Camera Rolls: 315:67-73
Sound Rolls: 315:37-40
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Harold Ruttenberg , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 21, 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.*
I was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. I transferred there from American University in Washington, D.C. when I, to become a junior. And in the fall of 1933, I began interviewing steel workers throughout the steel companies, steel industries, steel villages and towns, to provide information for a study by the Brookings Institution that was being made of the iron and steel industry. And I got to interview a considerable number of steel workers throughout many of the steel towns in western Pennsylvania, and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania was one in which I concentrated. And as a result of that I wrote an article in Nation Magazine that appeared in November of nineteen hundred and, and thirty-four. And it, it details the specifics of the organization of the town of Aliquippa, where the residents were divided by ethnic groups. It was not just a separation of whites and blacks. It was a separation of, of Croatians from Serbs, Irish, Irish from English, and so forth. And the,
the company Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation operated a very strict policy
** of, of control, of thought control and
** of, of human activity control,
** insofar as any social or economic activity was concerned. And George Isosky was a specific case where he was committed to an insane asylum in western Pennsylvania because he was unionizing, attempting to unionize, unionize the steel workers.
** The, there had been an big uprising in, and a bursting of power of the chains of the, of the workers and their families with the election of Roosevelt. The NRA, the National Recovery Act was passed with Section 7A that provided the, the freedom to bargain collectively and to unionization. And the union of the old Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel and Tin Workers had attempted to organize in Aliquippa. And the company beat it back by railroading the leaders of it to insane asylums or other types of, of, of repression. George Isosky was committed to an insane asylum. The wife of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Cornelia, her name was Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, she was Gif Pinchot's wife, and she came to Aliquippa and spoke and broke the strong control that the company police had on the community. And there were upwards of three thousand workers that came to, to the first meeting, which were then held periodically. And she spoke there several times. I remember helping her up the steps to get on the back, on the flat, on a flatbed truck from where she spoke. And the, the control of the company over the unionizing meetings was broken, and I was able to, relatively comfortably, to walk through the town, and without being harassed.
That's great. I mean, did you have one more comment, because I was going to ask that question?
The, the—I broke the chain there.
The, the, the...
That's OK. Let, let me, let me just, let me just jump in and, and, and ask the next question, then. Can you describe Tom Girdler's roll when he ran J & L in Aliquippa?
Well, Tom Girdler had, was a very widely experienced steel operator who'd worked for a number of different companies, and he had spent some of his earlier years in Aliquippa at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. At the time, in 1934, the period '33, '34, '35, about which we are talking, he was the CEO of the Republic Steel Corporation. But he had had perfected a worker and a thought control system in Aliquippa that that existed until the union came along in 1933 and '34, and '33 to '34, while the union organizers were beaten and driven out of town, and they couldn't rent a place for a union office. It wasn't until Mrs. Pinchot, the Governor's wife, broke that.
Now, why was the Aliquippa area referred to as Little Siberia?
Well, they called it Little Siberia. I guess that expression came from the immigrants from Russia who knew Siberia to be a place where you were sent off to prison and to torture and to slave labor. And, so the conditions were so severe that that expression was used, a Little Siberia, and, and folks that came from, families that came from other countries and other backgrounds picked it up from the, from the immigrants from Russia.
Can you tell me that again, but also include the explanation as to why, because remember my questions won't be included?
The... let's break for just a second there.
The—I, I wasn't following you—
Aliquippa was called Little Siberia because it was a, like a penal colony, and it was named after Siberia, where dissidents were, and, and political dissidents were, were sentenced in Russia. And the Russian immigrants in Aliquippa brought the name and the word over to it. And they called it Little Siberia, because it wasn't as big as Siberia which is a huge geographical area.
Will you comment on the state of civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and—
Yeah. Civil liberties just didn't exist in—
You have to wait until I get finished, because, again, my voice won't be on. If you could begin now, please.
Civil liberties in Aliquippa were non-existent and they were carefully prohibited, and very effectively controlled during the period from the 1919 steel strike right up through 1933 into 1934, where you had union organizers, union activists sent to insane asylums when they were perfectly sane. And they were, there, there was such fear in, in the community, and the organizers when they came to town were beaten and driven out so that it was a Little Siberia, all right. However, in 1934, Mrs. Pinchot, the wife of the governor of Pennsylvania, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, she spoke to large groups, and got the state police, there were twelve state policemen that the governor sent in to protect her and to protect the union, the union workers.
Good. How did workers act or behave when you first visited there? When you talked to Jim in the pre-interview, you described wide-spread fear, and, but you said you were too young to be afraid.
Well, it, when I first went into Aliquippa, why it was, I had to do so secretly. And I went and visited a merchant there that I had a family relation, had a family reference to. And at one time whenever the, the, the plainclothes policemen got wind of me, why I had to take refuge in a small synagogue there in Aliquippa. And I, I'd come back a few times thereafter. They never ever caught up with me, although, because I was there as a student, a young fellow interviewing and talking to people, and I met them and talked to—I got into homes, I got into homes through this merchant whose name I forget who had a store there on the main street of Aliquippa, and therefore was able to, to get my interviews. But when I published the article in the Nation Magazine in November of 1934, while I was still a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, why, I had already had about three months before that when the town was fairly well opened up so that they quit having policemen or, or plainclothes men follow you and try to drive you out of town. The, later on when I was an organizer for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Newcastle, a neighboring town, I got chased out there with a detective using a pistol to run me out of town. That never happened to me in Aliquippa, but it would have if I hadn't a been secretive in my initial approaches there.
OK. In the pre-interview you also mentioned the impact of, the impact of the defeat of the 1919 strike. Can you elaborate on that?
The, the—you have to bear in mind when you're talking about the conditions in 1933 and '34 in Aliquippa, that there was a strike in 1919 that the, that was broken with police power, and it was a vicious power. And it was also a strike that was broken by bringing in larger numbers of black workers from South, from the South so that they were introduced into the community under the most, most unfavorable conditions. Of course, as the,
the town itself was broken up, and you had a segregated place for blacks, a segregated place for, for Englishmen, for Italians. In other words, the whites were not altogether. They were segregated among themselves because there were divisions there.
** So that was a plan of keeping them apart. There was a black individual who was shot dead in one of these other plants because they said he was being a thief and he was trying to steal. But actually he, he, he, he had wandered over the borderline, and, in that case. Another instance, whenever you had the workers, the, the Committee men who appeared before a Labor Board hearing, why, they, when it was over, why, they asked for police protection to go back. And the company attorney by the name of Bostick, he said, well he'll, he'll talk to his client to see if they could provide protection for them when they got back. Well, he talked to his client, and he was, came back and said, "Well, they don't need protection to go back." But Mrs. Pinchot and the governor had arranged for a dozen state troopers to take these witnesses before the Labor Board back, to back to their homes in safety.
Now, do you remember, we talked about this in the pre-interview, do you remember hearing about the shooting strikers in Ambridge just across the river from Aliquippa, and that was in 1933?
Yeah, 1933 when I first started my interviewing, I, I had been to Aliquippa, I'd been to Ambridge, which was just across the Ohio River from Aliquippa and downstream a few miles. And at the Central Tube Company there was a strike being conducted by the Metal Workers Union, which, which, which was led by the, by the Communist Party group. And one of the strikers there was killed at that time, and there was a good deal of publicity about that. The, but, the, the political orientation of the leaders, the organizers of that union were as beside the point. The, the, the, the use of gun power that had been used successfully to defeat the strike in 1919 was attempted again here in 1933 and '34. And while it had its victims, it did not succeed in stopping the unionization.
Great. Now can you describe for me the situation that led to John L. Lewis forming the CIO in 1935?
Well, the, in the early twenties, the United Mine Workers of America was one of the largest unions in the country, with upwards of four-hundred thousand members. But during the twenties they had been oppressed to such an extent and denied new contracts that, by the time the Depression, had come along in 1931 and '32, they were quite weak. With the, with the NRA, National Industrial Recovery Act, coming into effect in 1933, John L. Lewis and Philip Murray were able to re-organize the coal mines in, in the anthracite as well as in the soft coal industry and they were quite successful. Where, and so as you got into 1934 and '35, when John Lewis wanted to organize steel because many a big influence in the union, in, in the coal industry were the captive mines that were owned by the steel companies. So he wanted to protect his own flank by organizing the steel workers. Also, he had a broader object, too, which was to strengthen the organized labor movement, and steel and auto and rubber and basic industries of that kind were essential for unionization to protect the unions already in existence and to march forward to others.
Can you describe the AFL convention when John L. Lewis actually broke with the AFL?
Well, John Lewis was a good tacticianer [sic], and he, and he started to advocate industrial unionization and tried to get the, the AFL to, to agree with it. They refused, and, and step by step he got, eventually got to the point where he broke off from the AF of L and set up the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO. And he didn't overtly move and walk out of the AF of L. The AF of L separated him, said that they couldn't tolerate industrial unionism inside the, of the AF of L, whereupon he finally took his mine workers out of the AF of L.
Do you have any remembrances or have you heard any stories about John L. Lewis' confrontation with Bill Hutchinson from the competition there at that AFL Convention?
Well, of course Lewis was a pugnacious fellow and a real leader of, of men, in, in, in his own style, and he opposed the AF of L leaders who were strictly craft union people like carpenters or plumbers, and even engaged in fisticuffs with one of, one of the, one of the leaders of the of the carpenters' union. He was also a showman, and it was not really a fight that, like a, like a boxing match. It was more of a push and shove affair, but it was, it got a lot of publicity, and it's become part of our history books now.
Now, can you describe the formation of SWOC and what you recall about those early meetings?
Yes. The—I had been active in the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers indirectly because I had become the secretary to the rank and file group in 1934 at the April Convention, 1934, of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. I was the, I, I knew most of the delegates that had come to there, come from the new unions that were organized under the Blue Eagle, the NIRA. And I introduced many of them to each other. And I also had a typewriter with me, and I was the only one that could typewrite, and I was nominated and made the, the secretary of this rank and file group. And, and around Memorial Day weekend, that week of Memorial Day 1934, after having—
—succeeded and taken control of the Amalgamated at its convention in—
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
—taken control of the Amalgamated—I know, I understand—
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which got to be known as SWOC, was organized in June of nineteen hundred and thirty-six. And John Lewis had appointed Philip Murray, his Vice President of the Mine Workers Union, as the head of it. And they met in Pittsburgh in June of nineteen-hundred and, and thirty-six and set up the organizing committee. And I joined it just a week later, and was sent out in the field as an organizer. And I was sent to a neighboring town, to Aliquippa, Newcastle, Pennsylvania where I was driven out by the end of the pistol by a detective, but I come back a couple of days later, and we did get things organized in Newcastle, as, as we did in Aliquippa. The steel workers... and shortly after that I then became the Research Director of the steel workers union, and worked out of the central headquarters and, and I was in there for the next ten years, then.
Can you describe, will you describe the failure of the Amalgamated to organize the steel industry?
The Amalgamated was a remnant left from the 1892 strike at Homestead that had, who had been broken with, with police power and state power and court injunction power. And it survived as a craft union in hand tin plate and sheet rolling mills and particular spots around it. And when I visited their headquarters, there were almost spider webs growing from the ceiling. It was so musty and old. And they, they only had a few thousand members in the couple dozen local unions. But it had the legal jurisdiction in the AF of L for the steel industry. And Lewis worked, and Murray worked out a, a legal agreement whereby the Amalgamated granted unto this, this Steel Workers Organizing Committee the legal power and jurisdiction over the steel industry. And that was the mechanism that was done, and then the officials of the Amalgamated were taken care of. A couple were put on the payroll as organizers, and Mike Tighe, the venerable old President of the Amalgamated, he retired at that time.
Why was organizing steel such a high priority for John L. Lewis and the CIO?
Because John L. Lewis had to protect his flank in the coal industry. He had reorganized the mine workers union. The captive steel mines that belonged to the steel industry, they were, they were a big influence, and he needed to have control of organized labor, control or power in steel. So it was very essential for him, for his own welfare of his union, to unionize steel. At the same time, his purpose was to broaden the, the, the, the base and the power of organized labor. And the unionization of steel and auto and rubber and other basic industries were essential for that purpose.
Would you comment on the importance of steel to the national economy?
Of course. Steel was king in, in the thirties and forties and fifties and sixties. It was the basic constructional material. It was before the plastic age, and, and we had, steel was used in all the basic industries, railroads and automotive and—it was a basic constructional material. And it was the leading industry of the country, and the heads of the steel industry were, were men of great influence in industry and in the country because of the strength and power of the basic steel industry.
Will you describe the organizing effort in regard to black steel workers? In the pre-interview, you said that whites organized first and then blacks were brought in.
Yeah, well, in the organizing scheme was to or organize the leaders of the company unions in these steel plants, 'cause to counter the, the unionization that started with the NRA after it, it, it, in 1933, the companies instituted company unions. A few companies already had company unions. They called them Employee Representation Plans. The union's campaign was to capture the leaders of the company unions and make them leaders of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, of local Lodges. There was a, a spontaneous uprising, and, and, and, and a liberation of families and workers throughout the, the whole area where they, they just burst out of their, their chains of the prior two decades since the 1919 steel strike. And they formed spontaneously local unions as fast as you could issue charters to them. The company unions, attracted the higher skilled, almost, almost entirely white... I don't remember a single black among the company union leaders. But they were, were one by one brought over to the Steel Workers. Johnny Mullen who was the head of the company union at the Clarendon, Pennsylvania work where they had the big Coke plant, and many of Negro, and many black workers there. He later became Mayor of, of, of Clarendon. And Elmer Maloy in Duquesne, Pennsylvania became mayor, and that was spread around pretty widely. Now the, the blacks were kept in the background. They were organized. We had separate meetings with them, but we didn't want to bring them out and have them suffer in large numbers discrimination and layoffs. And it wasn't until we had a breakthrough with the large numbers of the white steel workers that we then brought the black workers out of hiding. There were a few exceptions to that. Fletcher Williams was an exception at, I think he came from the Duquesne Works of U. S. Steel, and he was appearing as a witness before the Steel Labor Board that had been created. And the lawyer for the company, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] was his name, he pushed, he pushed Fletcher Williams into a corner with his cross examination establishing that, that the union's claim that there was unrest in the community was unfounded. There was no unrest. And he thought he had Fletcher Williams in the corner, and he said, "Now where's all this unrest that you're talking about?" Fletcher Williams was a big husky man, attractive individual. He leaned forward, put his hand on his heart, and he says, "That unrest is right here in my heart! That's where it is!" And [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , the lawyer, he sunk back in his chair. He'd lost the case. The chairman of the Labor Board who was handling the case, he threw his head back and just laughed as heartily as he could. That was a, a typical instance that, that sets the, the, the atmosphere that existed.
Will you describe Phil Murray and tell me why he was chosen to lead the SWOC effort?
Well, Phil Murray was the right hand man of John L. Lewis. And John L. Lewis took care of the big issues and the big, like the Secretary of State. But the secretary of the nitty gritty day to day work of unionization was carried on by Philip Murray. Philip Murray had been the president of the Mine Workers Union in western Pennsylvania when he was just a little over thirty years of age, beginning in, in 1918 and 1919. And then he became Vice President of the Mine Workers Union in the, in the early twenties, and so he was a natural choice. And Phil Murray was a far better administrator and organizer than John Lewis. John Lewis was a showman and a, and a natural leader of a different stripe. But Murray was a man of genuine character and, and he, he had a touch of greatness to him. And there, there, there's a saying that if you have deep inside of yourself a self of equality, you can get people to do anything. But, and he had inside of him a sense of equality with anyone, white, black, or whoever you were. And so individuals would follow him. And he was a, a real natural for the job. And he put together a, a staff of experienced individuals who, who beginning in June of 1936, wound up in March of 1937, a mere nine months, the time it takes for an individual to come into existence, and here the steel workers union was recognized by United States Steel Corporation. United States Steel Corporation recognized the union because the top leaders, the officers of the company, not the steel operators, the financial and, and legal one, a big. A big lawyer by name of Myron Taylor was the CEO and the head of U.S. Steel, and he signed up with the steel workers union. And, and the, personally later on, I, I heard Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace, who was the head of Bethlehem Steel, say that Myron Taylor sold them out when he signed up with the union.
Now you, you commented on it a little earlier, but I want to talk a little more about company unions set up at J & L and other companies. Can you just tell me how the, how they worked, and why they put them in place?
Well, they, they, they put together—the companies organized. They had professionals who came in with the format to have Employee Representation Plans. And at Aliquippa, the header of the plan was, was, was a man by the name of Normile. And the man, and the man in charge of the J & L Employee Representation Plan in Pittsburgh was Frank Burke. Well, both Normile and Frank Burke came over to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and broke their back. In 1937, after U.S. Steel signed up, J & L agreed to sign, and an election was held. And, of course, Mr. Lewis, who is another Lewis, was the president of J & L, he thought that the, that the union, that the union could be defeated in the election. And Phil Murray was very confident that, that the union would win, and the vote was ten thousand against seven thousand, so the union did win out of a total of seventeen thousand. They had a majority. They didn't have a solid majority. That came later on.
Can you describe your feeling?
We just rolled out. We might not have the very end of that on it.
Yeah. The contract was signed with the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation provided for an election, and the, the election, the union won ten, ten thousand for the union, seven thousand against. The union had a clear majority, but it didn't have the solid majority that it developed over the next year or two as everyone then fell into line with the union.
Now, in regard to that election, can you tell me what the mood was throughout SWOC and how, what your feelings were with the passage of the Wagner Act?
The Wagner Act... There was a great disappointment among all of the, of the, of the union active individuals and the workers when the Supreme Court outlawed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which had Section 7A which gave the right to unionization and collective bargaining. Whereupon Senator Robert Wagner introduced the, a Bill providing for the right to unionization and collective bargaining. And that Act was passed in 1935, I believe. And then it was challenged. Well, there ten individuals at Aliquippa who, ten workers, who had been discharged for union activities. And the union brought their case before the Labor Board, before the Labor Board, and the Labor Board ruled in their favor, whereupon the company appealed it to the Supreme Court. And in 1937, when the Supreme Court validated the National Industrial Relations, the National Labor Relations Act, why these ten individuals were all reinstated to their jobs with back pay. And I remember one of them's name was Tony, and had a big rally in Aliquippa. I was, was one of the speakers, and I referred to him as Supreme Court Tony. I think until the day he died he was called, known as Supreme Court Tony.
Now, can you describe the response of, to the Wagoner Act from steel executives and other industrialists, how they felt about the Wagoner Act, and in terms of where the country was going?
Of course, the steel industry leaders broke into two groups. One group who recognized the social change that was underway and adjusted to it, and, and, and reconciled themselves to living up to the National Labor Relations Act and guaranteeing the right to unionization and the right to collective bargaining. The other group were the, were the leaders of the four smaller steel companies. They were huge companies, but they were smaller in relationship then to the huge United Steel Workers, United States Steel Corporation which dominated the industry. And Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, where Tom Girdler said that he'd go back to the apple orchard picking apples before he'd recognize the Union. Well, he'd been through the 1919 steel strike and saw how gun power was, was, a, was used to defeat the union, and they used the gun power at Memorial Day in 1937 in Chicago, and they killed ten strikers. And they did force the union to retreat strategically. The Union wasn't defeated, but they weren't winning this particular campaign in Little Steel. So after some ten weeks of strike in Little, Little Steel Strike in 1937, why, the, the Union withdrew and called the strike off. But then through administrative and, and legal proceedings, the union was able to establish itself with collective bargaining and recognition from all of these, from these four steel companies. The other two were Inland Steel and, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.
Will you comment on their defiance to the Wagner Act, and the strategy of clogging the courts with litigation?
Of course. The strategy always is when the, the individuals of industry or even labor, whoever has the power, and an Act is passed that they oppose, that they go to the courts and take the year or two or three years, whatever time is required, to challenge it. And during that time there's a period of hiatus, and as to is it, is it going to be in effect or isn't it going to be in effect. Although during that period of time, the Labor Board continued to function. And then it was, when it was constitutionally validated by the court, why then the Labor Board became a very important instrument that supported unionization efforts of the unions, right through the thirties, right up to and through the, the, the Second World War.
Will you comment on the resistance to SWOC by steel companies and industry in general, in particular the accusations of communist involvement and red baiting campaigns?
Yeah. The the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, when it began, picked up experienced organizers wherever it could have them, and among them were some individuals who had, who, who were of the Communist Party persuasion. One of them was Gus Hall, who later became the head of the Communist Party in the United States. And he was an organizer in the Warren/Niles, Ohio area. Shorty Steuben worked along side of me on the picket line at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube and Republic Steel when he had a steel strike in Youngstown, Ohio. And so there were all kind of charges made about being a, being communist-influenced and so on, but once the union was established in '37 and '38, step by step why Philip Murray removed the organizers who clearly were Communist Party individuals. So, but the, the red baiting continued once when the union became pure and didn't have any communist organizers, why, the red baiting still continued, because that was simply a tactic that was employed.
Do you remember the campaign headed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL in regard to those communist accusations?
Well, you had the AF of L oppose the CIO, and so they would use any club that could have at their hands, despite the fact that it was a club the Manufacturers Association also used. And you have, you have that type of political activity going on all the time. It's cynical, it's inconsistent, but it, it, it, it existed then, and we have its forms today.
Will you describe the SWOC efforts to help President Roosevelt win re-election in '36.
Yeah. In 1936 was a great campaign for us. We were organizing the union and getting people out to the union, and Roosevelt was just as popular as he could be. I don't know whether they kept polls in those days that would show how popular he was, but I know here in western Pennsylvania on Labor Day, John Lewis, out at the at the County Park, the County Fair, we had well over a hundred thousand individuals at that, at that rally. And, and he spoke, and he was the lead speaker for the union. Philip Murray also spoke, and there were some politicos. Senator Guffey was the Senator from Ohio [sic—Senator Joseph Guffey was from Pennsylvania]. And we had, and he, he spoke. So the, the enthusiasm, the spontaneity of all of the uprising after the decade of the twenties, when there was repression since the 1919 steel strike, all that came to the surface. And then it, it reached its peak and its ultimate in 1936 when Landon from Kansas, I think, barely, barely got one or two states, I think. I think he may have gotten the State of Maine. I don't know whether he even won Kansas.
Now, our research shows that the CIO organized over a hundred meetings, you know, for FDR in the Chicago area during that '36 campaign. Do you have any remembrances or knowledge of that organizing effort?
Well, I knew it was going on. I was Pittsburgh based and did not get out to Chicago at that time very frequently. But you had Van Bittner who headed up the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Chicago, and they put on with the other unions and, and the Democratic Party. And you had the big Democratic machine in Chicago, and, and they just overwhelmed, carried Illinois by enormous majorities.
We have film footage of a rally in the summer of '36, at Soldier's Field. 100,000 people turned out to support the President. Do you remember that?
Yeah, oh yeah, I always regret that I wasn't there, when they had over 100,000 people at Soldiers Field in Chicago in 1936 for that campaign. And that, I think that meeting was just before, it was before, it was in August, before the big Labor Day meeting in Pittsburgh. And then that swept over the country as a whole. You had that going on all over the place. And the unions, the newly organized unions, were in the forefront of that. It gave us all a great opportunity to get steam off our chests, and, and we swept in a lot of Congressmen and Senators at the, in that campaign of '36.
While we're talking about politics, I want to go back and ask you a question about Aliquippa, and the control of the Republican Party of Aliquippa during the twenties and on up into—
Yeah, oh the Republican Party. Phil Murray was a member of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. It was like down in the South, you had to be a Democrat to get any, to be in politics. In Pennsylvania, you had to be a Republican. But yet Philip Murray, he supported Roosevelt in '32. And in Aliquippa, why, you couldn't get anything but a, there was just paper ballots, there weren't machine, machines at that time. You could only get a Republic ballot. There weren't any other ballots in Aliquippa. And, and so they kept tight control, and controlled the local judges and the local mayors and so forth. All that got turned upside down with—
—with the election of, of, of a Democratic, the election of Democratic judges that—
First we want to do Aliquippa, then we'll pick up on what we just talked about.
Yeah. Aliquippa kept control of the local political machine, the Republican machine, by only having Republican ballots at the polling places, and to restrict individuals from registering except as Republicans. And they wouldn't hire anyone there unless he was a registered Republican. And if he wasn't registered as anything, they would get him registered as a Republican, and they'd bring him out to vote. Of course in 1956, when Roosevelt, 1940, 1936, whenever Roosevelt was re-elected by a big majority, we had enormous campaigns to get the individual workers and their families registered to vote.
Let's stop again. Can you say that again, "In 1936," say it...
In 1936, we had an enormous campaign to get the workers and their families registered so that they could vote for Roosevelt. And that was one of the big contributing factors to the enormity of his success in 19—in 1936 in his first re-election.
Will you comment on the increase of black voters and recent immigrants for the 1936 election?
Yeah. In 1936 election, our problem was to establish that they were citizens for the immigrants, and the blacks that they were residents, which we had to go through the red tape on that to show that they were legally living on such and such a street in such and such a house. And so that made it, they, they did everything they could to obstruct the registration by having to show citizenship and having to show where, for in the case of blacks, particularly, that they were legal residents, that they just weren't migrants. And we had a great deal of success in that, but there were a goodly number that we couldn't qualify because of the time involved, and because of the problem of getting the citizenship papers, bringing them down to the registration places and likewise in establishing legal evidence. And they required affidavits so many people knew that you lived there. And we'd have to bring in, we didn't, many people, weren't many people had telephones then, but they had gas bills or something that they could... I think the gas, though, came from the company's gas company. But they had some, but you had to have some document to show that you really lived there.
Now, many of these immigrants were participants in the political process for the first time. Can you comment on why they, in '36, felt that they now had a stake in America, a stake in....?
No, our campaign was very simple. I mean, "We gotta keep Roosevelt in power because there was only [laughs] Hoover, Herbert Hoover or his equivalent. And if Landon came back into power, you're going to lose all the gains that Roosevelt brought. And he's got a lot of, and he's got a big unfinished agenda yet." So they were all voting for Roosevelt, and in terms of whoever the local candidates were. And we swept in some blacks for the first time into, the from western Pennsylvania into the, the Pennsylvania Legislature. And Homer Brown, who later became a distinguished jurist here, was a member of the Legislature. And my wife and I, we rode to Harrisburg with him, and there was no place in that 200 trip where we could stop and have lunch. We always brown-bagged it. And we'd stop somewhere, and, and, and, and have our, and have our lunch on the way.
What impact did the nation-wide 1937 sit-down strikes have on the steel industry?
The sit-down strikes were restricted to fabricating operations like auto, but in steel you did not have sit-down strikes because it's a process industry, hot molten metal and furnaces that you, you couldn't, you couldn't let the metal, the metal solidify there. So they couldn't engage in sit-down strikes there. What they engaged in were slow-down strikes where need be, and, and outright strikes where there was agreement between the union and the company for orderly shutdown of the blast furnace and the coke ovens and the open-hearth furnaces and the heating furnaces for steel, although you had to keep some heat there. So it would, they'd be on strike, but they would be three or four days shutting down a mill for a strike.
But what affect, if any, did the sit-down strikes have on the organizing effort in steel?
Well, the, the, the steel workers took great encouragement from the sit-down strikes, you know. And we had a lot of fabricating companies that did, come to think of it, did do some sit-down strikes. We, we didn't encourage it, particularly. We, we'd rather just have them be at home and being out on the picket line because they had the power to enforce the strike. But there were fabricating companies that did have sit-downs where they did, they merely took steel and fabricated it into a product. It, it was not a, a process plant.
Did the sit-down strikes give more excitement or inspiration to the, to, since the sit-down strike was successful, did they give more excitement or inspiration to the effort to organize steel as a result of the victories in the other, in the other industries?
Oh the, the, the sit-down strikes and the success of them in the, in the auto industry, particularly, were a great source of encouragement to the steel workers and helped us enormously because it showed that we were not alone. We had strength to cross the whole breadth of industry. And in, not only, not only auto, but all the other industries. We had spontaneous, we had...I remember the Armstrong Cork Company in Pittsburgh had a company union, an Employee Representation Plan, went back fifteen or twenty years, and they all came into the office and said they wanted to unionize. And they wound up in my office. And, and I gave them cards, and I said, "You bring back the cards, you get a majority, why, we will, we'll give you a charter." And they come back within a week and they had all the individuals signed up. And then they took a vote in the company union, the Employee Representation Plan, they voted to disband and become a CIO local union. And so here they were cork workers, we did not take them into the steel industry. We had the pickle workers, the jam workers, the cruickshanks[?] in Lawrenceville. We didn't have a, we didn't take them into steel, but we put them into the appropriate organization in the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO.
We talked about it a little bit more, but the effect on Little Steel when U.S. Steel and Myron Taylor signed with SWOC in 1937.
Yeah. Myron Taylor was, did a statesmanlike act in signing up with the union early. And I, I've always felt that he had personal political motivations 'cause he wanted to get into public life. And Roosevelt did appoint him as the representative, representative of the United States to the Vatican. But I think he also should be given credit for having the basic vision to see that the change had come about, it was time to recognize it and get on with the business of making steel and making profits. And U.S. Steel gained enormously from signing up with the union, 'cause they were able to raise prices way beyond the cost of the wage increases. And it brought U.S. Steel back. And Myron Taylor did a good job for his shareholders, and of course he did indirectly a good job for the employees also.
Do you remember how some of the other steel executives felt or some comments that they might have made when Myron Taylor did sign?
Well, they, they, they called him a "sell out". He sold them out. Myron Taylor sold out the Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace of Republic in Youngstown, in Bethlehem Steel respectively. They were fit to be tied, and, and, and, and, defied Taylor, and, and, and resisted and forced Lewis, forced Murray, a little ahead of when he wanted to, into a, into the steel strike. They, they forced it. He had no choice. He had to go ahead.
Can you tell me how, in particular, Girdler did provoke Murray into these, into the Little Steel strike?
Well, they would, they fired workers in Madison, in Canton, Ohio. Republic Steel, particularly, had a campaign to egg Murray on where he would be boxed into having to call a strike. And there were so many discriminate, discrimination cases and so many workers laid off so that he, that the, the workers themselves just went out on their own, and Murray had to support them. And then that led to the Little Steel strike, and then it spread to Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel. Inland Steel, the officials, the Block family that owned it, owned the majority or a big part of the company, they, they were unenthusiastic about being part of the, of the Little Steel strike, but they did go along with it. But the real ring leader was, was Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel.
Again, now I want to go back to Girdler. Can you describe him again? You said that he was a good steel man, but a dictator.
Yeah. Well, Tom Girdler was an authoritarian by nature. And he had been brought up in the steel industry, which was run very dictatorially among just management, among management. And so that spread, applied, of course, to the working force as well. And that was his method. And he had been involved in the 1919 steel strike. He saw how gun power had defeated the union. And he was confident that it could be done again in 1937. And, and it did temporarily succeed. And the union did have to withdraw the strike—
—called off for strategic reasons to come back and fight another day. And of course they were eventually successful.
The preparation for, to provoke a strike by Girdler goes back a couple of years. Because when I, in, in the summer of 1934, I was employed as an investigator for the United States Senate committee investigating the munitions industry. And I was assigned to the Federal Laboratories Company here in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh for that purpose. And there, in a separate file, I ran across evidence and, and invoices of the tear gas and guns and shells that this company had purchased and provided to Republic Steel and, and to Youngstown Sheet & Tube and Bethlehem Steel. And I took that information, and I brought it down to Washington. And all hell broke loose because I'd gone beyond the jurisdiction of the Munitions Committee, and industry protested and protested. But the information became available, and Senator La Follette used it. And it was one of the pieces of information that was valuable in creating the La Follette Committee that was investigating civil liberties rights and violations in this country. So the, the companies were well armed with guns. And I saw that in 19--, during the Little Steel strike, when my wife and I were on the picket lines there in Youngstown, Ohio. We had a man shot dead right next to me. And, and of course the strikers they weren't, the, the strikers, we had their own means of retaliation, including guns. And in Madison, Ohio, when I was in charge of the picket line there, a few weeks later, we had two men killed on the picket line. So the companies were well, well organized with, with, with ammunition. And they provoked this strike. The Little Steel strike began in Republic Steel plants which is a pre-meditated program of Republic Steel. Murray knew it was going on, but he couldn't, he couldn't avoid it, he couldn't... Girdler had the power to force the men out on strike, and Murray then had no choice but to support them. So the strike was a little premature from the union's point of view, and Girdler was successful in provoking it.
Now, explain to me how Girdler won the Little Steel strike, in particular his Mohawk Valley formula.
Well, Tom, Tom Girdler—the Little Steel strike was, was won by the use of troops in Ohio. Why, the troops were brought out and the union had to restrict its picket activities, and it was reaching a point where they would be able to start to break the strike by having workers go through the picket line. And strategically Murray and the, and the leaders of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee saw that now was the time to call off before that happened, because that would be a very serious blow to the union. So they retreated to come back and fight another day. And it was the troops, the troops and the judges and the sheriffs that were on the sides of the company.
Can you comment on his Mohawk Valley formula in which he initiated business people to resist the organizing effort, an entire community effort?
Yeah, well, of course, the company... Girdler's whole program included the, the, the enlistment of merchants and, and individuals in the town whose businesses were suffering, and, from the strike to oppose it and do everything they could. And they were very influential. And we, you, you did have the, the imminence of a break through of, of, of strike breakers that would be brought in purposely. Now, in the Masslilon strike, why, there was a whole, a whole line of cars organized with workers to break in and go to work. And the strike breakers had forced the wreckage of a couple of cars that blocked the line, and then they started to stone the, the cars, and they never succeeded in getting them into the picket line. But if they were to regroup, as they were going to do, with military protection, they would have gotten them in the next try. And before they could get organized to do the next try, why, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee did a strategic retreat.
Now, the Republic, the firings at Republic Steel, you know, during the Little Steel strike—
Before, that preceded it?
They, there was the Little Steel strike, the, the strikes preceded this, the, the big strike, the Little Steel strike... There were local unions that were forced out on strike that then led to the spreading like a wild fire of the strikes to other mills.
OK. Can you comment on the Republic Steel firings and the NLR, NLRB ruling reinstating those people? I mean, I know it's in the Chicago area, and we might have talked about it a little bit before, but—
Of course, in the case of Republic Steel, which was the most flagrant violator of the National Labor Relations Act, the union did, when it withdrew, when it strategically withdrew from carrying on this strike they then instituted legal proceedings. And it took a couple of years until the many, oh, there's thousands of, over five thousand Republic Steel workers were reinstated in their jobs, to their jobs with back pay. That, that was achieved through legal proceedings that took, let's see,'37—it must have been '39 or so by the time they were reinstated with back pay.
Can you comment on the NLRB ordered elections throughout Little Steel in the spring of '41?
Well, by, well, from '37 you had—I mentioned '39, when maybe '40, '41, whenever you had elections that were conducted by the steel, the Labor Board that at that time, and, and there was a substantial success for the steel workers union in those elections.
Can we stop for a second?
The, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was able to engage in the strategic retreat from the Little Steel strike because they had been organizing and signing up contracts with all kinds of fabricating companies, and in addition to Jones and Laughlin, they, they signed up Pittsburgh Steel and Wheeling Steel, who were significant companies. And so we had, we had... During the Little Steel strike we went right on signing contracts with fabricators. We had over three hundred contracts with, with smaller companies around there. And so we, we, we had the strength to carry on through the 1938 downturn and recession in the economy. And then we went into political action galore, because you, in order to establish democracy, you, you gotta get your, your candidates elected as sheriffs and elected to judges. And, and, and in '37, '38, '39, all through those elections, the union was, was super active in electing local officials, and, and we had the mayor of Clarendon, Donny Mullen. I remember helping him write literature for his campaign. He got elected mayor. Unheard of that the union leader would be the mayor! And Elmer Malloy in Duquesne, Pennsylvania became the mayor, and they were mayors for a number of years. And they, I just cite those two. I remember them because I was close to them. But there were any numbers of them spread out throughout all the, the industrial towns in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere as the steel industry lay out across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, down into West Virginia.
How much we got?
The, the Steel Workers,
the Steel Workers Organizing Committee after the Little Steel Strike enlarged its perspective to go into the political activity, so that the sheriffs and the, the judges would be on our side.
** And we had enormous success right through the elections in '37, '39, and '40, and '41, so that the political activity of the union was branched out beyond just unionization, because it had to control the communities in which our mills were located, our members lived and worked.
In terms of the larger contribution to the whole and to the evolution of American society, how would you frame the effort to organize steel?
The organization of the steel industry was the most significant step toward industrial democracy in the history of the country, and it held great hope for the future. We were very enthusiastic about where we were going in the decades ahead.
The Wagner Act came into existence as a consequence of the Supreme Court outlawing the NRA, the Blue Eagle. And in order to get the Wagner Act passed through Congress, why, it had to exclude farm workers, because you had such a large number of members of the Senate and the House who came from those, from rural areas that they, that the, you just had to cut. You couldn't get the farm workers included because you couldn't get the bill passed with it. So you had to get what you could get. And, and that's the reason why the Wagner Act, initially, did not cover farm workers. Then when the La Follette Committee was brought into existence, and they would investigate the, the Chicago and Memorial Day Massacre, the steel workers at Republic Steel, the same La Follette Committee didn't go into the farm areas to investigate the persecutions and the repressions there for similar reasons, because they were always dependent upon continuing resolutions from the Senate to stay in existence. And the time had not come yet, and while we started to develop democracy in the steel towns and auto towns by electing local officials to the courts and to the sheriffs and to the city councils, and, and so forth it was a generation later before that did it the, the effort to bring democracy to, to the, the black individuals in the country and to the farm areas was possible. But it wasn't possible in the thirties because of the political situation. You still had a substantial control in, in the House and Senate, of the, of the rural areas. America was still a substantially rural country politically at that time.
Let's stop for just a second, again. That was perfect.
The, the La Follette Committee had its grant from the House and Senate, and the opposition to the whole idea, civil rights in the, in the Delta for example, in, in the South among farm workers, agricultural farmers, workers, was such that the La Follette Committee's existence depended upon getting resolutions of continuance from the Senate all the time to stay in power. And it just wasn't politic for them to, to do that. And that, that restricted them from being of assistance to bringing civil liberties in, into the rural farm workers' homes. It wasn't possible to do it politically, even under Roosevelt in the mid-1930s.
Now do you have anything else? We can just continue to roll. Do you have anything else that you feel I need to know that I'm missing, and if you need to think about it, we can stop.
In, in, in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, from the day that the contract was signed with U.S., Steel which was March of 1937, the union adopted union management cooperation to increase productivity so as to increase the ability of companies to grant wages and social benefits to our members. And that was the operating policy of the union in '37, '38, '39, '40, '41. When the war came along, and they needed war, needed more steel for war production, we put on a "Steel for Victory" drive in the steel industry that got steel way beyond what had ever been produced from the same facilities before. For example, in July and August, the hot months, steel production always fell off. In the summer of nineteen hundred and forty-three, steel production was higher in August and September than it'd been in any cold months. And the union was prepared and able to do that because we had over four hundred joint committees in the plants and fabricating plants doing, making munitions. And that continued as union policy right through the war. And that at the end of the war, Murray was confronted with continuing that policy to increasing the ultimate aims and objectives of the steel workers union from merely selling labor for a price to having labor participate in the production process, so that they would be able to increase productivity and have a method of compensation so they would get the benefits of the increased productivity. And at that, and at that point, why, the, Philip Murray for his own reasons, which I am now just completing a book telling about this whole story from the inside, decided not to go ahead with that. And while he had, was a great leader, had a touch of greatness, had an enormous success as a labor leader in building up the steel workers union and then heading the CIO for many years, as he did after Lewis resigned from the CIO, he missed the opportunity of going into a higher level of objective for the union.
Let's stop just a second. How much we got?
—WPA, that the government was assuming responsibility, and the government has been a part of the social, providing social benefits to this country ever since. And they call it entitlements. "Entitlements" is a fancy way of saying "taking away from the poor people something they already got," you see, because you make it impersonal. It's "entitlements."
That last little bit was wild. Didn't know, it seemed like maybe it was going to be good description, so rolled on it. And we'll say that take eleven is still up. Camera did not roll on that.
The democracy took on an economic and social meaning out of the Depression. It gave to the political scene of democracy the role of the government helping to do things, helping agriculture, helping industry, helping workers, and all kinds of legislation. What it did for the individuals and the, and the families is that it taught them organization so that as they went on in their lives, they organized for all kinds of purposes. And if ever there's a country that has organizations, this country does. It has a multiplicity of organizations, each with a specific agenda, and, and that is a legacy of the Depression, that it brought out and gave confidence that you can go out and organize your own group and go advocate your, your, your position, and you keep advocating, and you're going to get some success. Also, you can advocate that the government take on responsibilities that they never had, had done before. And the, and the, and the, and the, so that the character of the American people who were propelled and were inspired and given confidence that they could proceed and accomplish things through organizations, private organizations, to achieve their own agenda. And their agendas are all directed at increasing participation in the political and economic process which is political and economic democracy.
That's great! How much we got? Want to just roll it off? Or—
The, the Memorial Day massacre cost ten individuals their lives, and others were injured, but it, but, it, it, it, it brought about the end of the use of gun power, of, of, of, of munitions powers of shooting power to, to stop unionization. Gun power won in the 1892 strike, and it defeated the 1919 strike. Girdler thought he could defeat the Little Steel strike with gun power. They shot down and killed ten people, and there was such an outrage of it, that it, it boomeranged on them and was a, really a gift on a silver platter to the steel workers union who was able then, with peaceful means of legislative, and, and, and judicial procedures to win the Little Steel strike four years after the Memorial Day massacre.
Would you say that as a result of the massacre, the organizing effort gained even more momentum, and garnered even more support than it had previously?
Well, the fail, the failure of the gun power at the Chicago Memorial Day massacre was reflected in the inability of industry and, and, and, and companies to use gun power to stop the union. And it gave the union a, a, a wide open door to proceed to unionize, which they did very successfully.
We'll roll the rest of it. Let's go: thirty seconds.
The, by, one of the, one of the big by-products of the Depression of the 1930s was opening the door for extending democratic rights and the Bill of Rights to the entire population of the country. The seeds for that were planted during the social action unionization and political action that followed, that was, that was germinated from the horrors and the, and, and the, and the deprivations of the Depression.