McKees Rocks Strike
McKees Rocks Strike
United States 1909
On 14 July 1909 unskilled and semiskilled Slavic workers staged a strike against the Pressed Steel Car Company of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, located near Pittsburgh. Strain between strikers (and their allies in the International Workers of the World or IWW) and the company (along with its replacement workers and state police forces) erupted in a riot on 22 August 1909. After six more weeks of minor skirmishes, the rioting culminated with the deaths of many people and the injury of many others. Although the steel manufacturing industry did not respond immediately to the riots with significant improvements to worker conditions, the McKees Rocks strike of 1909 is considered one of the more important incidents that eventually led to successful unionization efforts in the 1930s.
- 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
- 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
- 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium, its brand name: Heroin.
- 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
- 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
- 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
- 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
- 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in São Tomé and Principe.
- 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
- 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
- 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
Event and Its Context
Slavic people came to the United States primarily from eastern and central Europe, most from the Balkan Peninsula, and from beyond the Ural Mountains in Russia. Slavic people at this time were generally grouped linguistically: the east Slavic branch consisted of Belarusian-, Russian-, and Ukrainian-speaking people; the west Slavic branch comprised Czech, Polish, Slovak, and Sorbian; and the south Slavic branch included Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovenian. Many of these Slavic people immigrated to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century for the express purpose of looking for a better way of life, and some of them eventually came to work in the coal mines and steel mills of Pennsylvania.
Anthracite to Steel
Large numbers of people of Slavic descent came to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, located in the western part of the state, by way of the anthracite coalfields in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. Conditions in these eastern coalfields were becoming increasingly difficult, and the Slavic peoples were looking primarily for better wages without the exposure to such terrible working conditions. They came to Pittsburgh as poor, illiterate people, with little industrial training and experience, yet they displayed courage, resourcefulness, and stability to their new employers.
Within a few years in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the Slavic employees were considered strong, willing workers and were generally viewed by the steel management as some of the best workers available. The Slavic people had developed into strong manual laborers from backbreaking agricultural work in their native lands. The bulk of the unskilled labor around Pittsburgh—digging and carrying at factories, loading and unloading of raw materials on railroads and riverboats, heavy work at forges and foundries, and lifting in machine shops—was performed for the most part by Slavic workingmen. They also were involved in some of the worst accidents in the steel mills because of the strenuous and dangerous work that they often performed. A report of the National Croatian Society for 1905-1906 reported that out of a membership that averaged near 17,000 workers for that period, 95 men were killed by accident and 85 others were permanently disabled. In addition, 97 men died from consumption, a wasting disease traceable to the character of their work. Such was the general condition of the Slavic steel worker in 1909.
Working for the Pressed Steel Car Company
In 1909 many Slavic people worked for the Pressed Steel Car Company in the town of McKees Rocks (now a western suburb of Pittsburgh). Six years earlier, the Slavic workers had replaced English-speaking workers after those workers went out on strike, and the Slavic people agreed to perform the work at much lower wages than the English-speaking workers were paid. The new Slavic employees filled a variety of demanding positions, such as unskilled pressmen, punchers, riveters, and shearsmen; and semiskilled blacksmiths, carpenters, fitters, and painters. The Slavic pressmen, punchers, riveters, and shearsmen were paid by piecework at about $35 to $50 in a two-week pay period; the Slavic blacksmiths, carpenters, fitters, and painters received from $2.00 to $2.50 per day.
Slavic workers in the steel district had been unsuccessful in securing better worker rights from their employers, especially with regard to the safeguarding of their lives and welfare. One of the workers' specific complaints was the regular abuse of workers, especially immigrant workers, by foremen. The workers learned to join together as a group; they looked to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for help at this time.
The Role of the IWW
The IWW, commonly called "The Wobblies," was one of the most revolutionary and often violent labor unions in the United States. The workers recognized it, however, as an association based on the old craft organizations (or "industrial unions") that included all the employees of an industry, whatever their occupation. The Slavic workers viewed the IWW as a solid ally in their opposition to the powerful steel capitalists.
The IWW was especially violent during the time period from 1906 to 1916, when it engaged in some of the fiercest fights between capitalists and laborers ever fought in the United States. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) sometimes joined the capitalists and governmental authorities in its opposition to the IWW. The AFL, one of the country's largest and most influential labor unions, often provided strikebreakers to be used against the IWW strikes.
McKees Rocks Strike
One of the more successful strikes led by the IWW was the one that occurred at McKees Rocks in 1909. The McKees Rocks strike was among the largest of the ethnic labor conflicts that occurred in the early twentieth century in the state of Pennsylvania. The steel companies in the state had chosen Slavic workers over other ethnic workers for their assumed submissiveness and because they were willing to work for less money than other ethnic groups. The factory owners also believed that Slavic workers would not agitate for better pay and conditions because the Slavs themselves were divided along ethnic lines. In all there were 14 distinct ethnic subdivisions of the Slavic workers. Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Russians, and other Slavic groups were divided by custom, language, and, sometimes religious beliefs and traditions.
The Slavic people's apparent passive acceptance of exploitative work and abusive treatment hid their determined ambition to better themselves. They had come to the United States believing that only there did they have a chance to improve their lot in life. Moreover, and contrary to their employers' initial views about Slavic workers, the various Slavic groups eventually demonstrated that they were capable of effective organization and resistance when the combination of poor working conditions and low pay became intolerable.
Beginning on 14 July 1909, the IWW led thousands of unskilled and semiskilled immigrant workers comprising 14 nationalities in a two-month violent strike against their employer, the Pressed Steel Car Company. The employees and the IWW also fought against the State Constabulary, whom they disrespectfully called "the Cossacks." Local authorities had called in the State Constabulary at the first signs of trouble. The Pennsylvania mine and mill owners had recently organized the State Constabulary, a specially trained group from the state police department, for the express purpose of maintaining stability during labor disturbances, resisting labor revolts, and taking command in emergencies. At the height of its effectiveness, the Pennsylvania Constabulary was considered the most violent and efficient antilabor police force in the United States.
The IWW, however, was a superior match for the Constabulary. On 22 August 1909, after nearly five weeks of continued strain that had built up between strikers, replacement workers, the company, and the Constabulary, a "Cossack" shot a striker, and a riot situation soon developed. The strike committee immediately informed the Constabulary commander that for every striker killed or injured by his men, a Constabulary man would also be killed or injured. The committee members emphasized that they were not especially concerned about who was selected for this retaliation. The angry strikers chanted: "Strike! Life for a life!"
After 11 weeks of minor skirmishes, a battle took place near the Pressed Steel Car Company plant between a mob of workers and the State Constabulary. After the riot subsided, about a dozen men from both sides had been killed and more than 50 men were wounded near a footbridge. The Constabulary could no longer control the streets and were backed into the factory property. This confrontation ended the violence on both sides for the remainder of the strike, which a few days later resulted in a victory for the workers. The strike was later described as an "industrial slaughterhouse."
Following the strike at McKees Rocks, the IWW stopped its practice of using violence in labor disputes. Instead it relied on sheer numbers when leading strikes. The police, the militia, and hired gunmen continued to use violence during the period 1910-1916 in ongoing efforts to stop strikes and free-speech campaigns. The Pennsylvania State Constabulary continued their brutality. Newspaper reports, such as one published in the New York Call (a socialist paper), that covered their violent actions often referred to the brutality of the Constabulary at the 1909 IWW strike in McKees Rocks.
Labor historians consider the McKees Rocks steel strike to be the first strike victory by Slavic workers in Pennsylvania. The strike demonstrated that unity was possible among the diverse Slavic ethnic groups—groups previously thought by management to be docile and incapable of uniting effectively. The success of the Pittsburgh-area Slavic workers in overcoming their ethnic divisions so as to conduct a successful strike is a testament to their will to obtain fair and equitable treatment from their employers.
The McKees Rocks strike in 1909 not only demonstrated that the Slavic workers could effectively organize, but also made it clear that they could do so under very adverse conditions. Intimidation by the steel plant owners and strikebreaking police were insufficient to hinder the workers' collective will. They also demonstrated the ability to attract attention and garner support from liberal and radical elements in the middle class (no doubt with the help of the radical IWW). However, despite continuing efforts and occasional successes, neither militant laborers nor progressive labor unions could stop the powerful organization of the steel industry in the early twentieth century. The working class of Pittsburgh would have to wait until the 1930s to have a successful union that consistently won concessions from the factory owners for working conditions, safety issues, and economic concessions including wages and retirement benefits. Pennsylvania labor historians often point to the Slavic workers and the McKees Rocks strike, along with other similar strikes of that time, as forerunners of the new unionization of the 1930s.
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Fitch, John A. The Steel Workers. New York: Arno, 1969.
Greene, Victor R. The Slavic Community on Strike: Immigrant Labor in Pennsylvania Anthracite. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
Greenwald, Maurine W., and Margo Anderson, eds. Pittsburgh Surveyed: Social Science and Social Reform in the Early Twentieth Century. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
—William Arthur Atkins