By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
IX. Steel and Coal
The first among these was the Great Steel Strike, which began two weeks after the Boston cops walked out and only three days before Wilson's collapse at Pueblo - itself an affected steel town. At its height, the strike saw 365,000 workers all across the country leave the factories and furnaces. But this too was another failure for organized labor. By January 8th, 1920, when the strike was finally officially called off, fewer than 100,000 remained out, and the industry was back up to 70% of production.1
Here again, the demands of the strikers were not particularly revolutionary. At the time, the average work week in the industry was sixty-nine hours, with twelve-hour shifts seven days a week the norm for over half of the unskilled jobs. For this back-breaking time commitment, unskilled steel workers netted an average of $1466 a year - $1100 less than what was considered the minimum level of subsistence for a family of five. Given this situation, and aided by the normally craft-oriented AFL's push to organize unskilled steel laborers in 1919, steelworkers led by John Fitzpatrick and William Z. Foster - acting chairman and secretary-treasurer of the newly-formed National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers - asked Judge Elbert Gary, Chairman of the Board of U.S. Steel, for a conference to discuss the situation in June 1919. They were not even dignified with a response. Two months later, with the threat of a strike looming, Fitzpatrick and Foster again asked Gary to set up negotiations. "The officers of the corporation," Gary replied, "respectfully decline to discuss with you, as representatives of a labor union, any matters relating to employees."2
With no other recourse, Fitzgerald and Foster announced a steel strike on September 11th - while eyes were transfixed on the situation in Boston. Eleven days later, the Great Steel Strike began, with workers demanding the right of collective bargaining, the eight-hour day and one day off in seven, no more 24-hour shifts, a pay raise and double-pay for overtime, and an end to company unions. The press, who had watched this slow-motion collision between Gary and steelworkers unfold for over two months without resolution, gritted its teeth for another conflict.3
If Judge Gary had not deigned to heed labor's request for a conference, he assuredly wasn't going to back down in the face of a strike. And so U.S. Steel's strike-breaking counter-offensive was two-fold: win the public relations battle in the press and take advantage of ethnic and racial strife among the workers.
The first of these initiatives, given the climate, was not a particularly heavy lift. Already, newspapers were calling the strike "another experiment in the way of Bolshevizing American industry" and a potential "revolution," a theory that was buttressed by recently-organized Communist papers urging steelworkers to "crush the capitalists." Nonetheless, the powers-that-be in the steel industry deliberately fanned the flames this time. Once again, the question before America, argued the Gary Works Circle, was "Americanism vs. Bolshevism," and so the open-shop began to be called "the American system." Soon, dozens of full-page advertisements appeared in the press, emphasizing the "United States" in U.S. Steel and urging workers to "stand by America," "show up the Red agitator for what he is," and "beware the agitator who makes labor a catspaw for Bolshevism." On this front, the early syndicalist and Wobbly background of William Z. Foster was particularly useful - Soon, he was targeted by the press as an "uncompromising enemy of the existing political order" and a "revolutionist." As for the striking workers themselves, management and their allies circulated the ludicrous notions that they were paid $7 a day (it was closer to $4) and were holing up in posh New York hotels to wait out the strike.4
Meanwhile, employers also looked to expose and inflame the ethnic fault lines in the burgeoning worker's movement. "We want you to stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can between the Serbians and the Italians," ordered the Sherman Service - hired by U.S. Steel to help break the strike - to its employees. "Spread data among the Serbians that the Italians are going back to work….Urge them to go back to work or the Italians will get their jobs." Handbills were circulated to native-born workers imploring them to "WAKE UP AMERICANS!! ITALIAN LABORERS…have been told by labor agitators that if they would join the union they would get Americans' jobs." Instead, true, loyal, and full-blooded Americans should work to break the "hunky" strike. Steelworkers also hired tens of thousands of African-Americans - who had been routinely ignored and discriminated against by the AFL - as strikebreakers.5
Judge Gary's attempt to paint the steel strike as yet another Bolshevik uprising drew further credence from events in the town U.S. Steel had built, Gary, Indiana, on October 4th, 1919. Almost everywhere else, the steel strike had remained peaceful, but in Gary workers rioted at the introduction of African-American strikebreakers, who had been paraded through town by U.S. Steel to scare the workers into submission. Governor James Goodrich ordered in the state militia to restore order, but the next day, workers again stormed U.S. Steel, killing and injuring many before a fall rainstorm helped to break things up. The next day, General Leonard Wood came to town with regular army soldiers, declared martial law, and began an inquiry into what had set off the rioting - resulting in a sweep of Gary's usual radical troublemakers, almost all of whom were unaffiliated with the steel strike on October 15th.6
Not surprisingly, newspapers and the usual suspects saw "an attempted revolution" and the workings of a "Red Guard" in the events at Gary, pointing to statements like Mother Jones' promise in Gary to "take over the steel mills and run them for Uncle Sam." To the Boston Evening Transcript, it showed "the extraordinary hold which 'Red' principles have upon the foreign born population in the steel districts." To conservative Senator Miles Poindexter, it showed "there is a real danger that the Government will fall." Presumably harboring similar sentiments, police officers in the steel town of Weirton, West Virginia forced 118 immigrants and Wobblies who were striking to kiss the American flag. But, when a special Senate Committee later delved into the causes of the steel strike, the workers they spoke to usually voiced more quotidian aspirations than worldwide revolution.7
"We work 13 hours at night and 11 hours at day, and we get 42 cents an hour," one naturalized Serbian steelworker told the Committee. "Why did we strike? We did not have enough money so that we could have a standard American living." Frank Smith, a Hungarian immigrant before the committee, concurred. "My conditions are all right; and I would gladly keep the work if I could make a living," he told them. "I had never been kicked or abused, or anything like that whatever. The only thing that I am complaining against is that we are not getting enough money" and that "[t]his is the United States and we ought to have the right to belong to the union." (Smith also made sure to inform the committee that he and his co-workers had bought Liberty Bonds and donated to the Red Cross and Y.M.C.A.) Andrew Pido, a Slavic steelworker also working to become an American, testified he struck for "eight hours a day and better conditions…I think that a man ought to work eight hours to-day and have eight hours sleep and eight hours that he can go to school and learn something, and I think that an education is much better than money."8
On the steel issue, The New Republic felt much more comfortable siding against the depredations of management. "Had Mr. Fitzpatrick declined to confer with Mr. Gary he would have been denounced from one end of the country to the other as a firebrand," they argued:
But Mr. Gary can decline to confer with the representative of a very large section of his men; he can refuse to arbitrate, to consult, to mediate, even to discuss: he can bluntly repudiate all the known methods of peaceful adjustment, and so far as one can judge by the press, few voices are raised to brand him for what he is: an inciter of violence, a provoker of industrial war, an industrial barbarian. Mr. Gary by his action has made himself responsible for an enormous calamity. Whole communities will be disorganized, industries paralyzed, production halted, there will be waste and misery and untold bitterness, because he has willed it. Calculating that the unions may not be strong enough to win this time, relying on enormous war profits to tide him over, knowing that the organization is immature, trusting to his autocratic control over public authority in the steel districts, exploiting the fevered and panicky condition of the public mind, he has deliberately chosen to provoke the strike now because he thinks he can smash the union.9It is impossible to escape the conclusion," TNR summed up, "that a group of exceedingly dangerous men, with Mr. Gary as their leader, have chosen war because they think they can win it...[T]he only result of this attempt to poison public opinion will be to destroy that remnant of confidence between social classes which it is indispensable to the orderly transition of industry."10
Arguing that this "naked autocracy in industry" was enabled only by a "hideous cloud of misrepresentation and prejudice," TNR saw in "Garyism" a "prelude to wider and deeper convulsions" and that the government must step in to settle it. "No government that dares to call itself American," they argued, "can support Mr. Gary in his refusal to meet the representatives of his men. On this issue there can be no neutrality."11
The Wilson government could not react right away to the steel strike on account of the president's collapse. But in early October - at the same time as Gary, Indiana erupted -- a National Industrial Conference, chaired by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane (with Secretary of Labor William Wilson attending), was called to bring representatives of labor and management together to allay the steel strike and other labor unrest convulsing the country. It was, in sum, a non-starter. With the administration distracted and captains of industry more amenable to letting fears of Bolshevism win their battles for them, there was no real hearing for labor to be had. After a resolution by Samuel Gompers to affirm the right to collective bargaining was voted down on October 22nd, the AFL dropped out of the conference, effectively ending it.12
The editors of The Survey gamely hosted symposia in December and January 1920 to discuss the final conference report, but most the responses were underwhelmed. "I find nothing new and little of interest," argued Gompers. "The failure of the conference to recognize definitely the organizations of workers - trade unions - as the basis for representation is a fatal omission." William Z. Foster argued similarly. "They fail to recognize the workers' right to organize. No hocus-pocus of fancy industrial machinery can overcome this fatal defect." Without a recognition of organized labor, thought George Soule, "the essentials of a sound and hopeful industrial policy are lacking."13
"The industrial conference has collapsed," opined The Nation. "Nothing else was to be expected. The President summoned a group of capital Bourbons and labor Bourbons…and bade them make peace for the public good. They assembled, wrangled for two weeks, [and] showed conclusively what we knew in advance, namely, they cared primarily for their own interest rather than the public welfare, and departed leaving the labor situation far worse." By the third major labor action of the fall of 1919 - the coal strike - the Wilson government had moved from attempting to mediate to becoming openly antagonistic toward labor.14
In its origins, the coal strike followed much the same pattern as the steel strike. Wages in the industry had not moved since September 1917, even as profits had surged and the cost of living doubled, on account of a deal made for the duration of the war. So once again, labor - this time under the leadership of the United Mine Workers' John Lewis - looked to see their fair share of postwar profits. Almost a year after the signing of the Armistice, the UMW requested a new agreement that would raise wages, shorten hours, and set a five-day week for miners. But coal operators balked at signing or negotiating anything before April 1920, and attempts by Secretary of Labor Wilson to mediate fell through - Management saw no reason for cutting a deal. And so, on November 1st - and even as the steel strike showed signs of dying - close to 400,000 miners walked out, calling for a new agreement.15
John Lewis was no fool. He knew the miners faced an extraordinarily adverse climate for this type of action, and so he reiterated going in that "the United Mine Workers have but one object in view, and that is to obtain just recognition of their right to a fair wage and proper working conditions. No other issue is involved and there must be no attempt on the part of anyone to inject into the strike any extraneous purposes." It didn't matter. Naturally, coal operator propaganda directly tied the strike to Soviet leaders in Russia, and newspapers bemoaned the strikers, "red-soaked in the doctrines of Bolshevism," attempting to foment "a general revolution in America."16
This time, the strikers also incurred the wrath of the administration. Now several weeks into his sickbed period, Wilson deemed the action "unjustifiable," "unlawful," "the most far-reaching plan ever presented," and "a grave moral and legal wrong." With the president ill, however, the point of the administration's spear fell to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer - now fully at war against the Enemy who had tried to kill him. At a meeting three days before the strike, Palmer apparently sold Wilson on breaking a pledge he had made to labor during the war and reviving the powers of the Fuel Administration to call down an injunction to stop the strike. This injunction was handed down the following day, to the shock of progressive observers and the labor community - including Secretary of Labor William Wilson, who would file away this slight for the year to come.17
But, while the UMW leadership technically complied, the strike happened anyway. Ten days later, when the injunction was made permanent, John L. Lewis again tried to cancel the action, arguing "We are Americans, we cannot fight our government." The strike continued regardless, and as coal supplies dwindled, schools closed, factories cut back, and power was rationed. Eventually, in early December, the Fuel Administration offered a 14 cent wage increase and a promise to bring all sides together to negotiate a deal in the near future. This time, the strike did end, and in March 1920, a new two-year agreement was signed between operators and mines with a 27 cent increase, but no changes to hours.18
While the coal strike had a slightly happier ending than the police or steel strikes did for the workers involved, the decision to attempt an injunction served to further drive a wedge between the administration and its former progressive allies. "The war is on," proclaimed The Nation of "the weasel words of the Attorney General" in invoking an injunction - "the war of the United States Government upon the forces of work at the basis of human society." The injunction threatened America "with incalculable disaster; for it serves to confirm the unfortunate suspicion of workingmen that in the real test the Government is the organ of the propertied classes. Let that conviction become widespread, and violent revolution stands at the door…Do not our Washington officials understand that the plain people of the United States are coming thoroughly to distrust them? It is lamentable, but it is a fact, and Washington has itself to blame." In sum, The Nation argued, "Mr. Palmer's action opens the way to violence, then the machine gun."19
For its part, TNR was slightly more temperate but no less contemptuous of the "broken pledge." Wilson, it argued, "has rewarded the loyal service of the unions during the war by…placing at the disposal of their adversaries the vast prestige and so far as possible the physical power of the American government." "[B]efore depriving coal miners, so far as it can, of their only safeguard against injustice and their most effective weapon with which to obtain a higher standard of living," they concluded, "the government should guarantee a full and fair consideration of the miners' claims. This is precisely what the Wilson administration failed to do." As it was, TNR argued, Wilson and Palmer's injunction "constitute[s] an act of class violence under the forms of law" that "would undermine the moral unity of American society." While conceding that a strike was a "dangerous and disorderly weapon which should in the long run disappear from the institutions of an industrial democracy…at present American industry is not democratically organized. It rests on the fears, the necessities, and the ignorant docilities of the majority of the workers, not on their free, self-conscious consent."20
Looking across the spectrum of labor conflicts in a piece entitled "Americanism in the Present Crisis," the editors of TNR pleaded with the powers-that-be to cast off anti-Red hysteria and taken a more open-minded approach to the struggles of labor. Conceding that "[t]he American nation confronts one of the most serious crises in its history," TNR noted the omnipresent and "general disposition among the employers, the politicians, and the press to treat the labor unrest as a culpable and sinister rebellion - as an autocratic, anti-social demonstration of power which the American nation in the interest of its own future prosperity and security must suppress at any cost":
They cherish this bellicose and irreconcilable attitude of mind as patriotic and public spirited and as the veracious expression under the circumstances of the American national spirit. We hope the opponents of labor will, while there is yet time and before they have done irretrievable damage, reconsider the pugnacity and the irreconcilability of the present attitude. They constitute the dominant, the more educated, and the most articulate element in American public opinion. It is their privilege and their function to renew the American spirit in its application to one of the great transitional and critical periods in our national history…The danger which the employers and their supporters in the press and among the politicians are now incurring is that of imitating the spirit of the abolitionists and the slave-owners and sowing the seeds of a calamitous and perhaps an irremediable class conflict on American soil…In short, the editors argued, people who should know better were "trying to prevent labor from enjoying its day in the court of American public opinion." They were using "innuendo and invective to identify the discontent of labor with a revolutionary conspiracy against public order" and attempting "to stigmatize as "Bolshevism" all agitation for a redistribution of industrial power." As a result, "[i]t is as profitable to argue with the great majority of American newspapers on a contemporary labor controversy as it is to argue with a brass band….they are ingenious and indefatigable in their effort to interpret the conflict as a fight to the finish, as a war of mutual extermination." This was not the American way - Rather, so-called patriots should maintain "the traditional American reluctance to coerce an aggrieved minority and…the traditional American faith in the ability of the people to work through the most difficult and embittered conflicts to an ultimately liberating truth - provided all parties, all classes and all minorities obtain a full and fair hearing."22
Making a similar point in his own editorial in the same issue, Walter Lippmann warned that, at this "pregnant moment in American history," the bad-faith shenanigans of the anti-labor crowd were pushing working people away from the conservative AFL approach and into the arms of the IWW. As labor and capital seemed increasingly "irreconcilable dogmas," he argued, "the easy thing to do is to let one's sympathy decide between them, to throw in our lot with Gomperism or Garyism…But we dare not do that. We dare not allow the leaders of a class to present the American people with a dilemma, and we dare not allow ourselves to regard a conflict as fatally determined":
The idea that there is a Public Group, that it is the guardian of the Public Thing, that somehow it manages to represent the disinterested thought of the community - this idea persists in the American tradition. The skeptics jeer at it as a pure fiction, and the sinister often use it as a masquerade. But if it did not exist we should have to invent it. No class of people enumerated in the census are the 'Public.' But all individuals at some time or other are part of it. They are part of it whenever they are individuals and not mere conscious or unconscious members of a class. The Public is the name of those who in any crisis are seeking the truth and not advocating their dogma…The idea of a Public is simply a short way of expressing the great faith that a group of men and women will always disentangle themselves from their prejudices and will be sufficiently powerful to summon the partisans before that bar of reason; and that evidence, not mere jaw, will then decide.23"Without a disentangled Public," Lippmann warned, "the unending clash of Ins and Outs, Haves and Have Nots, Reds and Whites is likely to be a sheer commotion. No doubt there is much that is insincere and much that is maudlin said about the Public. The news system of the world being what it is, and education being where it is, it is possible to fool most of the Public a good part of the time. The Public is one of those ideals, if you like, which we miss oftener than we attain. But it is a precious ideal. It is the only way of formulating our belief that reason is the final test of action, that mere push and pull are not by themselves to set the issues and to render the decision."24
While Lippmann tried to rally progressives to the public interest, his colleague Walter Weyl instead saw a potential opportunity in "this strange significant phenomenon, the rise of class consciousness. It is a new weapon in the hands of a great but depressed class," he argued in his essay, "The Only Truly Revolutionary Class." "The rise of the modern wage-earning class is one of the big facts of history," Weyl insisted. "We have lost the idea of a divinely ordered servile class. We have unchained innumerable ambitions and opened the door to astounding successes, disappointments, vanities and hatreds…All this means a complete revolution in our attitude towards all our social problems." The world was becoming driven less by thoughts of the afterlife and more by the material pleasures of this realm, Weyl argued. "[A]ll of us - the financier floating a corporation, the farmer selling his crops, the grocer laying in his canned goods, the laborer drawing his pay of a Saturday - increasingly want the things of this world, and are willing to take the cash and let the credit go." As such, "the labor problem is not a problem of class renunciation, but of group and individual expression. It is the problem of securing for wage-earners, primarily through their own efforts, the material and moral conditions of life, health, leisure, recreation, independence."25
Weyl's insight that the labor problem was fundamentally one of purchasing power, and his notion that consumption and consumerism could be the glue to heal ancient enmities between farmers, laborers, and other producing classes, illustrated the foresight with which he was gifted. As he put it elsewhere, "[i]n America today the unifying force, about which a majority, hostile to the plutocracy is forming, is the common interest of the consumer." But Weyl, who perished over the summer, was ahead of his time. Meanwhile, the fact that Lippmann and TNR felt they had to articulate robust defenses for public opinion and the idea of a disinterested public suggests how badly the cumulative effect of labor strife rattled the basic tenets of progressivism in 1919. And, like the League fight, the emerging class war was only one of many destabilizing issues playing out in America that year.26
Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 10: The Red Summer.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Murray, Red Scare, 135-137.
3. Ibid, 138.
4. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 41. Murray, Red Scare, 142-144.
5. Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century (New York: Perennial, 2003), 104. Cohen, 144. As the NAACP's Walter White noted when reviewing the reasons behind the Chicago Race Riot, "The Negro in Chicago yet remembers the waiters' strike some years ago, when colored union workers walked out at the command of the unions and when the strike was settled, the unions did not insist that Negro waiters be given their jobs back along with whites, and, as a result, colored men have never been able to get back into some of the hotels even to the present day. The Negro is between 'the devil and the deep blue sea.' He feels that if he goes into the unions, he will lose the friendship of the employers. He knows that if he does not, he is going to be met with the bitter antagonism of the unions." Nonetheless, in the fall of 1919 the NAACP urged its readers "whenever possible to join the labor unions…The Labor Union is no panacea, but it has proved and proving a force that in the end diminishes racial prejudice." Walter White, "The Causes of the Chicago Race Riot," The Crisis, October, 1919, 25. "The Negro and the Labor Union," The Crisis, September, 1919 Vol. 18-No. 5, 239-24.
6. Coen, 42. Murray, 146-148, 150.
7. Hagedorn, 381. Murray, 148-149. Barry, Rising Tide, 137-139.
8. Investigation of Strike in Steel Industries, Hearings before the Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate, 66th Congress, 1st Session. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/10/ Those who testified of Bolshevik ideas tended to be on the side of management. For example, mill superintendent W.W. Mink, who spoke of "the Bolshevist spirit" infecting "the foreigners…It is not a question of wages. They have never been getting more money than they have got, and the conditions are good."
9. "The Steel Strike," The New Republic, October 1, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 256, 245-246.
10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. TNR also worked to expose the fuzzy math used by management to inflate the average wage. "The public is informed," they wrote, "that the average wage is $6.23 a day. The public is not expected to remember than an 'average wage' if it includes, as this does, the salaries of the administrative and selling force, is absolutely misleading. One might as well say that the average wage of the scrub woman at ten dollars a week and of the President of the United States at $1442 a week is $776."
12. Murray, Red Scare, 149.
13. "The Proposed Industrial Plan," The Survey, January 17, 1920, 427-429.
14. "What Must We Do to be Saved?," The Nation, November 1, 1919, Vol. 109, No. 2835, 558.
15. Murray, Red Scare, 153-154.
16. Ibid, 155-156.
17. Reports differ as to what extent the injunction was Wilson's call. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels insisted it was a bad idea that the president would never have countenanced if healthy. But Joseph Tumulty wrote that Wilson followed the coal strike avidly from his sickbed. Murray, The Red Scare, 157.
18. Murray, Red Scare, 163.
19. "The Coal War," The Nation, November 8, 1919 (Vol. 109, No. 2836), 577-578.
20. "Compulsory Conference and the Coal Strike," The New Republic, November 12, 1919, (Vol. XX, No. 258) 310-311. "Americanism in the Present Crisis," The New Republic, November 12, 1919 (Vol. XX, No. 258), 302-306.
23. Walter Lippmann, "Unrest," The New Republic, November 12, 1919 (Vol. XX, No. 258), 320-322.
25. Weyl, Tired Radicals, 19-30.
26. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent, 222-224. In fact, Lippmann had put forth a similar argument in his 1914 book Drift and Mastery. "We hear a great deal about the class-consciousness of labor," he wrote then. "My own observation is that in America today consumers'-consciousness is growing very much faster." Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 171.
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