Chapter 24 - The Steel Strike of 1919

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 17, 2014

During the war the working people were made to believe they amounted to something. Gompers, the President of the American Federation of Labor, conferred with copper kings and lumber kings and coal kings, speaking for the organized workers. Up and down the land the workers heard the word, “democracy.” They were asked to work for it. To give their wages to it. To give their lives for it. They were told that their labor, their money, their flesh were the bulwarks against tyranny and autocracy.

So believing, the steel workers, 300,000 of them, rose en masse against Kaiser Gary, the President of the American Steel Corporation. The slaves asked their czar for the abolition of the twelve-hour day, for a crumb from the huge loaf of profits made in the great war, and for the right to organize.

Czar Gary met his workers as is the customary way with tyrants. He could not shoot them down as did Czar Nicholas when petitioned by his peasants. But he ordered the constabulary out. He ordered forth his two faithful generals: fear and starvation, one to clutch at the worker’s throat and the other at his stomach and the stomachs of his little children. When the steel strike was being organized, I was in Seattle with Jay G. Brown, President of the Shingle Workers of America.

“We ought to go East and help organize those slaves,” I said to Brown.

“They’ll throw us in jail, Mother!” he said.

“Well, they’re our own jails, aren’t they! Our class builds them.”

I came East. So did Jay G. Brown – a devoted worker for the cause of the steel slaves.

The strike in the steel industry was called in September, 1919. Gary as spokesman for the industry refused to consider any sort of appointment with his workers. What did it matter to him that thousands upon thousands of workers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, worked in front of scorching furnaces twelve long hours, through the day, through the night, while he visited the Holy Land where Our Lord was born in a manger!

I traveled up and down the Monongahela River. Most of the places where the steel workers were on strike meetings were forbidden. If I were to stop to talk to a woman on the street about her child, a cossack would come charging down upon us and we would have to run for our lives. If I were to talk to a man in the streets of Braddock, we would be arrested for unlawful assembly.

In the towns of Sharon and Farrell, Pennsylvania, the lick-spittle authorities forbade all assembly. The workers by the thousands marched into Ohio where the Constitution of the United States instead of the Steel Corporation’s constitution was law.

I asked a Pole where he was going. I was visiting his sick wife; taking a bit of milk to her new baby. Her husband was washing his best shirt in the sink.

“Where I go? Tomorrow I go America,” he said, meaning he was going on the march to Ohio.

I spoke often to the strikers. Many of them were foreigners but they knew what I said. I told them, “We are to see whether Pennsylvania belongs to Kaiser Gary or Uncle Sam. If Gary’s got it, we are going to take it away from him and give it back to Uncle Sam. When we are ready we can scare and starve and lick the whole gang. Your boys went over to Europe. They were told to clean up the Kaiser. Well, they did it. And now you and your boys are going to clean up the Kaisers at home. Even if they have to do it with a leg off and an arm gone, and eyes out.

“Our Kaisers sit up and smoke seventy-five cent cigars and have lackeys with knee pants bring them champagne while you starve, while you grow old at forty, stoking their furnaces. You pull in your belts while they banquet. They have stomachs two miles long and two miles wide and you fill them. Our Kaisers have stomachs of steel and hearts of steel and tears of steel for the ‘poor Belgians.’

“If Gary wants to work twelve hours a day let him go in the blooming mills and work. What we want is a little leisure, time for music, playgrounds, a decent home, books, and the things that make life worth while.”

I was speaking in Homestead. A group of organizers were with me in an automobile. As soon as a word was said, the speaker was immediately arrested by the steel bosses’ sheriff. I rose to speak. An officer grabbed me.

“Under arrest!” he said.

We were taken to jail. A great mob of people collected outside the prison. There was angry talk. The jailer got scared. He thought there might be lynching and he guessed who would be lynched. The mayor was in the jail, too, conferring with the jailer. He was scared. He looked out of the office windows and he saw hundreds of workers milling around and heard them muttering.

The jailer came to Mr. Brown and asked him what he had better do.

“Why don’t you let Mother Jones go out and speak to them,” he said. “They’ll do anything she says.”

So the jailer came to me and asked me to speak to the boys outside and ask them to go home.

I went outside the jail and told the boys I was going to be released shortly on bond, and that they should go home now and not give any trouble. I got them in a good humor and pretty soon they went away. Meanwhile while I was speaking, the mayor had sneaked out the back way.

We were ordered to appear in the Pittsburgh court the next morning. A cranky old judge asked me if I had had a permit to speak on the streets.

“Yes, sir,” said I. “I had a permit.”

“Who issued it?” he growled.

“Patrick Henry; Thomas Jefferson; John Adams!” said I.

The mention of those patriots who gave us our charter of liberties made the old steel judge sore. He fined us all heavily.

During the strike I was frequently arrested. So were all the leaders. We expected that. I never knew whether I would find John Fitzpatrick and William Foster at headquarters when I went up to Pittsburgh. Hundreds of threatening letters came to them. Gunmen followed them. Their lives were in constant danger. Citizens Alliance – the little shop-keepers dependent upon the smile of the steel companies-threatened to drive them out. Never had a strike been led by more devoted, able, unselfish men. Never a thought for themselves. Only for the men on strike, men striking to bring back America to America.

In Foster’s office no chairs were permitted by the authorities. That would have been construed as “a meeting.” Here men gathered in silent groups, in whispering groups, to get what word they could of the strike.

How was it going in Ohio?

How was it going in Pennsylvania?

How in the Mesaba country?

The workers were divided from one another. Spies working among the Ohio workers told of the break in the strike in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, they told of the break in Ohio. With meetings forbidden, with mails censored, with no means of communication allowed, the strikers could not know of the progress of their strike. Then fear would clutch their throats.

One day two men came into Headquarters. One of them showed his wrists. They told in broken English of being seized by officers, taken to a hotel room. One of them was handcuffed for a day to a bed. His wrists swelled. Ho begged the officers to release him. He writhed in pain. They laughed and asked him if he would go to work. Though mad with pain he said no. At night they let him go without a word, without redress.

Organizers would come in with bandages on their heads. They had been beaten. They would stop a second before the picture of Fanny Sellins, the young girl whom the constabulary had shot as she bent protectingly over some children. She had died. They had only been beaten.

Foreigners were forever rushing in with tales of violence. They did not understand. Wasn’t this America? Hadn’t they come to America to be free?

We could not get the story of the struggle of these slaves over to the public. The press groveled at the feet of the steel Gods. The local pulpits dared not speak. Intimidation stalked the churches, the schools, the theaters. The rule of steel was absolute.

Although the strike was sponsored by the American Federation of Labor, under instructions from the Steel Trust, the public were fed daily stories of revolution and Bolshevism and Russian gold supporting the strike.

I saw the parade in Gary. Parades were forbidden in the Steel King’s own town. Some two hundred soldiers who had come back from Europe where they had fought to make America safe from tyrants, marched. They were steel workers. They had on their faded uniforms and the steel hats which protected them from German bombs. In the line of march I saw young fellows with arms gone, with crutches, with deep scars across the face – heroes they were! Workers in the cheap cotton clothes of the working class fell in behind them. Silently the thousands walked through the streets and alleys of Gary. Saying no word. With no martial music such as sent the boys into the fight with the Kaiser across the water. Marching in silence. Disbanding in silence.

The next day the newspapers carried across the country a story of “mob violence” in Gary. Then I saw another parade. Into Gary marched United States soldiers under General Wood. They brought their bayonets, their long range guns, trucks with mounted machine guns, field artillery. Then came violence. The soldiers broke up the picket line. Worse than that, they broke the ideal in the hearts of thousands of foreigners, their ideal of America. Into the blast furnace along with steel went their dream that America was a government for the people-the poor, the oppressed.

I sat in the kitchen with the wife of a steel worker. It was a tiny kitchen. Three men sat at the table playing cards on the oil cloth table cover. They sat in their under shirts and trousers. Babies crawled on the floor. Above our heads hung wet clothes.

“The worse thing about this strike, Mother, is having the men folks all home all the time. There’s no place for them to go. If they walk out they get chased by the mounted police. If they visit another house, the house gets raided and the men get arrested for ‘holding a meeting.’ They daren’t even sit on the steps. Officers chase them in. It’s fierce, Mother, with the boarders all home. When the men are working, half of them are sleeping, and the other half are in the mills. And I can hang my clothes out in the yard. Now I daren’t. The guards make us stay in. They chase us out of our own yards. It’s hell, Mother, with the men home all day and the clothes hanging around too. And the kids are frightened. The guards chase them in the house. That makes it worse. The kids, and the men all home and the clothes hanging around.”

That was another way the steel tyrants fought their slaves. They crowded them into their wretched kennels, piling them on top of one another until their nerves were on edge. Men and women and babies and children and cooking and washing and dressing and undressing. This condition wore terribly on the women.

“Mother, seems like I’m going crazy!” women would say to me. “I’m scared to go out and I go crazy if I stay in with everything lumped on top of me!”

“The men are not going back?”

When I asked the women that question they would stop their complaints. ‘~ My man go back, I kill him!” You should see their eyes!

I went to Duquesne. Mayor Crawford, the brother of the President of the McKeesport Tin Plate Company, naturally saw the strike through steel-rimmed glasses. Jay Brown and I asked him for a permit to address the strikers.

“So you want a permit to speak in Duquesne, do you?” he grinned.

“We do that,” said I, “as American citizens demanding our constitutional rights.”

He laughed aloud. “Jesus Christ himself could not hold a meeting in Duquesne!” said he.

“I have no doubt of that,” said I, “not while you are mayor. “You may remember, however, that He drove such men as you out of the temple!”

He laughed again. Steel makes one feel secure.

We spoke. We were arrested and taken to jail. While in my cell, a group of worthy citizens, including town officials and some preachers came to see me.

“Mother Jones,” they said, “why don’t you use your great gifts and your knowledge of men for something better and higher than agitating?”

“There was a man once,” said I, “who had great gifts and a knowledge of men and he agitated against a powerful government that sought to make men serfs, to grind them down. He founded this nation that men might be free. He was a gentleman agitator!’

“Are you referring to George Washington?” said one of the group.

“I am so,” said I. “And there was a man once who had the gift of a tender heart and he agitated against powerful men, against invested wealth, for the freedom of black men. He agitated against slavery!”

Are you speaking of Abraham Lincoln?” said a little man who was peeking at me over another fellow’s shoulder.

“I am that,” said I.

“And there was a man once who walked among men, among the poor and the despised and the lowly, and he agitated against the powers of Rome, against the lickspittle Jews of the local pie counter; he agitated for the Kingdom of God!”

“Are you speaking of Jesus Christ?” said a preacher.

“I am,” said I. “The agitator you nailed to a cross some centuries ago. I did not know that his name was known in the region of steel!”

They all said nothing and left.

I went in a house in Monessen where I heard a woman sobbing. “They have taken my man away and I do not know where they have taken him!” Two little sobbing children clung to her gingham apron. Her tears fell on their little heads.

“I will find out for you. Tell me what happened.”

“Yesterday two men come. They open door; not knock. They come bust in. They say ‘Your husband go back to Russia. He big Bolshevik!’ I say, ‘Who you?’ They say, ‘We big government United States. Big detect!’”

“They open everything. They open trunks. They throw everything on floor. They take everything from old country. They say my husband never came back. They say my husband go Russia. Perhaps first they hang him up, they say.”

“They will not hang him. Is your husband Bolshevik?”

“No. He what you call Hunkie in America. He got friend. Friend very good. Friend come see him many times. Play cards. Talk ‘bout damn boss. Talk ‘bout damn job. Talk just ‘bout all damn things. This friend say, ‘You like better Russia – Working people now got country.’

“My husband say, ‘Sure I like Russia. Bussia all right. Maybe workmans got chance there.’

“This friend say, ‘You like tea?’

“My man say, ‘Sure I like!’

“Pretty soon they go walk together. My man not come home. All night gone. Next day come high detect. They say my man Bolshevik. His friend say so.”

“Have you been to the jail?”

“Yes, they say he not there. They say he been gone Russia.”

“Here’s five dollars,” I said. “Now you take care of those little ones and I’ll get your man for you.”

He was in prison. I found him. Arrested by the United States Secret Service men who worked in connection with the Steel Company’s private spies. Scores of workers were in jail, arrested on charges of holding radical thoughts. Holding radical thoughts and even the conservative demand for a shorter day, a better wage, the right to organize was punished with guns and prisons and torture!

He with dozens of others were later freed. With nothing against them. Five hundred “under cover” men worked in Monessen, sneaking into men’s houses, into their unions, into their hearts, into their casual thoughts, sneaking and betraying. Five hundred Judas Iscariots betraying the workers for a handful of silver dollars.

With vermin like these must the worker struggle. Rather would the Steel Kings pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to these parasites than give the workers a living wage, a wage which would enable them to live as free men.

I was speaking in Mingo. There was a big crowd there. Most of them were foreigners but they would stand for hours listening to the speakers, trying to fit the English words to the feelings in their hearts. Their patient faces looked up into mine. Slag, the finely powdered dust of the steel mills, was ground into the furrows of their foreheads, into the lines about their mouths. The mark of steel was indelibly stamped upon them. They belonged to steel – branded as are cattle on the plains by their owners.

I said to them, “Steel stock has gone up. Steel profits are enormous. Steel dividends are making men rich over night. The war – your war-has made the steel lords richer than the emperors of old Borne. And their profits are not from steel alone but from your bodies with their innumerable burns; their profits are your early old age, your swollen feet, your wearied muscles. You go without warm winter clothes that Gary and his gang may go to Florida to warm their blood. You puddle steel twelve hours a day! Your children play in the muck of mud puddles while the children of the Forty Thieves take their French and dancing lessons, and have their fingernails manicured!”

As I was about to step down from the little platform I saw the crowd in one part of the hall milling around. Some one was trying to pass out leaflets and an organizer was trying to stop him. I heard the organizer say, “No sir, that’s all right but you can’t do it here! What do you want to get us in for!”

The fellow who had the leaflets insisted on distributing them. I pushed my way over to where the disturbance was.

“Lad,” said I, “let me see one of those leaflets.”

“It’s about Russia, Mother,” said the organizer, “and you know we can’t have that!”

I took a leaflet. It asked the assistance of everyone in getting the government to lift the blockade against Russia, as hundreds of thousands of women and little children were starving for food, and thousands were dying for want of medicine and hospital necessities.

“What is the matter with these leaflets!” I asked the organizer.

“Nothing, Mother, only if we allow them to be distributed the story will go out that the strike is engineered from Moscow. We can’t mix issues. I’m afraid to let these dodgers circulate.”

“Women and children blockaded and starving! Men, women and children dying for lack of hospital necessities! This strike will not be won by turning a deaf ear to suffering wherever it occurs. There’s only one thing to be afraid of ... of not being a man

The struggle for freedom went on. Went on against colossal odds. Steel was against them. And the government was against them, from the remote government at Washington down to the tiny official of the steel village. There was dissension in the ranks of labor. Ambition and prejudice played their part.

Human flesh, warm and soft and capable of being wounded, went naked up against steel; steel that is cold as old stars, and harder than death and incapable of pain. Bayonets and guns and steel rails and battle ships, bombs and bullets are made of steel. And only babies are made of flesh. More babies to grow up and work in steel, to hurl themselves against the bayonets, to know the tempered resistance of steel.

The strike was broken. Broken by the scabs brought in under the protection of the troops. Broken by breaking men’s belief in the outcome of their struggle. Broken by breaking men’s hearts. Broken by the press, by the government. In a little over a hundred days, the strike shivered to pieces.

The slaves went back to the furnaces, to the mills; to the heat and the roar, to the long hours – to slavery.

At headquarters men wept. I wept with them. A young man put his hands on my shoulders.

“Mother,” he sobbed. “It’s over.”

A red glare from the mills lighted the sky. It made me think of Hell.

“Lad,” said I, “it is not over. There’s a fiercer light than those hell fires over yonder! It is the white light of freedom burning in men’s hearts!”

Back to the mills trudged the men, accepting the terms of the despot, Gary; accepting hours that made them old, old men at forty; that threw them on the scrap heap, along with the slag from the mills, at early middle age; that made of them nothing but brutes that slept and worked, that worked and slept. The sound of their feet marching back into the mills was the sound of a funeral procession, and the corpse they followed was part of their selves. It was their hope.

Gary and his gang celebrated the victory with banquets and rejoicing. Three hundred thousand workers, living below the living wage, ate the bread of bitterness.

I say, as I said in the town of Gary, it is the damn gang of robbers and their band of political thieves who will start the next American Revolution; just as it was they who started this strike. Fifty thousand American lads died on the battle fields of Europe that the world might be more democratic. Their buddies came home and fought the American workingman when he protested an autocracy beyond the dream of the Kaiser. Had these same soldiers helped the steel workers, we could have given Gary, Morgan and his gang a free pass to hell. All the world’s history has produced no more brutal and savage times than these, and this nation will perish if we do not change these conditions.

Christ himself would agitate against them. He would agitate against the plutocrats and hypocrites who tell the workers to go down on their knees and get right with God. Christ, the carpenter’s son, would tell them to stand up on their feet and fight for righteousness and justice on the earth.