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Daniel A. Stone
- Published on Amazon.com
If American labor history during the second half of the twentieth century had high priests, it is safe to call David Brody one of them. Among students of union-management relations, working class life and culture, and the place of the state in industrial labor relations from the end of the nineteenth century to the close of the second world, coming to terms with his understandings of how the Steel industry in the United States operated is an absolute necessity. His 1969 publication Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919, is a more fleshed out treatment of the American Federation of Labor's failed attempt to force union recognition upon the steel industry, which he dealt with in the closing chapter of his path breaking 1960 study Steelworkers in America: The Non-Union Era. Labor in Crisis asks a two deceptively simple question that can only justly be answered with varying levels of complexity: First, why did the events of 1919 play out as they did? Second, what mechanisms fell in to place less than two decades later that allowed the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to gain a contract with the United States Steel Corporation without a fight?
Brody begins his explanation of the dramatic events of 1919 more than a quarter of a century before in Homestead, Pennsylvania during the violent and ultimately losing strike which the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers waged against Carnegie Steel in 1892. Beyond simply treating the strike at Homestead as a touchstone that ex-plains the negligible place which labor unions would have for most of the next forty-five years by explaining how the lost strike represented a shift in power materially in the owners favor, he goes deeply into the mindsets of the so-called "practical" men of steel: Andrew Carnegie, Henry C. Frick, Charles Schwab. Though Carnegie was dead, Frick was dying, and only Schwab was still highly active in the industry as head of Bethlehem Steel by that time, all left a powerful mark upon the whole industry.
The lessons they took away from their experiences in dealing with the hyper-competitive steel market of late nine-teenth century America was that only management, unhindered by any contractual obligations to its workforce, could hope to cope with vicissitudes of the market and remain profitable. Coupled with technological advancement and the massive immigration of unskilled labor from Southern and Eastern Europe to Steel towns throughout the Midwest, the trade unions of the time were in no position to keep management from any of their prerogatives. Though Brody points out that there was long a finance capital side to the Steel industry that was nowhere near as hostile to organized labor as those involved in the practical making of it, they were decidedly junior partners.
With the onset of the Great War, and especially with the United States entrance into it during the (somewhat) pro-labor Wilson administration, organized labor and workers in general, found the situation in the Steel industry very much altered. With the Federal government insisting upon labor peace and forcing recognition of workers' shop committees down the throats of companies who wanted military contracts, various unions were able to easily gain control of these outlets for bargaining about wages and conditions of employment. Had the war lasted longer, postulates Brody, a great many of the changes that were made in the Steel industry during the Great Depression and World War II may very well have been achieved in next few years, or even months. As fate had it, the war ended in November 1918, and all major and, nearly all minor, companies in the industry began taking extremely hard lines against known and suspected activists and sympathizers. Over the next ten months high levels of organizing and varying levels of repression would take place in Steel towns throughout the country, and the trade unionists who were organizing that labor force would feel them-selves compelled to call for a strike that they almost to a man felt they could not win.
As Brody explains the Strike in September of 1919, the event broke down as two different conflicts; one fought publicly and another fought privately. Within the public space, you had the Steel industry most publicly represented in the person of Elbert Gary, the grandfatherly and exceedingly polite head of the United States Steel Corporation, who framed the issue of the strike as a question of whom would actually manage the industry. His pronouncements about the strike and the industry were more widely covered than any other steel mans'. On the labor side, three people tended to crop up as representing workers. Samuel Gompers, long time head of the American Federation of Labor; John Fitzpatrick, head of the Chicago Federation of Labor and acting Chairman of the committee overseeing organization of steel workers; and finally William Z. Foster, Secretary Treasurer of the CFL and the committee responsible for organizing steel workers and an utterly brilliant union tactician and strategist. Though Foster had the least real decision making power of the three, the fact that he was formerly a member of the much feared Industrial Workers of the World and was unrepentant in his radicalism during a post-war red scare made him a lightning rod for criticism--Foster would soon join the American Communist Party and, by the end of World War II, be head of it.
The private side of the conflict occurred in the streets of Steel towns throughout the country. More than a dozen strikers were killed, and civil rights and liberties violations were recorded throughout the country. The situation could only be described as industrial warfare. Throughout Western Pennsylvania, but also in Gary, Indiana and Lackawanna, New York insurgency against entrenched power of both political and industrial nature took place with the most violent consequences, and sometimes even short term political change--Lackawanna, New York elected its one and only Socialist Mayor in November 1919, and Buffalo steel workers put a Socialist on the Common Council. Mostly though, the private war on organized labor and their own workforce led to a demoralization of most of the workers involved in the strike, and showed to what lengths organized capital and often the state were willing to go to assert their power.
Brody's postscript dealing with the anti-climactic organization of the industry, beginning in 1937, illuminates the strike even more by showing just how much the industry had changed by the Great Depression. Without going into great detail, nearly all the circumstances that had made Steel impenetrable to organized labor after World War I had changed drastically in the 1920's and even more so in the thirties with the onset of the Great Depression and New Deal legislation. In many ways the strike in 1919 was the last major strike against an industry that had its formative experiences in the nineteenth century before that guard retired or died. Brody shows with great clarity that the game had changed radically and abruptly. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation.