Reviewed by Roger Keeran
November 16, 2019
Pittsburgh and the Great Steel Strike of 1919 by Ryan C. Brown. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019. $21.99. 171 Pp.
One hundred years ago in September 1919, 365,000 steel workers in Pittsburgh and beyond shut down the nation’s most important and powerful industry. This confrontation known as the Great Steel Strike represented “the largest strike in American history.” Pittsburgh writer Ryan C. Brown has given this struggle a worthy tribute in this lively and readable history.
Brown begins with a development of the steel industry and a profile of Albert Gary, the head of U.S. Steel. He describes the horrific conditions under which the Slavic immigrants labored an average of eighty-two hours a week. He explains the unsuccessful efforts of the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union and the Industrial Workers of the World to organize the steel workers, including the failed walkout at the Homestead mill in 1893.
The heart of the book is Brown’s account of the epic 1919 struggle from its onset on September 22 until January 8, 1920 when strike leaders called off the strike in defeat. Brown brings the strike alive with telling quotes and revealing anecdotes. He relies on a wide range of contemporary observers, such activists as Mother Jones, local and national religious leaders, industrial spies, police, strikers and their families, the local press and such renowned journalists as Mary Heaton Vorse. Brown also includes well-chosen photographs of people, places and events.
An important contribution of this book is Brown’s appreciation to the role of William Z. Foster, the Secretary Treasurer of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and the real leader of the struggle. This sets Brown apart from other historians who have under-appreciated or mischaracterized Foster’s role. Foster Rhea Dulles, for example, a mainstream labor historian and champion of the American Federation of Labor, while crediting Foster with “outstanding” organizational skills, claimed that “Foster’s left-wing views succeeded in alienating much popular sympathy.” On the other end of the political spectrum, Jeremy Brecher, a labor historian with anarchist views, claimed Foster of held back the natural militancy of the workers.
Brown’s account shows the baselessness of both claims. Though the steel bosses and local newspapers and politicians attacked Foster and the strikers as Bolsheviks and revolutionaries, which some of them were, these attacks were based on nothing that Foster did or said during the strike, which had simple trade union objectives—union recognition and improved wages and conditions. The redbaiting of Foster relied on nothing more than a book on syndicalism that he had written seven years before the strike.
The claim that Foster held back worker militancy shows an utter lack of understanding of the challenges Foster faced and the skills he showed in running this strike. Foster had to try to retain the unity and support of the twenty-four craft unions and their conservative leaders like Michael Tighe and Samuel Gompers that were cautiously supporting the strike, while at the same time fending off redbaiting by journalists, violence by vigilantes, and repression by local authorities. All the while, Foster had to maintain discipline and unity among thousands of previously unorganized immigrant and native-born workers. Foster did try to head off precipitous local walkouts in September but only because such wildcats endangered the effort to build the industry-wide strike that eventually came to pass. To accuse the man who led the most complex and extensive strike in the steel industry of trying to thwart worker militancy simply passes understanding.
Brown shows that it was not such so-called leaders as Tighe and Gompers who provided the leadership of the strike but Foster. While they were in their offices, Foster was on the scene organizing strike relief, issuing press releases, addressing rallies, and facing down strikebreakers. In a book written fifteen years after the strike, the labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, recalled Foster’s leadership:
“There was never a leader of a big strike more accessible than Foster. Anyone could see him by walking in the door. Foster gave the appearance of the calmest man in the world….No matter what happened he did not lose his appearance of judicial calm. As one came to know him, one realized that his calmness was because of the high tension under which he worked. He never faltered, never was at a loss but worked with tireless prevision taking up one problems after another and finishing with it….He held in his hand the threads of all the vast detail of strike strategy, relief, commissary, publicity. Yet he could delegate responsibility….He spoke extremely well but without rhetorical tricks….He was probably the ablest labor organizer this country has ever known.”
Brown ends his book with the statement that “lessons” of the strike “remain important a century later” and that it “opened the road for every victory to come,” namely the successful organization of the steel industry by the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee campaign of the 1930s. In this Brown is absolutely correct. The lessons of the Great Steel Strike were distilled by Foster in his numerous books and articles and as his subsequent role as the head of labor work for the Communist Party. As I have written The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions, Communists in the auto industry took the lead in putting these lessons into practice, an effort that resulted in the successful General Motors Sitdown Strike of 1936-37. This victory convinced Myron C. Taylor, the chairman of U.S. Steel, that he should recognize the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and sign an agreement before there was a strike in steel, a strike that “might prove such a major crisis as to constitute almost a social revolution.” The Great Steel Strike of 1919 thus opened the road to the steel workers victory in 1937.
This epilogue to the Great Steel Strike gives force to Foster’s observation at the end of the strike: “Was the steel strike, then worth the great suffering and effort that it cost the steel workers?….I say yes; even though it failed to accomplish the immediate objects it had in view. No strike is ever wholly lost….Better by far a losing fight than none at all. An unresisting working class would soon find itself on a rice diet. But the steel strike has done more….it has given the steel workers a confidence in their ability to organize and to fight effectively, which will eventually inspire them on to victory.”
Roger Keeran is the author of The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions (1980) and co-author with Thomas Kenny of Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union (2004), as well as various articles in history or sociology journals. He is now Professor Emeritus of the Empire State College at SUNY after retiring in 2013.