Iron and steel industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Immigrants to the United States were in many ways responsible for the rise and success of the nation’s large iron and steel industry. Most important, their labor made it possible for the significant growth and prosperity of steel manufacturing in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The growth of the iron and steel industries in the United States has seen a corresponding rise in the employment of European immigrants in the manufacturing of these products. Before 1880, workers in iron and steel facilities of the United States had derived primarily from northern and western Europe, particularly from Great Britain. These mostly English, Welsh immigrants;ironworkersWelsh, and Scottish ironworkers, engineers, and other metalworkers arrived in the United States during the early to mid-nineteenth century. These skilled migrants, after having weighed their opportunities, chose to emigrate from the British Isles to take advantage of rising opportunities in America, which included the option of owning farmland. Not only did they sustain the development of the American iron industry, they also accelerated the implementation of new technological aspects in its production. Many of these immigrants worked and settled among the diverse iron industries located in Iron and steel industry;PennsylvaniaPennsylvania, the largest iron-producing state through much of the nineteenth century.Iron and steel industryIron and steelindustry[cat]BUSINESS;Iron and steel industry[02900][cat]ECONOMIC ISSUES;Iron and steel industry[02900][cat]LABOR;Iron and steel industry[02900]

Late Nineteenth Century Immigrants

The iron and steel industry continued to progress after the U.S. Civil War, and an increasing need for labor corresponded to this growth. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in particular, steel companies increasingly employed various eastern and southern Europeans in the production and fabrication of steel products. These immigrants included large numbers of Slovak immigrants;in iron and steel industry[iron and steel industry]Slovaks, Hungarian immigrants;in iron and steel industry[iron and steel industry]Hungarians, and Ukrainian immigrants;in iron and steel industry[iron and steel industry]Ukrainians who performed unskilled work in the mills and furnaces in the northern United States, particularly around such cities as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, steelworkers in 1905.

(The Granger Collection, New York)

During this period, the size and scale of manufacturing facilities increased dramatically. The use of more machinery prompted producers to recruit additional unskilled laborers from eastern Europe. About 30,000 new steelworkers were working in American factories by 1900. The motivation of many of these new arrivals was to make enough money to return to Europe and live well in their native villages and towns. The majority migrants who eventually stayed hoped for advancement from the lowest-paid and hardest jobs in the mills to better positions. Many of these men came alone and lived in the boardinghouses and company towns operated by mill owners. As their economic condition improved, they sent for their families, who gradually displaced earlier northern and western European immigrants and their descendants in the steel factories and communities. Meanwhile, they existed a well as they could while working long, hazardous hours with low pay.

Struggle to Unionize

ManyLabor unions;iron and steel industrynative-born American workers believed that immigrants and their families would not fight against workplace and community injustice on their own accord, and that they would not strike or organize for better working conditions against an overwhelmingly powerful industry. Consequently, craft unions belonging to the American Federation of LaborAmerican Federation of Labor;and iron and steel industry[iron and steel industry] were reluctant to recruit foreign-born laborers because of skill and ethnic prejudice. However, immigrant workers and their families proved many observers wrong with their participation during the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of 1892Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of 1892 and their spontaneous 1909 uprising against Pressed Steel Car in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. In the latter conflict, immigrant leaders seized the initiative and recruited organizers from the newly formed Industrial Workers of the WorldIndustrial Workers of the World. They won some measure of success, until company officials set native-born against foreign-born workers and broke the unity of thestrike.

Later struggles, especially the steel strike of 1919, witnessed even larger immigrant participation, despite successful corporate employment of nativist prejudice and armed force. It was the formation of the Steelworkers’ Organizing Committee and the support of the Congress of Industrial OrganizationsCongress of Industrial Organizations during the 1930’s, along with a government that did not support the use of armed intervention, that led to the second and third generations of workers enjoying the fruits of unionized labor into the 1960’s.

Life in the Steel Communities

Second- and third-generation immigrants and their families built more comfortable lives in steel communities such as Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.Pennsylvania;iron and steel industry and Youngstown, Ohio;steel millsOhio, from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. However, as succeeding generations were assimilating into American society, the nation also experienced a severe economic malaise beginning during the early 1970’s that corresponded with corporate decisions to relocate entire steel facilities away from the northern United States. This deindustrialization of the steel industries during the 1970’s and 1980’s led to the wholesale closing of steel production in Youngstown and Pittsburgh that caused devastating unemployment. This, in turn, forced subsequent generations of immigrant children to struggle to survive in what was left of the industry in their communities or to search for other work elsewhere, away from their ancestral homes. Many of the hard-hit communities remained economically devastated into the twenty-first century. Some have survived to host other forms of employment and newer generations of ethnic families. All, however, still bear the imprints of their original immigrantcommunities.Iron and steel industry

Further Reading
  • Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. Originally published in 1941, this classic historical novel is set in the steel mills and communities of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and based on Bell’s family of largely Slovak heritage. It covers three generations, from the 1880’s through the 1940’s.
  • Brody, David. Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998. First published in 1960, this informative and well-researched account of iron and steel workers during the early decades of the twentieth century continues to fill in the gaps of the history of pre-unionized steelworkers and their struggles before the 1930’s.
  • Hinshaw, John. Steel and Steelworkers: Race and Class Struggle in Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Analytical approach to the unfolding social problems engendered by working in the Pittsburgh steel industry and its effects on subsequent working-class families and communities as the industry declined.
  • Kleinberg, S. J. The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989. Narrative work focusing on the lives of mill workers and their families away from the shop floors that utilizes primary sources to build a portrait of working-class life.
  • Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Far-reaching, archival- based book on the struggles surrounding the community of Homestead that also provides the necessary context for understanding the infamous strike of 1892.


Coal industry

Czech and Slovakian immigrants

Economic consequences of immigration

Economic opportunities


Goldman, Emma

Industrial Revolution

Industrial Workers of the World

Labor unions



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