United Steelworkers of America

views updated May 23 2018

United Steelworkers of America

United States 1942


On 22 May 1942 the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a group established by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize the largest nonunion industry in the United States, adopted its first constitution at its convention in Cleveland, Ohio. In so doing, the organization became the United Steelworkers of America (USW). SWOC President Philip Murray continued in the same role in the new union. Future USW president David J. McDonald took the post of secretary-treasurer. The convention set up the locals in geographic districts, authorized a biennial international constitutional convention, and required officers and district directors to be voted in every four years. The new union inherited all of the old contracts that had been signed by SWOC.

Like the SWOC before it, the USW was organized on a top-down basis. No local could call a strike without the approval of the international. The president had the power to appoint the union's entire staff. The international received three times as much from dues as did the locals. This made the union financially strong but conservative compared to the SWOC.


  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: German troops march into the Balkans, conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. (Bulgaria and Romania, along with Hungary, are aligned with the Nazis.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1941: Great films of the year include The Maltese Falcon, Sul-livan's Travels, Meet John Doe, How Green Was My Valley, and a work often cited as one of the greatest films of all time: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Introduction of color television.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.

Event and Its Context

The transformation of SWOC into the USWA is the story of a temporary organizing campaign that consolidated its gains to become a stable union. SWOC had won a huge victory when it convinced the United States Steel Corporation, or "Big Steel," to recognize it without a strike in March 1937, but it lost the "Little Steel" strike against U.S. Steel's largest competitors later that same year. (Little Steel was a loose conglomeration of half a dozen steel manufacturers, including Bethlehem Steel and Republic Steel, all led by staunch antiunion entrepreneurs.) If SWOC had been unable to grow, the gains it had made might have vanished. Renewal of the U.S. Steel contract with SWOC in February 1938 without a wage cut helped the cause, but as long as Little Steel remained nonunion, SWOC's existence was not secure.

Philip Murray and many of his aides came from John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers of America (UMW). As the SWOC tried to establish itself, its leaders looked to the UMW as their model for how to operate. For instance, in October 1937 a special convention adopted a series of rules designed to centralize power at the top, in the same manner as had been used at the UMW. Before U.S. Steel's decision to recognize SWOC, the committee had been a loosely organized rank-and-file-driven organization. Henceforth, SWOC would be run from the top as with any bureaucratic union. In fact, SWOC was more autocratic than bureaucratic because it had no provisions for internal government. It had been created by an agreement with the defunct Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers. It had to answer only to the CIO, and after the U.S. Steel agreement John L. Lewis left SWOC pretty much alone. Not until it adopted a constitution and changed its name would ordinary steelworkers have any say over the direction of their organization, and even then it was not much.

The biggest problem faced by the SWOC at this time was lack of funds. At a time when it needed as many people as possible organizing steelworkers, precious manpower and resources had to go toward collecting dues from those who had already joined. Things got so bad that secretary-treasurer McDonald had to resort to dues picketing, or having intimidating-looking members stand by the gates of plants and shake down workers for the money they owed the union as they entered.

In this situation, SWOC could grow and stabilize without help from the government. President Franklin Roosevelt, however, did not give SWOC the help it expected. This is best illustrated by Roosevelt's response to the Memorial Day Massacre, which took place during the Little Steel Strike. "A plague on both your houses," he told a press conference, condemning labor and management alike. That comment, along with other issues, led to John L. Lewis's decision to break with Roosevelt before the 1940 presidential election. This in turn led Lewis to resign the presidency of the CIO. Murray replaced him in this position, and by 1942 the two union leaders had broken ties completely. Lewis went so far as to throw Murray out of the UMW.

With no help from Roosevelt, the committee looked to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for help. In the months following the Little Steel strike, SWOC's legal department filed a huge number of complaints under the National Labor Relations Act, alleging, among other things, that firms such as Republic Steel and Bethlehem Steel had refused to bargain in good faith. SWOC also established itself within the industry by winning representation elections held under NLRB auspices despite management's vehement objections to elections, let alone the committee. Through July 1939, SWOC won 81 of 122 NLRB elections. In 39 elections in which its opponent was an independent union or a former company union, SWOC won 22.

On 18 October 1938 the NLRB ruled that Republic Steel had to reinstate workers who had been unlawfully discharged during the Little Steel Strike and pay them wages lost since the date of their termination. This decision would eventually affect 7,000 employees and cost the company $2 million in back pay. Republic Steel appealed the ruling through every legal channel. When the United States Supreme Court refused to take the case in April 1940, company president Tom Girdler finally agreed to abide by the decision. In addition to the legal costs of fighting the NLRB, Republic Steel paid an additional $350,000 in 1945 to settle claims filed by strikers and the families of strikers who were killed or injured during the1937 dispute. The money made by Republic Steel during World War II, however, made these costs much easier to bear, and does much to explain why Republic Steel recognized the committee.

The desire to complete new government defense contracts also explains why other firms that made up Little Steel settled as the buildup accelerated. SWOC won an NLRA-inspired case against Youngstown Sheet and Tube on 17 February 1941. On 25 July 1941 Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube agreed to abide by the results of an NLRB cross-check of SWOC membership at their plants to avoid representation elections. The board certified that SWOC held majorities at each company. A new contract with U.S. Steel signed in April 1941 that had much better terms for union members also helped SWOC considerably.

In February 1941 Bethlehem Steel's management agreed to let employees at its Lackawanna, New York, plant vote on their collective bargaining agent after a successful 39-hour strike. This inspired a strike at South Bethlehem in March. When state and local police tried to disperse strikers, serious violence (but no casualties) resulted. As part of the settlement, South Bethlehem agreed to let its workers vote for their bargaining agent as well. Between May and September of that year, SWOC won elections at all of Bethlehem Steel's facilities.

SWOC had won recognition from all of Little Steel by midto-late 1941, but this does not mean that Little Steel signed contracts with the committee. Collective bargaining between SWOC and Little Steel began in September 1941. During the course of these negotiations, the United States entered World War II. In January 1942 the government created a new National War Labor Board (NWLB) to prevent strikes at companies involved in the war effort. The World War I version of the board had to depend on the power of public opinion to force companies to comply with its decisions, but the new NWLB had the full backing of the U.S. government. Furthermore, the new NWLB had the power to determine wages throughout the economy and to grant "union security" to organized labor. Union security consisted of two important contract provisions: maintenance-of-membership and dues check off. Maintenance-of-membership automatically enrolls new hires in the union. Workers enrolled in this manner during World War II could quit after a short time, but very few ever chose to do so. Dues check off means that union dues are automatically subtracted from an employee's paycheck (thereby saving union officials the time and expense of collecting dues from each member individually). SWOC believed it needed union security to survive.

The impasses between Little Steel and the USW led to the 16 July 1942 Little Steel decision by the NWLB. This decision not only determined the terms for collective bargaining between these two parties, it also determined how the board would set wage levels for all of American industry during the war. The NWLB granted the USWA both maintenance-of-membership and dues check off. Both these provisions helped the union immensely. Maintenance-of-membership helped SWOC grow from 373,000 members in 1941 to 733,000 members in 1946. Thanks to the dues check off provision of the Little Steel decision, the union's treasury grew sevenfold between May 1942 (right before the Little Steel decision) and November 1943. The union also had to continue to abide by the no-strike pledge that the AFL and the CIO had made on behalf of their member unions at the beginning of the war; in the patriotic climate of that time, SWOC leaders never even considered going back on that pledge. The maintenance-of-membership and dues check off provisions of the Little Steel decision were more responsible for the institutionalization of the steelworkers union than any other factor.

The results of the wage portion of the Little Steel decision were more ambiguous. The union had wanted a wage increase of 12.5 cents per hour over wages at the start of the war. The most recent prewar wage gain had been devoured completely by inflation. The committee calculated that steelworkers on average received over $6 less than other defense employees because they worked shorter hours than their peers. This explains why so many steelworkers left to seek jobs in other defense industries during the war. Management countered that such a wage increase for steelworkers would be inflationary because the cost would be passed on to other industries that used steel in their products.

The Little Steel decision gave union members a wage increase of 17.3 cents per hour. Of the difference between the union's demand and what it got, 3.2 cents represented what the union needed to catch up to the national inflation rate that had governed prices since the NWLB had starting considering the dispute. The board tacked on 2.3 cents more because inflation in steel towns exceeded the national average. The committee was happy that it had made up the difference between what its members had once earned in real terms and what it needed to maintain that difference, but the standard of living for most steelworkers before the war had been low. The union was concerned that it would have trouble getting wages raised during the rest of the war. Another cause for concern was that the decision did not address wage inequalities that existed between steelworkers. SWOC (and later the USW) would spend the remainder of the war trying to achieve wage increases above the caps set by the Little Steel formula.

Little Steel still objected to union recognition on philosophical grounds, and management abided by the decision only because of the war emergency. To defy an activist government at that point might have led to hostile publicity and an armed takeover of their facilities, as happened at Montgomery Ward in April 1944. Therefore, the antiunion executives who ran Little Steel swallowed their pride and signed union contracts.

The NWLB's Little Steel formula set the standard by which the board decided all future wage cases that came before it. Unions from any industry whose complaints came before the board would be guaranteed a wage increase of 15 percent over what its members had earned on 1 January 1941. The board could award larger gains if it detected inequalities or injustices. For instance, the NWLB tried to guarantee equal pay between men and women if they performed equal work. In most instances, however, the unions in future cases had the same reaction as had SWOC: gratitude for the pay raise tempered by concern about what they would do when wartime inflation consumed the gain. Only an NWLB complaint could lead to a government-mandated wage increase, and the board had too many complaints before it to ensure that workers' wages kept pace with inflation. To make matters worse, SWOC's success before the NWLB only encouraged more unions to file.

Buoyed by the organizing victories of the late 1930s and early 1940s, steelworkers expected to have greater influence over both the conditions under which they labored and the production process itself. Instead, they were disturbed to find that their employers still wanted to treat them as nothing but one of many factors of production. Before the war began, SWOC leadership took the initiative to establish a better working relationship with the industry. Beginning in 1938, the union established cooperation programs at some 50 small, financially troubled metal-fabricating firms that were willing to cede some shop floor control to the union so as to increase production efficiency. Two SWOC staffers, Harold Ruttenberg and Clinton Golden, provided the intellectual force behind these efforts to get labor and management to work together to confront the problems of the industry. By early 1940 they had convinced the union to make cooperation a central tenet of the union. In a 1941 address to the CIO convention, Philip Murray proposed a series of "Industry Councils" to give labor a voice in planning for all defense areas. Although most industries rejected such arrangements outright, steel firms agreed to implement the plan under the strain of the wartime emergency and the threat of government intervention. By 15 March 1944 there were 451 of these committees throughout the iron and steel industry, representing some 719,530 workers.

Union officials tried to use these committees to show management ways that production might be improved, but little came from these recommendations because management never took the committees seriously. Although some of these bodies helped decrease absenteeism and raise productivity, they disappeared soon after the end of the war. This reconfirmed to most employees that management would not cooperate with labor unless they were so compelled by outside forces. Stung by this rebuke, the USW would become as enthusiastic about cooperating with management as management was about cooperating with the union.

In 1946 the USW struck the entire industry to protect the wage and union security gains that it had won in the years preceding its formation and during the war. The union won this struggle because President Harry Truman's administration decided to allow the industry to raise the price of steel, thus making union gains easier for management to swallow. The concession, however, led to a wage spiral that contributed to four more nationwide strikes in the next 13 years and to the eventual collapse of the entire industry.

Key Players

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): UMW president and founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Deeply involved in SWOC's early history, his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt led him to curtail his involvement after the 1940 presidential election.

McDonald, David J. (1902-1979): SWOC secretary-treasurer who succeeded Murray as president of the USWA in 1952.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Handpicked by John L. Lewis to be SWOC president, Murray was also the first USW president and succeeded Lewis as CIO president in 1940. Cautious but successful, he was responsible for many of the policies that helped stabilize the union.

See also: Congress of Industrial Organizations; Memorial Day Massacre; United Mine Workers of America; U.S. Steel Recognizes Steel Workers Organizing Committee.



Clark, Paul, Peter Gottlieb, and Donald Kennedy, eds. Forging a Union of Steel. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1987.

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

Seidman, Joel. American Labor from Defense to Reconversion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Ulman, Lloyd. The Government of the Steelworkers' Union.New York: Wiley, 1962.

—Jonathan Rees

United Steelworkers of America

views updated May 23 2018


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 .

United Steelworkers v. Weber

views updated May 17 2018


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.

About this article

United Steelworkers of America

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic


United Steelworkers of America