Industry strong-arm tactics and belligerent opposition in the 1870s and '80s, and in the early 1900s, blocked initial attempts to organize workers in the nation's steel mills. Early efforts were marred by the deaths of many workers.
Some recognition of a union came in 1889 after a strike at the Carnegie Company mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, resulted in a contract for the workers. However, three years later the mill cut wages, and the workers went on strike to protest.
The mill owner, Andrew Carnegie, left on a trip to Scotland after turning the job of breaking the union over to Henry C. Frick, manager of the Carnegie properties. Frick imported 300 Pinkerton "watchmen" to break the strike.
On the morning of July 6, 1892, the Pinkertons marched toward the plant and in the resulting, pitched battle, seven strikers and three Pinkertons were killed and many were wounded. Eventually the strike-breakers, protected by the state militia, broke the strike, and the union — the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers — was eliminated.
The Carnegie Company, which later became a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, said it would never again recognize a union. In 1909, after a 14-month strike, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers was also eliminated from the few remaining subsidiaries.
In 1919 a serious attempt was made to organize the entire steel industry under the direction of the American Federation of Labor. In September of that year, 365,000 workers went on strike. Once again the industry fought organization by importing strikebreakers — this time from Mexico and the South. Martial law was declared in some states, and 20 deaths were attributed to the conflict. By the end of the year the union cause was lost.
In the U. S. and Canada, the steel mills and factories were festering spots for the accumulation and unresolved grievances of workers. Company-owned steel towns were the scene of constant oppression. Shootings, beatings and the infamous black-list were the weapons used by steel company owners to discourage participation in anything faintly resembling a labor organization
Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC)
The pendulum started to swing the other way on June 7, 1936, with the formation of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The workers began building a solid union under the leadership of Philip Murray.
A massive organizing drive was launched in conjunction with the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, and it met with almost immediate success, surviving many desperate efforts of giant steel companies to thwart unionization of their industry. In 1936, some 125,000 workers became members in 154 local lodges.
Even with the help from a new labor law — the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — the road was not easy. The blackest day of modern labor history occurred on Memorial Day, 1937 in Chicago when a police massacre at the gates of Republic Steel took the lives of ten steelworkers and crippled a hundred more.
Similar violence was repeated in Massillon and Youngstown, Ohio, and in several mill towns of Pennsylvania before the so-called Little Steel companies decided they would bargain with the union. But the union kept moving ahead despite mounting corporate opposition.
At a convention in Cleveland, Ohio SWOC and the Amalgamated were disbanded and the United Steelworkers was established as a constitutional body on May 22, 1942.
As a result of landmark legal decisions won by the USW, organized labor won the right to negotiate pensions for its members. The USW was forced to strike in 1949 to win such programs in basic steel and in the aluminum industry. The USW also had to strike to win paid holidays for the first time in steel.
Phil Murray, the union's founder and first president, died of a heart attack in San Francisco on November 9, 1952. It was the genius, compassion and dedication of Phil Murray that helped form and shape the USW into one of the nation's largest and most progressive unions.
While the union was winning new gains for its members in the basic steel, aluminum, can and fabricating industries, it was also organizing workers in nonferrous metals, and growing into the largest single union in Canada.