Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Steelworkers went on strike in 1919 to gain the right to some collective say on their terms of employment, only to see their strike defeated and their civil liberties suppressed.

Summary of Event

In the early twentieth century, the American steel industry was dominated by the United States Steel Corporation, United States Steel Corporation the country’s first billion-dollar conglomerate. Together with four or five smaller independent companies, it controlled U.S. production of steel. Profits were enormous and increased substantially during World War I. Elbert Henry Gary, chairman of the board at U.S. Steel, advocated the open shop, believing that labor organization was incompatible with low production costs and should be steadfastly resisted. Gary also adhered to a philosophy of corporate paternalism; he was convinced that company-sponsored programs providing recreational facilities, stock options, safety measures, limited company housing, and periodic wage increases would retain a loyal nonunion workforce. Labor strikes;steelworkers Steelworkers’ strike (1919-1920)[Steelworkers strike] Steel industry;labor strikes [kw]Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions (Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920) [kw]Strike for Improved Working Conditions, Steelworkers (Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920) [kw]Working Conditions, Steelworkers Strike for Improved (Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920) Labor strikes;steelworkers Steelworkers’ strike (1919-1920)[Steelworkers strike] Steel industry;labor strikes [g]United States;Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920: Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions[04830] [c]Business and labor;Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920: Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions[04830] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 22, 1919-Jan. 8, 1920: Steelworkers Strike for Improved Working Conditions[04830] Foster, William Z. Gary, Elbert Henry Fitzpatrick, John Gompers, Samuel Jones, Mother

Steelworkers were not satisfied, however. During wartime they increasingly saw themselves as patriotic producers and expected to be rewarded for their efforts. Instead, they found themselves forced to work twelve-hour days and six-day workweeks. Every second week, as they changed from day shift to night shift, they worked between eighteen and twenty-four hours without any rest. Increases in the cost of living during World War I intensified dissatisfaction and pressed many workers below the minimum level of subsistence. Without the legal right to engage in collective bargaining, Collective bargaining rights workers felt betrayed and helpless. When the government, in March of 1918, recommended a wartime labor-management program that included the right of workers to organize into trade unions and to bargain with management (through shop committees, not union representatives), labor felt it was about to achieve long-denied rights and benefits.

Into this atmosphere came former labor radical William Z. Foster. Fresh from a successful organizing campaign among Chicago packinghouse workers (the first union victory in a mass-production industry during the war), this American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) organizer hoped to seize the opportunity presented by the wartime demand for workers and the sympathetic ear of government to press immediately for the organization of one-half million steelworkers. With the support of the reform-minded and respected John Fitzpatrick, president of the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor, Foster managed to get the approval of AFL president Samuel Gompers and the national AFL convention to initiate an organizing drive among steelworkers.

The National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers was created on August 1, 1918, with Fitzpatrick as chair and Foster as secretary-treasurer and unofficial chief organizer. Foster began the organization drive in the region near Chicago and Gary, Indiana, under the banner of “eight hours and a union.” Early success there encouraged him to move his headquarters to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the center of the steel industry. Organizers fanned out through the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and West Virginia. Foster was optimistic about the organizing efforts, but an influenza epidemic struck the country during October and November of 1918 and forced the cancellation of meetings for weeks, allowing the steel companies time to consider their response. This was followed by the formal end of war in November, which brought into question the future of the entire labor relations program of the federal government.

Foster’s biggest problem was the denial of the rights of free speech and assembly that his organizers were forced to confront in the steel regions, especially in the Pittsburgh area. Elected officials repeatedly passed ordinances requiring permits for labor meetings or refused to allow meetings to take place. Individuals who rented halls to labor organizers were pressured by politicians to cancel the leases. Prolabor speakers were accused of being outside agitators, arrested, and held in jail. Such actions were unconstitutional violations of First Amendment rights, but seeking legal redress meant costly delays for the organizing effort.

Foster responded to the restrictions on free speech by organizing “flying squadrons” of organizers to target specific towns. Their meetings were disrupted by the police, and they were arrested repeatedly. The steel companies kept blacklists of union agitators, discharged workers for affiliating with the union, hired detectives to infiltrate the organizing campaign, and exerted considerable influence over the press, the police, local officials, and even church leaders. Pleas to the U.S. secretary of labor and to the governor of Pennsylvania brought promises of investigation but no meaningful response.

Despite the setbacks, organizers made progress. Organizing meetings were held in vacant lots outside towns, workers boycotted local businesses, and agitators, including the eighty-nine-year-old Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones), refused to be intimidated. Workers began to join the new union in ever-increasing numbers. During the late summer of 1919, the organizing committee presented Elbert Gary with a list of twelve demands—including the right to collective bargaining, an eight-hour workday, seniority rights, the reinstatement of workers discharged for their unionizing activities, the abolition of company unions, and wage increases—as the basis for negotiation. Gary rejected the demands. When the steelworkers’ pleas to President Woodrow Wilson for intervention on their behalf failed, the workers voted to go on strike beginning September 22, 1919.

Winning the support of workers and beating back assaults on the rights of free speech and assembly were only part of Foster’s problems. The negative public reaction to the “Red Scare” Red Scare (1919-1920) and the high level of strike activity nationally allowed steel plant owners to link the organizing drive to “Bolshevism” and to paint Foster as a “Red.” Exaggerated newspaper accounts portrayed the steel districts as seedbeds of revolution.

Steel company owners added to the paranoia by generating their own propaganda, alleging that steelworkers were predominantly immigrant radicals. The Department of Justice, already combing the country for radicals, shifted its attention to the strike centers. Excerpts from Foster’s own earlier writings (from a time when he was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World) were reprinted, and the charge was made that he was really a syndicalist advocating the destruction of the capitalist system. Foster’s refusal to repudiate all of his prior statements before a special Senate committee investigating the strike in October, 1919, cost him not only the support of AFL president Gompers but also public support that was crucial to the success of the strike.

With the strike call the antiunion campaign became increasingly repressive. Mounted police rode into crowds of workers at outdoor rallies and clubbed participants, arrested organizers and charged them with disorderly conduct, and denied strikers the right to picket. Police forced demonstrators off the streets and clubbed those who resisted, broke up meetings, invaded homes, and even robbed strikers. Individuals were held in jail without having any definite charges lodged against them. Foster produced hundreds of sworn statements charging criminal behavior on the part of police, but no one was prosecuted for these acts.

The sheriff of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania brazenly deputized loyal employees of the steel companies for strike duty, prohibited any gathering of three or more people, and required that indoor meetings be conducted only in English. When strike leaders lodged complaints of terrorism and suppression of civil liberties with the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer Palmer, A. Mitchell refused to get involved in what he considered to be a local matter. Recourse to the judicial system also failed to halt the repression, and appeals for a public outcry elicited no response outside the steel districts. Finally, after months of organized intimidation and violation of basic human rights, an effective antiunion propaganda campaign, and refusal by the steel plant owners to accept any sort of compromise, the strike was called off on January 8, 1920.


The steel strike of 1919 was important on several levels. Immediately following the strike, Foster published The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons (1920), Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons, The (Foster, W. Z.) his personal account of the events in which he emphasized the strike’s opponents’ utter disregard for basic human rights. Foster argued that the workers were helpless in defense of their individual freedoms when confronted with an organized opposition of state police, deputy sheriffs, city officials, company police and detectives, and armed strikebreakers. The public, primed to discount the opinions of a labor radical such as Foster, received startling confirmation of his charges from the respected Interchurch World Movement. Interchurch World Movement Formed to represent American Protestantism in secular matters, this organization studied the strike through its own independent commission of inquiry.

When the Interchurch World Movement published its findings in the summer of 1920, it not only confirmed Foster’s account but also added new personal testimony of the substandard living and working conditions that had made the steel strike inevitable. The commission found that the arbitrary control exerted by the steel companies inside their plants was extended outside the factories to affect workers as citizens in their communities. Local officials nullified the striking workers’ civil rights of free speech and assembly without just cause, and state police and sheriff’s deputies violated the workers’ personal rights. The report created a mild sensation, but its immediate impact was only a renewal of the debate over the existing twelve-hour workday. Under continued pressure, the steel industry finally agreed to establish the eight-hour workday in 1923 but continued to bar unions from the industry.

The steel strike of 1919 also had impacts on labor relations during the 1930’s. First, the defeat in 1919 proved that some sort of governmental intervention would be necessary to guarantee fairness in the workplace. The expanded role assumed by the federal government during the New Deal made this intervention possible and eventually led to the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935. Second, the violations of civil liberties seen in 1919 served as background for the investigation by the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee. La Follette Civil Liberties Committee[Lafollette Civil Liberties Committee] This special Senate committee, created in June, 1936, documented corporate violations of civil rights that interfered with the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. The investigation attracted public attention, suggested that the government was lending further support to labor’s organizing efforts, and contributed to the success of the second organizing campaign in the steel industry, which began that same year. Labor strikes;steelworkers Steelworkers’ strike (1919-1920)[Steelworkers strike] Steel industry;labor strikes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brody, David. Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Revised and greatly expanded discussion of the 1919 steel strike from that presented previously in Brody’s Steelworkers in America (cited below). Focuses on the tortured process of unionization in the steel industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. A valuable account of how the working lives of steelworkers were shaped during the first decades of the twentieth century. Examines technological and managerial innovations in steel production, life in the mill towns, and factors preventing unionization. Argues that the primary cause of the 1919 strike was the experience of steelworkers during World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Cliff. Racial Conflicts and Violence in the Labor Market: Roots in the 1919 Steel Strike. New York: Garland, 1998. An exploration of the 1919 steel strike that focuses on the divisiveness it fostered between white and black workers. Includes tables and figures, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, William Z. The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons. 1920. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971. Impassioned account of the 1919 steel strike written immediately after the event by someone at the center of the organizing and strike activities. Examines conditions in the steel industry prior to the strike, the timing of the strike, tactics behind union organizing efforts and the strike itself, and internal and external reasons for the strike’s defeat. Includes correspondence from leaders on both sides and details violations of civil rights and personal rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lens, Sidney. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Includes an excellent account of the organizing drive in the steel industry in 1919, the packinghouse strike that preceded it, and the role of William Z. Foster in both. Places events in the context of the ongoing battles that marked the rise of the American labor movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCartin, Joseph A. Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Examines the effects of World War I on the lives of workers and struggles between unions and management. Chapter 6 includes discussion of the steel strike of 1919. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olds, Marshall. Analysis of the Interchurch World Movement Report on the Steel Strike. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. Detailed analysis of the investigation of the 1919 steel strike by a neutral organization representing American Protestantism. Highly critical of the steel industry. Includes valuable statistical information regarding working and living standards among workers in the steel industry as well as testimony gathered from strike participants. Details violations of civil liberties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warne, Colston E., ed. The Steel Strike of 1919. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1963. Includes information on the basic structure of the steel industry, conflicting interpretations of events, the basic philosophies of the parties involved (Gary, Fitzpatrick, and Gompers), samples of the industry’s advertising campaign, testimony from residents of the mill towns, and conclusions from two strike investigation committees.

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