Camera Rolls: 315:55-56
Sound Rolls: 315:31-33
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Joe Perriello , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 19, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Aliquippa was one of the busiest and "moving-est" towns you ever want to see. Remember the Old West when people were—
Aliquippa back as far as I can remember was a town that reminded me always of the Old West. They went out to find gold and this town would explode. People came to Aliquippa to work in the steel mills and have their kids here, and the town was always full of people, from morning to night, walk the streets. We used to be up two, three or four o'clock in the morning walk up and down Franklin Avenue, and we were just young kids, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. Our parents all worked. There was nothing that we didn't have that we didn't need.
Tell me about the shopping areas, the stores, the schools—
The shopping areas—
Wait a minute, you have to wait till I get finished.
The shopping areas and the schools. The shopping areas were dominated by the company store.
I'm sorry, we're hearing the delay.
OK, so we'll just start all over again, OK?
Well we didn't worry too much about them then.
Aliquippa reminds me of the old western towns when people used to go out West to find gold.
Aliquippa people used to pour in from all over the world, immigrants from Italy, Serbians, Yugoslavians, Irish people, blacks from down South would come up, work in the steel mills. And the town was one of the busiest towns in western Pennsylvania.
** In fact they called us "Little Las Vegas" if you please, gambling joints. Every other store was a gambling joint: barber shop, write numbers. The Company Store was the focal point, did most of the business. That's why our business establishments mostly used to cry about it because they used to take the money out of their pay envelope, you know, and on pay days, you could walk from the Y, or rather you can walk from the stone arch down to the tunnel on top of automobiles, and your feet would never touch the ground. Do you believe that, to get their pays, and the women would be waiting for their husbands to come out because if they didn't catch them right there, they'd be in the joints blowing their money [laughs]. And that's true, they'd gamble from Friday, when we got paid then twice a month, you know, they'd gamble from Friday to Monday, gold from Friday to Monday. Everybody played for money. There was no fooling around in Aliquippa! It was a money town!
Could you just go back over a little bit of that because we that sound—go ahead and tell me that again.
Aliquippa was a money town. Everybody gambled. On pay day if the wives didn't catch their husbands coming out of the tunnel, they were in trouble. They didn't get their rent paid, they didn't get the gas paid...that was the guys that got paid. But you must know that there's a lot of people that worked in J & L that drew what we call 3 x's. They lived in Aliquippa, they dealt in the Company Store, they lived in the company house, they drank the company, Woodlawn Water Company, water, they used the Woodlawn Land Company's rentals, and they used the Company Store for food and clothing, so they always drew 3 x's. I don't know how they paid their gas and electric. They must have come out of the pay, too. But some of these people worked for years and never drew a dollar until they passed a law that they had to leave one piece of pay in their envelope. But we had a happy town. It was dominated in a way by the J & L Police and the Aliquippa Police. You didn't have much personal, or rather, what you'd call, movement. You couldn't do everything you wanted,
but as long as you followed their rules, which was "keep your mouth shut," don't talk against J & L, don't join any unions', you were in good shape.
But a lot of us didn't follow that philosophy.
OK, so we'll get to that, we'll get to that. Tell me about the shopping areas and—
The shopping areas—
Wait a minute, wait a minute, you've got to wait...and the ethnic areas and—
First, let's go, all right, we'll go into the shopping areas. The shopping areas I told you was predominantly not at that beer gardens because the beer gardens didn't come in till '33, '34. I'm talking about those early days when we had mostly barber shops and pool rooms where they played cards and shot crap and all that sort of thing, and wrote numbers, and then when the beer gardens came in, they passed the liquor law - when was that? '34, '35, '33 somewhere around there? We opened up beer gardens. There was a couple of clothing stores. The grocery stores did a little bit of business, but the Company Store was the focal point. The schools, we had all year round schools then. And we had different Plans in Aliquippa. When the person came off the train, he was met by a J & L personnel or a cop or somebody, and they asked them, "What were you doing there? You want a job? You have any folks live in town?" "Yup." "Who were they?" If they didn't ring the right vote or the right note, they were told to get back on the train and get out. They didn't want you there. So they'd have to go down to Monaca or Beaver Falls, get off there and bum in, see. That's the only way they could come in then. So we had people of the Serbian and Italian ancestry lived in the upper end of Hopewell Avenue, "Logstown" they called it; and then we had all of Hopewell Avenue, mostly Italians lived on Hopewell Avenue, and down Sheffield Avenue. Franklin Avenue was mixed. Highland Avenue was more-a few Greeks. Plant Six was all Anglo-Saxon or "cakeies" as we called them. That's where the most of some of the stool pigeons and bosses lived. The higher up the hill you went, the better job you had, you know. Plan 12 was also predominantly Anglo-Saxon, that's Germans and Irish and English and Scotch, and Hollywood was an extension of Plan 12. It was always, it was the same, predominantly Anglo-Saxon.
Those areas, no black person ever walked after dark. In fact you had a hell of a time getting around there during the day! They arrested you. Take you down to the police station, and if you didn't answer the right question, they might hit you a few times on the head. If you worked in J & L, they'd arrest you for loitering, and they take ten dollars out of your pay.
** It was very simple, very simple living. If I was up there and worked after dark, they wanted to know what you were doing up there, you know, and they'd tell you to leave.
OK. Joe, I need for you to explain to me these "plans." I need for you to tell me that J & L laid the city out and there was Plan whatever, whatever, whatever.
The Plans, as far as I can remember, West Aliquippa was a town by itself. When I moved to Highland Avenue, the first home you see in the movie was the home my dad bought. Highland Avenue was one of the first places they...'Logstown' was Plan One. That was—remember when I showed you the upper end of Jano, going toward West All-from West Aliquippa down-that's was "Logstown," all the way down to Hopewell Avenue and down at the Y.
Let's stop, let's stop.
Now, when you talk about, when any of us from Aliquippa mention certain Plans, you must understand that Aliquippa was divided up by the J & L Woodlawn Land Company, when they built homes at a certain period of time for certain kind of people. Now on Hopewell Avenue, that was Plan One, I believe, and that's where all the Italians and Serbs were sent, all the way up to "Logstown." All the Italians and Serbs were there. The Negroes came later, but that's where we went, and then Franklin Avenue, where all the business section was, that was Plan Two, I believe, and that was business people. Some, there was a couple of Italian grocery stores, some Jewish clothing stores, the Giant Eagle, and I believe Kroger's was down there, and of course the Company Store, always the Company Store. And Brooks Shoe Store, Eislees[?], three theaters. We had the Strand and the Temple and the State, and there was one other, I just can't remember what the heck the name of it was. But anyway, then further up in that was the further end of Franklin Avenue, it was the better homes that these Anglo-Saxons and that...no ethnic group lived there. In the back of Franklin Avenue was Plan Eight. That's where more Anglo-Saxons lived. They were better houses. The houses had cellars and furnaces. See us on Hopewell Avenue, we didn't have any cellars, and our furnaces...we didn't have no furnaces. We had a coal stove in the kitchen. The kitchen was the largest room in the house, and back of the kitchen you had a wall and another wall, then we had our bathroom and our shower, but we didn't have no furnaces. The second floor was one room where your mother and dad [sic], then the third floor was two bedrooms where all the people slept. In the winter time you'd knock the icicles off the window sills. It was so cold! All we had was that little coal stove downstairs, and you run like hell for the stove. Your mother, poor mother, stayed up all night to keep the fire going. During the winter, you tore down three flights of steps to get by the stove. You know, she'd have the coffee ready for us, and our meal always consisted during the day, in the morning was day-old bread and coffee—
Is that what you want?
Yeah, we're getting there.
OK, then we'll go into—all right, now, Aliquippa was divided into approximately twelve Plans by the Woodlawn Land Company when they built homes for the workers and the residents of Aliquippa. There is Plan one, two, thee, four that was predominantly the ethnic group, Italians and Serbs and blacks. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and twelve were predominantly Anglo-Saxon, and they consisted of primarily the bosses who were the upper echelon of the people in J & L. Four and eleven were—eleven was, oh about seventy, eighty per cent of the Italian descent, the rest were Slavic or Serbian, and four was predominantly black, and I think that about covered most of the areas around Aliquippa. Now we did have MacDonald Heights, I don't know what Plan that was, but it was a hill up a back of Plan Seven which was predominantly Italian and Serbian-they even had cows in the sheds [laughs] to tell you the truth, and some great ball players came out of there. Becky Studer[?] for one, played short stop for the Athletics. He was a good ball player. Yeah, we had some good boys, Joe Beggs, came from Plan Three, pitched for the Yankees, Cincinnati Reds.
I want you to tell me about movement from Plan to Plan, you know.
The movement from Plan to Plan was dangerous to tell you the truth, especially if you were black and you were among the areas of Plan Six, Plan Twelve, and they asked you what you were doing up there, and you didn't have any answer, they'd take you down to jail, and if you were from Aliquippa and worked at J & L, they'd fine you, and you had nothing to do, but you had to sign a rec—they called it a receipt. And you asked for a receipt, they said you're the receipt. When you walk out of this place, you're the receipt. They took the money out of your pay. And we had a swimming pool under the tunnel. Back in the early days of 1920, somewhere around there, and we lived on Hopewell Avenue, we used to walk down there and swim. It was free, but then J & L all of a sudden about 1928 or '29, they decided that they wanted to use it for a parking lot. So turn around, they put the swimming pool at its present site up in Plan Twelve, between Plan Twelve and Hollywood. And we had to walk up there, and it was the same thing there. It was very uncomfortable. You walked around these Anglo-Saxons. The fathers and mothers didn't allow you to talk to their girls you know, if you were a boy, talked to her, or if you were a boy you'd talk to a girl. You couldn't have nothing to do. If you wanted to date one of these Anglo-Saxons, you came to the door, and even if you were a football player or a star or anything, they didn't give a damn, and you knocked at the door and you asked for the girl, they said, "Who the hell are you?" you know, "Well get out of here, you god damned dingo and don't you come back here," and that's the way it was.
Good, now, tell me about after high school, and you began working at J & L, what your job was and how you got your job.
Shall we go into high school first?
No, I mean—
High School first? I have to get out of high school before I go to work.
The High School had all year round school. It would have worked, but the whole trouble was the way they dished out the vacations. Again, the ethnic group. The Anglo-Saxons and all their sons would take the summer vacations, and they gave us the winter vacations, you know. And we don't want to stay home during the winter. We had to go to school to keep warm, for Christ's sake. It was cold in our houses, you know, like I told you. It was just a stove and all that, and they did this from 1930, I think, till about 1936, we had all year round school. And like I say, it was a good idea, but it was badly handled. So I finished school with twenty-two people in January of '33, '32, ya '32. We graduated four times a year. And that's the way it was. You had a vacation during the winter time. What's a sixteen, seventeen-year old kid going to do? Go loaf in the pool room. Where could you go and keep warm? And an old friend of ours broke that up. He wanted to take his son out, he was of Italian descent. He wanted to take his son out and he wanted to go visit Italy, and he wanted to go during the summer, so he went up and he asked them to—
Joe, this is interesting, but I can't use for the program.
Oh, you can't use it for the program? OK.
What I need for you to do is to jump ahead out of high school.
Now we're out of high school, we're now looking for a job.
—when you went to work at J & L.
OK. You know what he wanted to know about us, building the golf course. That's right.
That's all right. I'm more relaxed when—I think better, see. And, so we left high school and from '32 to '33 there was nothing. We did all kind of odd jobs, carried coal for a couple, twenty-five, thirty cents a ton. in the summer time hauled ice, cut grass, shoveled snow, did whatever we could to make a buck, and then all of a sudden in '33 they said, they're going to start hiring. Roosevelt was starting different programs, and the NRA came in, the National Recovery Act, and they were going to cut everything down to eight hours, so it's going to make more work for everybody. So we went down to the employment office. They opened at eight o'clock. We'd be there about seven, seven-thirty, three, four hundred of us, and we'd go down every morning and [sic] set there. Sometimes the guy would come out and, three o'clock, four o'clock in the afternoon and say, "Fellows, nothing for today, go on home." So we'd go home, come back the next day and the same thing. Then every once in a while they had a room, oh maybe twelve by twenty, and then it was attached to the employment office. The room had a bathroom, a toilet, a cooler, benches, and then they had a door where you went through the employment office and a door out the other end. On the right hand side were the stenographers, and your people took care of all the paperwork. On the left-hand side was the examining room and your hiring agents, they had offices. And every once in a while they'd come out and they say, "OK, line up", three or four o'clock in the afternoon. We'd line up, they'd open the doors, run us right through the thing and go out the other end and go home. Then every once in a while, he'd come out and he'd say, "Any Dagos, niggers or Serbs wants greasers or wipers jobs, c'mon in." So three, four or five guys that did that kind of work, you know, you'd get sick because you watched the expression on their face. They were ashamed. What are you doing to do? They needed a job, they'd walk in, get hired, and then some time they'd bring maybe twenty-five or thirty of us in this room, lock the doors, and we'd sit in there for no reason till four o'clock. Then they'd open the other door, they'd say, "C'mon." We'd line up, go out the other door and go home. For no reason, sit in that place for eight hours. So finally they start hiring. "Where you from?" "Aliquippa?" "Where you from?" Aliquippa?" "Where you from?" "West Virginia." Hire you. "Where you from? "Aliquippa." "West Virginia?" So I come home and I told my brother, I said, "Nick, West Virginia gets hired over..." I said, "I was born in West Virginia." He said, "That's right. Go down and tell them." So the next day, "Where you...?" "West Virginia." In the room. They hired me. Bring out the papers, age, education, where was your dad born, where was your mother born? Italy. Nationality: Italian. I said, "Hold it. I'm not Italian, I'm an American." I was born in West Virginia. West Virginia in America?" Yeah, well I'm an American". "Oh, no, no, no, we go by your ancestry. You're Italian." So they hired me. Then we found out the reason. They were tearing down an open hearth, see. So they need about three or four hundred men when they tear down an open hearth and an open hearth is where they make steel. They combine the blast furnace steel with scrap iron, and they make a certain type of steel, see. Well, when they redo the open hearth, they have to tear the insides out, and that's what they have the checkers in there, and they got a candy kitchen, and the top, they knock all these refractory bricks down. You know they go all the way down to the candy kitchen, and down there you have to clean it out. Now, they don't wait for this to get cool. They shut it down at midnight, eight o'clock you go in there. Wooden shoes, with a wet sack over your head and gloves. You run in, you grab a brick and run out, throw it away, and you're in a line, you know, fifteen or twenty of you. Then the next guy goes in, grabs a brick, well you can't stay in there. It's too hot, and in the meantime up above they're knocking the bricks down, you know. They're coming down on your head. Then when you get them all cleaned out, then you have the residue. You got all those small...you got to do it with a shovel. So you run in there with a shovel. You throw a shovelful in the wheel barrel, then you run back out. Then the other guy, he runs in and throws. Then the other guy, he grabs the wheel barrel and runs out with it. Well after you get everything all cleaned up, now they got to put the bricks back in.
You're going to tell me about how you finish this job in the tin mill. Wait a minute, now.
OK. Now there they play jokes on us, you know. Some of your refractory bricks were silicon, and they were ordinary size bricks, but they weighed 'bout thirty, forty pound apiece. And these old timers would put ten or fifteen of them in a wheelbarrow, and they'd say, "Hey kid, go ahead and you know, pull that in so they could lay it." Well you'd damn near rupture yourself breaking that stuff up. You couldn't make it. So we'd take five or six of them off, wheel three or four of them. Well that about finishes that. Then it came to the point where the job was done, and I didn't have anything more to do as far as the labor gang. We'd go up every morning with a lunch, and there was no work, so they'd send us all the way down the Ambridge Bridge where they were loading docks, and that's a mile, a mile and a half walk, and we'd walk down there and, no work. We'd have to go back up to the labor shanty. Then in the afternoon we'd do the same thing, carry the same lunch, you know. Then at night we ate the lunch. What could we do? There was no work. So my daddy, he had a pretty good friend that was a boss. He worked there for years, he was a good boy, so he got me on down at the Tin Mill, and I got on the old hot mill engine room. I oiled, and this is where I'll tell you how they make, I'll tell the people how they make steel. Tin plate, the most brutal job ever put on this earth. These poor guys, there was about eight or nine on a mill, you know, there was a rougher, a roller, a catcher, a catcher helper, a doubler, a heater, two heaters and a pair heater and a screw boy. They all had to work together to make this damn tin to put your food in a can and to drive your automobiles, or whatever it is, is made. And they made it by getting a bar a certain size. It had to be so thick, so long, so wide, and that's how they knew how to make a tin for automobiles or make a tin for food or make it for capsule, whatever they had to make it for. And these poor guys were up against the furnaces, and they had to control the heat, so that whenever they rolled it, it came out the right size. It didn't slide off in any way, and they had to double it four times. They made eight sheets out of it. They wore wooden shoes, woolen clothes, woolen hats, and they were real slaves. I mean in the winter time, it wasn't too bad, but in the summer time they stood against the wall with that awful heat, and they had big fans blowing on them, but that didn't do much good. And then they had people on the other side that opened the tin, cut the tin, and then they sent it down to the girls, no, then they pickled it, and then they worked where my dad worked in a tin house. They put the tin into a tin solution, then they run it through rolls with palm oil, and when you went into this tin house, you talk about environmentalists. They'd die if they saw that place. You couldn't see my father. You had to sort of walk around, find Joe. You know how that was his name too. And he's there dipping the tin, pulling it out, putting it in the rolls, and the oil, the palm oil and the wire would wash off the tin like they want-one thousand on the side, two thousand, three thou—they knew exactly how much to put on it. Then they'd send it over to cold girls, the cold girls, they'd run it through and shine it up. Then they sent it to them to cut it. The bathrooms. Did I ever tell you about the bathrooms? You'd go to the bathroom, they had this big forty or fifty gallon tank sitting on a wall, ten or fifteen half-cut water heaters welded together and a one-inch pipe. When you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had a hand on that one-inch pipe. The water would come down from the, [laughs] well, and it would come slushing down through there. Now it wasn't bad in the summer time, but the winter time, you got a pretty good lake, and you used the towel more than you did paper. But then I got out of there in 1937. But the most interesting part of that, I went down sometime in August or September, and then the primaries came, not the primaries, the general election—
OK, but tell me what year this is?
This is 1933.
OK then tell me "When the 1933 election came—" Then tell me the story.
The boss come up to me—
No, I mean for you to say "when the 1933 election came—"
It was the general election 1933, and I was nineteen years old, so the boss come up to me and he said, "Joe." He says, "You got to go vote." I said, "John I can't go vote. I'm only nineteen years old, I'm not registered." He said, "Don't worry about that." He said to Carl, "Come and you get in with them and go." So I changed clothes, get in with—this is like nine, ten o'clock in the morning—get in the car. They take me down Franklin Avenue heading toward the voting. I said, "I don't vote here. I vote at Logstown, that's the other way." "Don't worry about it." They take me to the Precinct 3 voting booth. I vote in Precinct 1, where I would have if I'd of been eligible, and it was the old Junior High School. So I go in, and there it is. My name's there. I'm registered Republican, and I voted Democrat, and I left. Then we go around the beer gardens, and the best part of it is, I'm twenty-one, I vote, but they ain't allowed to give me a beer because I'm only nineteen, see. But the rest of the guys, they were allowed to hang around. They were ERP men, see. They were allowed to hang around the pool and all that stuff till two, three o'clock, and then they go in the mill, and they went home. They got the whole day for nothing.
Before we go on, I need for you to tell me about how you got registered; and tell me how the company and J & L was working together.
Well, J & L then, it happened three other times. The primaries of '34, the generals of '34, and the primaries of '35 and the generals of '36. But then they found out that they were transporting, this is only Aliquippa now. They didn't transport Ambridge...I don't know about Ambridge or Beaver or anyplace else, but they were transporting the voters of Aliquippa to the voting booths, and people like me that weren't registered, but it wasn't coming out right, see. If they were taking a thousand people out of the J & L to the Aliquippa voting booths and four out of them were voting Democrat, something is wrong, you see. They were getting cheated. In other words they were doing our work for us. So they stopped it then. They were losing because we were getting stronger and stronger, democratically, we were getting stronger and stronger, see. The ethnic groups that they divided the town up started working against them. Plan Eleven was a powerful Italian group, and the group...it was a democratic group took over the MPI Club, and now we had a base.
OK. Let's wait. I'm getting confused.
Yeah, because I want to try to walk through this chronolog—in, in some kind of chronological order. Now tell me the story that you told me before about how when someone would go and apply for a job at J & L, the last thing they would do would be to call the County Register and see how they were registered.
Oh, that was some—
Now wait a minute. Now
Yeah, well, say you were like me. I go down there, and they ask me, "How you registered?" I tell them, "Well I'm only nineteen, I'm not registered yet." "Well if you were twenty-one, how would you register?" Naturally I say Republican because you don't get a job unless you...so the next guy behind me, he might be thirty years old. "How are you registered?" Well we all knew he had to be a Republican. That's the way it was. If you wanted to work, if you wanted to eat, if you wanted to have something, you had to be a Republican in Aliquippa at that time. You couldn't get on a burrow, you couldn't get in J & L, you couldn't get on a school board; you couldn't get a teacher's job, you couldn't get a mail man's job, you couldn't work for the county, you couldn't work for the state if you weren't a Republican in Aliquippa. There is no way. And that's the way it was. So...
Good. Now when you finally did get a job at J & L in the middle of the depression, how did you feel? What did that mean to you and your family?
It meant that we had a pay a lot of debts. You must understand that there was eight of us in the family. My brother Nick was an invalid. And during the course of the time from 1929 when things got a little rough you must understand my dad worked maybe a day or two a month at the most, and they took seventy-five cents out of his pay for his insurance. So this poor old guy, here he is supporting eight people from '29 to actually '35 and '36 because even in '37 when I started to work, they laid me off for ten months, so in that period of time there, he was keeping eight of us. And, the only way that he did it was with the grace of the Italian grocery stores and Italian shops, or if you worked in the Company Store deal. My dad never worked in the Company Store deal. When we started to work, we owed hundreds of dollars to the grocery store; we owed Olichre's[?] for the clothes, you know, it was like a dollar a pay, fifty. We owed dentist bills. It was like fifty cents a week and stuff like that. That's how you lived in those days. You just, you bought a live chicken and you killed it. You bought, you went out to the farms and bought a pig for one family. They killed, they divided up. You know, it, it was tough, but us kids didn't care because we didn't know any better, you see.
Let me jump ahead now. I want you to describe the working conditions in the mill and how certain racial and ethnic groups got certain jobs. Before you told me about how blacks and Greeks got the harder jobs and so forth. Can you retell that story?
The blacks, they were one step lower than the Italians. They couldn't get in to seamless tube because the Superintendent of seamless tube had a deal with J & L. He said, "I don't want no niggers working here, and that's it." And he never did as long as I remembered there was no blacks in the seamless tube, and the seamless tube had 2,800 people.
Take eight is up.
OK, when we begin back, you're going to tell me about these blacks in the hard jobs at J & L.
Again, the problem with being hired, that a single steel mill ran the town was the fact that no matter what your ethnic background was or what your color was, they controlled you. Now the blacks were very unfortunate. They were one step higher, I think, than the Italians and the Serbs and stuff, but they were only allowed to work in certain departments. They worked in the 14-inch mill, the by-products, which was dirty and brutal, and wire mill. That, that's most of the ones, there were a few in the welder tube and a few in the tin mill, but predominantly, the by-products, the 14-inch mill and the wire mill. And that's strange. It wasn't strange enough. That's where the ethnic groups went, too. Whoever was, if you were an Anglo Saxon, you went to the by-products or you went to the 14-inch mill, you became a boss, or if you were a stool pigeon. You know, did I ever tell you the people that are out there must understand that J & L had a spy system—
OK, we'll get to that. Now, now, you told me about who got the hardest jobs. Tell me what happened at J & L when the NRA came in. What happened? Tell me how that led to the—
You have to say the NRA
The National Recovery Act came in, and what it did, it knocked—see we were working ten hours a day for thirty cents an hour, that was the labor rate. When they came in, they knocked it down to eight hours a day, and they gave forty cents an hour, and they said anything over forty hours, you get time and a half. Now we worked under those conditions for three or four months, and then the Supreme Court said that was illegal. They were not allowed to compel a company to tell them how many hours to work or how much to pay their people. But the company found that working eight hours a day and five, six days a week, they were getting more production. Instead of working a man ten hours daylight and twelve hours night turn, they were getting more production and doing a hell of a lot better, so they kept it that way. They didn't change it.
OK, but then the NRA [National Recovery Act] also said that people had the right to organize.
No, no, the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act gave us that right, not the, not the National Recovery Act. The Wagner Act get us that right.
OK. What did the NRA [National Recovery Act]—how did that affect your work at J & L?
It did affect us. It took two hours off my day, and it gave me a ten-cent an hour raise.
OK, but did not the NRA [National Recovery Act], is that, didn't the company started doing the ERP's after the NRA was passed?
The company started their ERP when they were starting to get, like in '33 the union struck over at Ambridge. '35, '36 is when they started the ERP. They started it to try to pacify the men by making them believe they had representation. Well how can you have representation if you have a person that you don't even know that, that's supposed to represent you? How can you have representation if you get in an argument with the boss, and you don't know where to go to state your case? We didn't know who these people were. We didn't know who the ERP men were. They were listed on a board. You didn't vote for them. Say Pat Shore was an ERP man. Who's Pat Shorey? He's a roller on 19. He works three turns. He might be on the other turn. You might be twelve to eight, and he might be daylight, four to twelve, so you have a problem. What are you going to do with Pat Shorey if he's your representative? What do you do with Paul Normo if he's your representative? You know Paul Normo was a representative. They had no powers, no power at all. We asked for a raise, and the ERP went to bat for us, or was supposed to have gone to bat. Do you know what they gave us? I was making fifty-seven cents; they come back with half a cent—fifty-seven and a half cents an hour.
OK, so then when you realize that the ERP's weren't going to work for you, what did you do?
[laughs] We just looked for a place to find somebody, we found it. The Amalgamated, we joined it, and then it became the SWOC, then became the CIO, and we got stronger and stronger. You know there's only eighty people shut down that plant in '36, '37, only eighty people.
OK, well tell me about The Amalgamated. How—
The Amalgamated in 1935, '34, '35, I really don't know how it happened, honest to God I don't. All I know is I'm a person that all my life, all my life, I hate prejudism [sic]. I hate people that force other people to do things they don't want to do. I hate to go down to a voting booth and be told what a great American you are, to vote for people that just won't represent you. And somehow or other, me and Benny Pisle, Art Silvers and Tony Bianci ran into Manuel Woods. He was the international representative. How it happened at a beer garden is something because Benny drank, Tony drank, Art Silvers drank, and I was the official non-drinker and kept everything peaceful; and we met Manny, and Manny, he says he was Amalgamated and all that stuff, so we went up and we joined. They had a beer garden downstairs that Mike Keller was the bartender. Abe Bertola was the President, and we joined. Then after a while Abe says—
OK let's stop, let's stop, cut.
Take nine is up.
Now what you got to tell me is, describe the company's opposition to the organizing effort.
You see the company's opposition to a union was very simple. Would you want anybody interfering with your business if you had complete control over everybody that works for you? You tell them what to eat, you tell them where to live, you tell them how much water to drink, you tell them where to buy property, and you tell them where to go to work. Now here comes a group of people who say, "Wait a minute. That isn't all there is in this life. There also is a choice." Maybe I don't want to live on Plan 11. Maybe I don't want to live on Franklin Avenue. Maybe I want to build a house up Plan 12, but there's no property for you there. You can't buy. We won't sell it to you. That's all Woodlawn Land Company. Maybe I want to live up Plan 6. Can't go there either. Why not? No room. Where do you want me to go? Go to the Terrace, there's a few lots up there. Now you must remember, at the time we didn't have no Sheffield Terrace, and we didn't have no Linmar, so you had a choice to go out there—
OK, Joe, again. I don't need to know that because no one's going to know about it.
Because no one's going to know about it, right.
Now, can you tell me specifically what the company did to keep people from joining the union.
Well they had the ERP. ERP arranged for picnics. They arranged for bus tours down the mills for the wives. You know we had picnics down there, up in Merrill Park—
That's not what I'm looking for. What I'm looking for is firings, threats of violence, and the story about when they dragged you out of your bed.
Well that, that story there—
You, you must understand that anybody that even thought union, they had no recourse. My uncle was fired. My brother was fired, black balled! I was almost beaten up because I played with the Amalgamated baseball team, and they didn't want anybody from Aliquippa to play against us or with us. So when I came home, 11 to 7 I'm working'. I went to bed, my mother was alone, my brothers were working. My sisters were in school. Three cops came up, threw me out of bed, broke my bed, and they were going to black jack me and fortunately one of the cops was the President of the Union Club, and I played football for the Indians, and so he told them, he says, "Well hold it," he said. They called me Perry, that's another thing. Nobody knew how to spell Perriello, see, so, so these people that wrote your name, they put down what they wanted, so they called me Perry. He said, "I'll take care of Perry. You guys leave him alone." He said, "I'll talk to him. After all," he said, "I'm President of the Club." He said, "I can take care of this." So then they left me alone, but they broke my bed. My mother got scared, and she actually did dirty herself because she's frightened of a...that goes back to the Fascist days, you know in Italy. They saw a uniform, they all got scared. So that was it.
Tell me about, describe Tom Girdler. In the pre-interview you said he was inhuman.
He was inhuman. He—
You have to say his name.
Tom Girdler was an inhuman bastard. Everybody knew him. He was there only a year or two when I got there, then he went up to Republic Steel, and he killed one of our people up there on the strike in Youngstown. He set up things, that plant was never worth working for, you know. Republic Steel was—I don't know why people worked up there. J & L was bad enough, but my God, that place was a real hell hole. It proved it in the last few years. They took all their pension money. They took all of their vacation money. They just sent those guys out on the streets with nothing.
OK, we're getting there.
End of Sound Roll.
Cassette no. 315-13. Continuing interview with Joe Perriello.
I'm going to start you with the '37 strike.
The '37 strike came about only because we asked the company to recognize the CIO as the only representative of the workers, and the company turned us down.
** So Paul called a strike. We ran down, there was only less than 100 people that actually did the closing down, but by the time we got there, there were thousands, you know. And we were well prepared. We had the truck on the side with weapons because the other side was all armed. They were legal, we weren't,
** and like it was said before, they turned the hoses on us, and we had a problem with the police. The police would bother us. But Governor Earle came down and declared martial law, and he brought the State Police down with them. They chased all of our cops. They told our police to go up, stay in the Police Station, and do not come out unless they were told. Now our Police Department, which I haven't mentioned before, which were under the jurisdiction of Captain Harris at that time. Every morning our Police Department would go up, get a report from Captain Harris, and they would compare notes on what went on at Aliquippa, what they were going to have to do, what they were not going to have to do who were the union people, who they were going to stop and all that stuff. Now they knew everything about it, right? They had a spy system that was out of this world, but anyway when we got down there and closed the plant down, then it was just stopping the mail truck from going through and Crystal Market came through a couple of times, and finally we got better organized, and we stopped Crystal Market from coming. Then Mary's gang turned a mail truck over, but then we had a rumor that they were coming on the river side, see. So a bunch of the gangs had boats, drove over Ambridge, got in their boats, and they patrolled the Ohio River. We had to do that because we understand that Crystal Market had drove a truck across the river, and they were going to come over and supply the people with boats, see. So they stopped that. And then I was down the corner and my neighbor, she started beating—they say the Chief of Police, wasn't the Chief of Police. She started—how he got stuck outside, I don't know, but the hiring agent got stuck outside, and Mrs. Semo (?), she got in an argument with him, and he's trying to sneak in, so she had an umbrella, she started beating him on the head. She's chasing him up Gill, up the street, and I went after him because like she, you know, she was like my neighbor for a hundred years. She was an elderly woman. I was afraid something would happen to her.
OK, let me, let me sort of re-focus this again. Now you're out on strike, I need for you to tell me what it was that you won with the strike and why that was important?
Well, finally after it was all settled,
and they gave us what we wanted, that was a right to vote for the union of our choice.
** OK, so the company says all right, the international, the Wagner Act gave us the right, they gave us a date, and we voted. And we came out in Aliquippa over eighty per cent, and that shocked J & L because you figure eighty per cent, there would have had to be a hell of a lot of bosses to vote. Now there was a thing there that you must understand. The people out there never voted like this. We had a vote, they had thirteen thousand people down in Aliquippa. Pittsburgh had like seven, eight thousand. Now everybody counted. If you were sick and you didn't vote, it was no. If you died that day, they hadn't buried you yet, it was no. If you didn't vote, it was no, you understand? They took the total, say there's thirteen thousand people in Aliquippa, and ten thousand voted, that three thousand voted no, cause they didn't vote. We had to beat everybody. We had to beat superintendents, the policemen, and they didn't ask for a union. We had to beat everybody that worked and got paid by J & L, the Board of Directors, the President, everybody. And we beat them by eighty per cent.
OK. Now how did you feel? What did that victory mean to the union organizing effort?
Exhilarated. We finally knew that we were going to work like human beings. You know people, you talk about working in a steel mill, and especially these younger people how they slipped; how they didn't do this, how they didn't—
Don't get out of time. You're getting too deep into the thirties.
I'm not getting out of time, in the thirties. And then we had, now we had the right. We had the right to move up, you understand. I didn't work thirty years for a wage and never got a raise. I worked eighteen years as a journeyman machinist and never got a raise. One of my co-workers worked thirty-two years as a journeyman at sixty-nine cents an hour, never got a raise.
I can't—that's getting out of the thirties. You know, I mean—
No, that's not getting out of the thirties.
OK, let me ask you the next question. Tell me about FDR and what FDR meant to the steel worker's organizing committee.
Well FDR meant the salvation of the union. The working man can always work if he's willing to take the rules and regulations of whoever's he hired to. You can always work. You can work for a man-pick and shovel-he tells you to dig a hole, you dig it. If he tells you to dig it ten feet, you dig it, that's all right. But Roosevelt gave us the right to tell a man, "Wait a minute, we can't live with this wage. We can't work twelve hours a day. We can't work seven days a week, and why is it that you let that man work five days a week and I have to stay home? And I'm older than him. I started to work here before him?" The most important thing we won was seniority, you see. That gave you the right no matter what color you were or what, what you were. It gave you the right for the next step up.
OK. Tell me why steel workers feel it was important to become involved in electoral politics?
Yeah, that question, it answered itself. How do you make rules? By being a rule maker. That's the only way you make a rule. To make a rule you got to be able to make rules, and the only way you can make a rule is to be in a position to make it. You have to be a councilman or you have to be a mayor or you have to be a school director, or you have to be a governor. You can't make rules without being in a position to make them. So we knew that. We had the judges down at Beaver Country. You go down there and you, you were a steel worker and did something wrong, you went to jail. One of the fair-haired boys they got down there, "go home."
Let's stop for a second. Let's stop.
Now we realized after we had got permission to organize a union and all that, we had to go into the political arena to solidify our rights. We had to vote.
We had to take over the town. We had to take over the county. We had to put ourselves in a position where we elected the sheriffs so they wouldn't break up our picket lines. We had to put ourselves in a position that we could elect judges where they wouldn't serve injunctions against us to stop us from doing the things we had to do, and it forced the company if we had a strike to give us what we thought was right.
Perfect. Now, how did you feel when your candidate started winning elections? How did that feel, and...?
The first time we elected Democrats, it was such a long hard row. Now the ethnic groups that were forced into different Plans was the very thing that broke J & L's hold on Aliquippa. Plan 11 was the first to solidify themselves into a strong core of Democracy voters, but we had to do a lot of work from Plan 1 to Plan 12. We faced all the people that were the majority of Anglo-Saxons, and it took us years and years to finally solidity our votes to where we voted most for our candidates as Democrats. But, we thought, well the way we can beat these guys is to Anglo-Saxons to run, and we did. And we elected an Anglo-Saxon, the first time we elected an Anglo-Saxon, Saxon on the Council, we elected one on a School Board, and elected an Auditor, and we felt like we were champs of the world. We beat Jack Dempsey in fifteen rounds. You'll never believe how we felt. Mary'll tell you. Up at the Democratic Club we drank all night.
Now, when you think back on the union and what you accomplished, what makes you the most proud?
Go to work like a man. Be a man. Work with pride and dignity. That's what it means.
Now the plan of the Woodlawn Land Company or J & L to segregate and to put all the ethnic groups in, in different parts of the town actually was the thing that really defeated this purpose, especially in the Plan 11 area where there's seventy-five or eighty per cent of them were of Italian descent. And they formed the Italian Club, and when some of the men up there got rid of the stool pigeons and changed the philosophy of the peoples' thinking up there and they became a solid Democratic group. They led the way. They were the ones that came through at the last hour or so with a thousand, twelve-hundred votes, and no matter how far you were behind, we always had a chance because we knew Plan 11 would make a big difference. West Aliquippa was a little different. West Aliquippa at one time was a community of its own. But they, too, were predominantly Italian, and they had a church, St. Joseph's, I think the name was, and the Sons of Italy, and these two groups, the church group and the Sons of Italy group also got together and changed the philosophy of the people that worked in that town.
Let me ask you something else. I just thought about this one. Now can you give me anything on how it was economic survival, you know? Economic justice that brought people together to beat J & L? I mean no matter what ethnic group you came from, steel people had the same economic problem in terms of dealing with J & L.
Yeah, you had to make money.
OK, so tell me how that economic calamity that everybody faced brought people together.
Well, see you're bringing up a problem that was a very peculiar thing. Economically we were better off with J & L than we are today because J & L, every time that we needed money, J & L gave it to us because they ran the town. You see this is what I'm trying to make you.
OK, let's stop.
No, I hope that's not on.
That's not the reason.
You know, you don't want to know that, but that what's you...that's the point.
I'm not, I'm trying to—I don't, I understand what you're saying, but that's getting us out of time, you know.
No, no that, that was right there in that area—
Because we're comparing now with then. That's getting us out of time.
Oh well that's true, that's true.
What I'm talking about is the fact that—
Now what I gained most as an individual from my association with the union's Democratic Party is the fact that I can go to work now as a man, no fear, and proud of what I can accomplish. And if I do the kind of a job I'm being paid for, and somebody says I didn't do it right, and they try to discipline me in any way, I have no fear of going to my union and stating the case, and have somebody other than myself fight my case for me. Now, before, I had nowhere to go. If he says I was a bad worker and I couldn't prove otherwise, I went out the door, but now I can go all the way to the top.
Is that what you want?
Absolutely. Now tell me how going through the depression changed you and changed America?
Having nothing. It sort of makes you care for one another. There's no saying well this guy got so much, and I don't have anything. Do you know on my street there was a family that had one radio, the only family on the street that had a radio. Dempsey and Tunney had the first fight in 1929, and this woman, she put the chairs in her living room and invited the neighborhood to come up and listen to that fight, and there was twenty people in there. served coffee and cake. She was able to do it because her husband owned a grocery store, but she shared with us. Christmas, we had Syrians on one side of us, Serbians on the other. We always celebrated two Christmases. We celebrated the 25th, and the Russian Orthodox Serbians, they celebrated with us. Then when it became the seventh, we went to their place. Whatever they had. They had always—their fare was always lamb and pig and ours was the fish and the spaghetti and the chicken, you know. And that's what we did on our holidays. Easter was the same way; we had two Easters—
But tell me about how going through the depression made people come together and look out for each other and care for each other and share for each other just to try to struggle through it and make it to the other side.
That's hard to answer. Where would you begin? One of your family gets sick, and the neighbors come in. Can't pay for a nurse, and they help you nurse, watch your children. If you have, if you're sick and have to go to the hospital, you have three or four kids—who takes care of them? Your neighbors. If your child is sick like my brother's, my nephew, the neighbors come in, took care of him. You know when you were sick in those days, you got pneumonia or chicken pox or smallpox. Oh, they quarantined you. What do you do then? So your neighbors had to come around and hand things to you through the window, and you couldn't go shopping, you couldn't do nothing'. You couldn't go to school. But they were always there when you needed them, and you, they were there whenever, they needed you, and when you needed them, it was the same always, always. We shared, shared everything. No matter what happened.
The most important thing between poli—
I'll tell you when.
Wait a minute. Yup.
The most important thing between organizing a political group or a union, you'll find that when you organize a union, you're dealing with an individual group. You're dealing with steel workers or auto workers or coal miners so you're talking each other's language. But when you go into politics, it's a much, much harder thing to do to get the groups together because you're thinking now, or, or you're dealing with people that have all kinds of thoughts. Democrats, Socialism, Republican, Fascism, idealist all over the world, and politics is where you have a hard time to make people understand what you're trying to do. And Aliquippa we had a long hard thing, like I said, we organized a union in four years. It took us '37, '56, '58, that's twenty-odd something years before we controlled the town. Why? Because you were dealing with, again, those Plans. You were dealing with Plan 11 Plan 12, Plan 6, Plan 8, Plan 9, and you had everybody had their own group. Now to bring them together was much harder than to bring a union together. As I said before we brought a union together in four years. It took us forty years to get the Democrats together.
Was it all worth it?
Truth? No. You forget one element. The human element, greed. So you have a group that carries your banner. We're all Democrats. Why is our town in such bad shape? Some of my friends used to argue back in '36 and '37 when I was advocating a solid Democrat. I had two cake-eating friends, English for you, very good friends. In fact one of them was my best man when I got married, and they always tell me, Joe, you're wrong. You're better off having a minority group. You're no good with a solid slate of one political party or another, and over the years, I'm starting to believe that they're right. You should always have a minority because a Professor from Penn State told me one time, "If you're in a group and you make a suggestion, and there's nobody in that group to challenge you, then you can't prove a point." You always have to have somebody challenge you, and now we don't have anybody to challenge. We've got all Democrats. Our school system stinks; our town stinks; you see it, boarded up, nothing going on.