Great Steel Strike

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Great Steel Strike

United States 1919-1920


The National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers, led by John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor and a former Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer named William Z. Foster, began a campaign to unionize American steelworkers during World War I. Taking advantage of a wartime labor shortage, the campaign signed up thousands of mostly less skilled workers. When the war ended, Fitzpatrick and Foster demanded a hearing with Elbert Gary, chairman of the United States Steel Corporation and the informal leader of the industry. When Gary refused to meet with them, pressure from the rank and file forced a strike.

The strike began on 22 September 1919. The two main issues were union recognition and shorter working hours. (Many steelworkers still worked a 10-or 12-hour day at this time.) Approximately 250,000 steel workers heeded the strike call that first day. The industry used a mixture of brute force and propaganda to pressure employees to go back to work. When the administration of President Woodrow Wilson chose not to force arbitration, the walkout was as good as dead. The committee formally ended the strike on 8 January 1920, although production had returned to normal levels weeks before.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States is ratified.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

The steel industry was the most antiunion industry in America. Carnegie Steel had delivered a devastating blow to steel unionism during the Homestead lockout of 1892. U.S. Steel completed the process of neutralizing the union presence in the industry during a strike in 1909. But World War I changed the balance in the labor-management relationship because it spurred the interest of the government in maintaining production. When labor strife hit a war industry, the Wilson administration forced management into arbitration, sometimes even into collective bargaining. Organized labor regained a foothold in the steel industry by taking advantage of the war emergency.

At the beginning of the war, Fitzpatrick and Foster led an organizing campaign in the Chicago stockyards. The campaign succeeded in bringing packinghouse workers many benefits because of federally mandated wartime arbitration. Their next target was steel. The drive was national in scope because Fitzpatrick's Chicago Federation of Labor convinced the normally conservative president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, to go along. The National Committee was a voluntary body representing 24 unions with steel industry interests, including the blacksmith, boilermaker, electrical worker, and machinist unions. Unlike in other strikes, the unions involved deferred to the decisions made by the committee so as to guarantee unity. The unions also pooled organizing resources, which was practically unheard-of in the labor movement up to that time. These changes in practice indicate the importance of organizing the steel industry to the entire union movement. The National Committee's campaign was the first sustained effort to organize steelworkers in decades.

During the war, the National Committee had great success signing up less skilled workers who had never had a home in the steel industry's existing unions. Immigrants responded particularly well to the organizing drive. The National Committee equated unionism with democracy in its rhetoric, and immigrants who wanted to show themselves American saw joining the union as a way to do so. The steel industry tolerated this organizing activity during the war for fear of government intervention and fear that work stoppages would prevent firms from making huge wartime profits. Furthermore, any lockout during the war would have led to charges that management was unpatriotic, so the steel industry bided its time.

The organizing drive continued after the war ended, but now management and its allies felt freer to oppose the effort. It had many weapons with which to accomplish this goal. Spies in the mills, blacklists, and exercising control of local governments in steel towns were among their most effective methods. Yet the union ranks continued to grow. After the strike began, armed policemen, state troopers, and even the federal army were mobilized on management's side.

The National Committee wanted to take time to build its organization, but impatient steelworkers forced it to act more quickly. On 25 May 1919 steelworkers from throughout the Midwest met at a general conference in Pittsburgh. Despite calls for caution, the committee realized that its membership demanded action. On 20 July the National Committee issued 12 demands. Besides union recognition and shorter hours, the demands included one day's rest in seven, a wage increase, dues checkoff, and the abolition of company unions. When Elbert Gary refused to meet with committee representatives, Gompers, who had been deeply involved with the government war effort, got President Wilson to approach Gary on their behalf. Despite pressure from the president, Gary still refused to meet any representative of any union. At this point the National Committee set the strike date of 22 September.

U.S. Steel and the rest of the industry was determined to fight the committee no matter the cost. Steel executives had an almost visceral hatred of organized labor because of the costs it imposed on production and the notion that collective bargaining violated a basic tenet of American capitalism—the idea that men should rise and fall as individuals rather than as part of a collective entity. Elbert Gary repeatedly stated that U.S. Steel did not bargain with unions "as such" but that his door was always open to any individual worker who had a complaint. He never suggested that a single worker ever took him up on this offer. A few firms, notably Bethlehem Steel, had instituted company unions during the war, but only to avoid government-imposed recognition of outside trade unions. Now that the government no longer needed steel for the war effort, the industry wanted to roll back wages and eradicate independent trade unions from American mills. In the weeks following the Armistice, steel companies fired many union leaders in the process of lowering their payrolls from bloated wartime levels.

Steelmakers thought they would have no trouble beating back the National Committee's drive because they believed the vast majority of steelworkers supported them. Many steel executives received a rude awakening when the strike came. Approximately half the steelworkers in America stayed home the first day. This was almost twice the number of employees who had joined the union by that time. However, the effectiveness of the walkout varied widely. Gary, Indiana, for example, was almost completely dormant on 22 September. Managers at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Pueblo, Colorado, had expected the strike to bypass them because they thought their company union had addressed all of the union's concerns, but that mill had to shut down too. However, in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and in Birmingham, Alabama, the strike had little or no effect. In the Pittsburgh district, some mills shut entirely, while others were unaffected.

The steel companies and their allies fought the strike with three successful strategies. First, they used repression to prevent the strikers from meeting and to break their will to fight. For example, the day before the strike began, mounted police officers in North Clairton, Pennsylvania, broke up a strike rally, beating the strikers with clubs as the rode through the crowd. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (which includes Pittsburgh), Sheriff William S. Haddock banned meetings of three or more people in any outside public place and deputized 5,000 men to enforce the order; the men were paid and armed by local steel firms.

The steel producers also deliberately inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in the workforce. For example, a spy in Chicago received instructions from the U.S. Steel subsidiary there to aggravate tensions between the Italians and the Serbians with the goal of getting one group to go back to work before the other. U.S. Steel paid African Americans in Gary, Indiana, to march through the streets rather than to make steel, anticipating that the mere prospect of a black person taking their job would be enough to convince white strikers to return to work. The strike, in fact, proved an opening for large numbers of African Americans to keep good steel jobs on a permanent basis for the first time.

Last, the industry encouraged the media to attack the politics of the strike and its organizers. Most of these attacks centered on William Z. Foster, whose previous career with the IWW gave the National Committee's enemies an easy way to make the campaign seem dangerously radical. Labor organizers had known of Foster's radical past. He had even offered to resign his position before the strike began to avoid it becoming an issue, but Gompers and the National Committee supported him anyway because of his success in the Chicago stockyards. Unfortunately for the committee, a reporter for the industry trade journal Iron Age heard about Foster's previous affiliation and even found an old pamphlet he wrote. The pamphlet, entitled "Syndicalism," was an extreme left-wing tract filled with denunciations of the capitalist order. Even though the pamphlet had been out of print for years, copies soon poured into steel towns. Despite the reasonableness of the National Committee's demands, the public and the steelworkers themselves began to consider whether the strike was part of a left-wing master plan. The attacks on Foster proved particularly effective, as the strike coincided almost exactly with the first Red Scare in the country at large. Foster eventually became the leader of the American Communist Party.

The National Committee's best hope for winning anything from the strike would have come from government intervention. Hearings by the Senate Committee on Education and Labor led nowhere. Therefore, union hopes centered on President Wilson's previously scheduled Industrial Conference, which began on 6 October. The high-level meeting comprised 57 delegates representing the public, organized labor, and industry. It was supposed to improve the climate that had led to so many labor disputes in 1919, but it quickly became bogged down by the steel strike. At the beginning of the conference, the labor group immediately introduced a series of resolutions designed to force arbitration of the dispute on terms favorable to the National Committee. Gary attended the conference, strangely enough, as a member of the public delegation, even though he had refused to meet with some of the labor leaders at the conference just a few months before. When forced to confront the existence of the strike, Gary merely repeated his philosophical opposition to trade unionism. Because the conference had no power, nothing was resolved, and because the Wilson administration did not want to antagonize the steel industry in its quest for broader industrial peace, it did not interfere in the dispute again. With all hope of reaching a favorable settlement gone, striking workers gradually returned to their jobs in increasing numbers all across the country.

The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers ordered its members back to work in early November. The Amalgamated Association, though much weaker, was still the largest union in the steel industry. In 1919 its few locals had as members approximately 5,000 skilled workers, employed mostly in a small number of midwestern specialty steelmakers. When the less skilled men in the National Committee struck, many Amalgamated Association members came out in sympathy with them. This violated the labor contracts at union mills. When these union employers threatened to cease dealing with the union entirely, Amalgamated president Michael Tighe felt compelled to protect his organization. Although the union might have been expected to help the committee financially, at least, it offered little support of any kind to the strike—although, to be fair, other unions did not offer much support either. The Amalgamated Association's behavior during the strike helps explain how Tighe earned the nickname "Grandmother."

By December 1919 the number of strikers had dropped by two-thirds, and steel production had returned to 50 or 60 percent of normal. Nevertheless, the representatives of the National Committee voted to continue the strike. By 8 January 1920, however, the strike remained effective in only a few places, so the committee voted to end the walkout. Some union leaders immediately planned another organizing campaign, but when the Amalgamated Association withdrew from the National Committee all hopes at a revival disappeared. No unionists were willing to violate that union's jurisdiction. The Amalgamated Association wanted to be the dominant voice in any subsequent union drive, but it lacked the will to undertake the kind of effort necessary to conquer this citadel of antiunionism. Even the passage of section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 did not inspire the Amalgamated Association to take initiative.

Even though labor lost the 1919 strike, one positive development grew out of the dispute. During the strike, the Inter-church World Movement, a Protestant group committed to the liberal ideas of the Social Gospel movement, began an investigation of the steel industry and the conditions that led to the strike. Their report, released on 28 July 1920, did much to justify labor's lost cause. In its coverage of the report, the press seized on the existence of the continued existence of the 12-hour workday even though that issue made up only an eighth of the document. Following its playbook, the industry and its paid operatives attacked the Interchurch Movement and its report as dangerously radical. Nevertheless, the report inspired follow-up reports in the press and a volume of the Interchurch movement's field studies. Even though interest in the report tailed off, it led to pressure from both Congress and the administration of President Warren Harding to end the 12-hour day once and for all. Although most of the steel industry, in particular Elbert Gary, resisted the move, Gary changed his mind after he received a personal letter from President Harding in 1923 that threatened the industry with legislation if it did not make this change on its own. This decision made the steel industry the last major industry in the United States to eliminate the 12-hour day. If the 1919 strike had not occurred, the will to force that change would not have emerged as soon as it did.

The steel industry remained largely nonunion until the Steel Workers Organizing Committee took control of the Amalgamated Association and won major victories in the late 1930s.

Key Players

Fitzpatrick, John (1871-1946): Fitzpatrick was the Chicago Federation of Labor president. In addition to his work that led to the 1919 steel strike, he organized a successful effort to organize the Chicago stockyards.

Foster, William Z. (1881-1961): Former Industrial Workers of the World organizer and coleader of the Chicago stock-yards campaign with Fitzpatrick, Foster went on to lead the American Communist Party.

Gary, Elbert (1846-1927): Gary was an Illinois state judge and, later, first president of the United States Steel Corporation. The size of his company and his intense opposition to trade unions made him the natural leader of steel industry forces during the strike.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): American Federation of Labor president, Gompers thought his support for World War I would translate into help from the Wilson administration. The government's response to the steel strike dashed these hopes.

Tighe, Michael (1858-1940): President of the nearly inoperative Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, Tighe decided to have his skilled members cross picket lines as soon as the strike looked unwinnable.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Homestead Lockout; Industrial Workers of the World; U.S. Steel Recognizes Steel Workers Organizing Committee.



Brody, David. Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987.

Foster, William Z. The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1920.

Interchurch World Movement. Public Opinion and the Steel Strike. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1921.

——. Report on the Steel Strike of 1919. New York:Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920.


Hill, Charles. "Fighting the Twelve-Hour Day in the American Steel Industry." Labor History 15 (winter 1974): 19-35.

—Jonathan Rees