skilled iron-workers fought to maintain power over production. Many manufacturers managed to switch from iron to steel without incident simply by closing their iron plants and opening up new steel mills with less-skilled, nonunion workers.

The Amalgamated Association lost its most important foothold in steelmaking during the Homestead Lockout of 1892. Carnegie Steel, the largest firm in the world at that time, instigated the dispute because it wanted to better compete with an increasing number of rival companies who operated on a nonunion basis. The 6 July 1892 gun battle between strikers and Pinkerton guards hired to protect their replacements has made this one of the most famous incidents in American labor history. Since the company's primary owner, Andrew Carnegie, had once expressed support for trade unionism, many Americans saw the lockout as an act of hypocrisy.

The Nonunion Era

After Homestead, the Amalgamated Association gradually disappeared from the scene. In 1901, the union struck the newly formed United States Steel Corporation, which controlled approximately 65 percent of the industry. This action gave U.S. Steel an excuse to drive the union from most of the small number of plants it controlled that still bargained with them. After a small lockout in 1909, U.S. Steel, along with the vast majority of firms in the steel industry, was union free.

In 1919, steelworkers made a strong but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain their previous power in the industry. During World War I, John Fitzpatrick, president of the Chicago American Federation of Labor, and the future Communist candidate for U.S. president William Z. Foster formed the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers. On 22 September 1919, the committee called a national strike over a wide range of issues, most notably union recognition and the eight-hour day. Fiercely protective of their managerial prerogatives, industry leaders chose to fight the strike at any cost.

Steel companies played on ethnic and racial difference among their workers in order win the dispute. Immigrant workers responded to the call to strike in greater numbers than their native-born counterparts. To make matters worse, the Amalgamated Association, which benefited handsomely from dues paid by new members the committee brought in, did little to support the strike. Under the influence of company propaganda, Amalgamated Association members, mostly better-skilled, native-born workers, voted to end their involvement in the walkout on 14 December 1919. These developments made it possible for many steel plants to continue operating during the strike, or at least wait out the trouble until a few strikers returned to work. Steelmakers and their friends in the media also made a big deal over Foster's connections to the Industrial Workers of the World in order to drain support for the strike. On 8 January 1920, the committee called off the strike. It disbanded shortly thereafter.

At the beginning of the Depression, the Amalgamated Association had very few members and no interest in organizing. John L. Lewis formed what would become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in large part to get the American Federation of Labor to organize steel and other largely nonunion major manufacturing industries. In 1936, Lewis appointed the United Mine Workers vice president Philip Murray the head of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the group within the CIO charged with organizing steel.

At first, the SWOC concentrated its efforts on the industry giant U.S. Steel. This campaign bore fruit in March 1937, when U.S. Steel recognized the SWOC without a fight. But other large firms, collectively dubbed "Little Steel" only because they were smaller than U.S. Steel Corporation, fought hard against the SWOC. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was really separate strikes against Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. It began when the Republic Steel president, Tom Girdler, locked employees out of the firm's Massillon, Ohio, mill on 20 May. The most famous incident of the strike occurred on 30 May 1937, outside a Republic Steel plant in Chicago. Chicago policemen shot into a crowd of strikers who had wanted to march on the plant. Ten marchers, seven of whom were shot in the back, died of their wounds. The gunfire injured thirty others, nine of whom were permanently disabled.

None of the "Little Steel" firms recognized the SWOC as a result of the strike. However, the strike did provide fodder for many complaints that the union brought before the newly formed National Labor Relations Board. Pressure from the board as these complaints wound their way through the legal process and pressure from the Roosevelt administration to keep production going during World War II led each of these firms to recognize the SWOC in the years following the strike. In a few cases, this required additional strikes, such as at Bethlehem Steel's South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, plant in 1941. The SWOC's successor organization, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), represented nearly every steelworker in America by the end of the war.

The USWA Era

Between 1946 and 1959, the USWA struck five times in an effort to win higher wages for its members. Each of these strikes shut down the industry. Because of the importance of the steel industry to the national economy, the government became deeply involved in these disputes. The 1952 strike led to President Truman's historic decision to seize the entire steel industry. In Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952), the Supreme Court ruled this action unconstitutional. The 1959 strike lasted 116 days, until the Supreme Court upheld a presidential injunction that ended the dispute on the grounds that it created a national economic emergency.

Union wage gains made during these strikes contributed to the collapse of the steel industry. In each of these disputes, employers tended to make wage concessions to the union rather than cede control over the production process. This and the failure of American producers to innovate made American steel expensive in relation to its foreign competition. Because these strikes continually disrupted supply, steel consumers increasingly looked to foreign sources for cheap, reliable product. The collapse of the industry began in the mid-1960s. By the early 1980s, the American steel industry had shrunk to a shadow of its former self.

As a result of this crisis, the United Steelworkers of America voluntarily gave up the right to strike. The Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA), a contract with employers under which the union agreed to settle all collective bargaining disputes through arbitration, prevented strikes that would further destabilize the industry and drive consumers to foreign suppliers. It lasted from 1973 to 1983. The parties never invoked the arbitration clause, settling all the disputes themselves. Unfortunately, because steelworker wages continued to increase over the life of the agreement, the ENA did not stop the steel industry's disastrous decline.

Industrywide bargaining between employers and the USWA broke down in 1985. This led to many isolated strikes, often motivated by the union's desire to limit the damage that deindustrialization inflicted upon its members. The strike against USX (the successor company to U.S. Steel) in 1986 and early 1987 is perhaps the most important of these because the company and the union managed to find common ground. Other disputes, such as the strike and lockout that started in 1997 at Rocky Mountain Steel Mills in Pueblo, Colorado, have become battles to the death resulting in either the destruction of the union or the bankruptcy of the firm. Most new steel mills built in the United States over the last twenty years have been nonunion from their inception. Therefore, few of these facilities have faced strikes.


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

———. Labor in Crisis; the Steel Strike of 1919. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Fitch, John A. The Steel Workers. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

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

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


See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Arbitration ; Collective Bargaining ; Homestead Strike of 1892 ; Strikes ; United Steelworkers of America .