The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930s: The Case of Steel*
by Staughton Lynd
Recent historians associated with the Left have found industrial union organizing in the 1930s puzzling. We have declined to join in the liberal celebration of its results, pointing to “the partial integration of company and union bureaucracies” in administering CIO contracts (C. Wright Mills)1 and the CIO’s “definition of union organizing that made it impossible . . . to concentrate on political organization that challenged capitalist institutions” (Mark Naison). 2 We have dwelt on happenings which for liberal historians are merely preliminary or transitory, such as the mass strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in 1934,3 the improvisation from below of local industrial unions and rank-and-file action committees,4 or the many indications of interest in a Labor Party or Farmer-Labor Party.5
But this is not enough. In the 1890s, the drive for industrial unionism under Eugene Debs led to a confrontation with a Democratic president, recognition of the need for independent labor politics, and the formation of the Socialist Party. There was a step-by-step transition, first to economic organization on a broader scale, then to political organization, very much in the manner outlined in The Communist Manifesto. This did not happen in the 1930s (or at first glance appears not to have happened), and we must ask why. I believe that there is a connection between the difficulty experienced by New Left historians in answering this question, and the difficulty experienced by New Left working-class organizers. If we had a better idea how radicals should have acted while unions were being organized, we might better understand how they should act today. This essay considers the case of steel.
When the National Recovery Administration came into existence in June 1933, the feeble AFL union in the steel industry—the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers—reported less than 5,000 members. By the time of the Amalgamated’s annual convention in April 1934 its membership had increased to a number variously estimated at 50,000 to 200,000.6 Harvey O’Connor, then a labor reporter living in Pittsburgh, remembers it this way:
Along came the New Deal, and then came the NRA, and the effect was electric all up and down those valleys. The mills began reopening somewhat, and the steelworkers read in the newspapers about this NRA Section 7A that guaranteed you the right to organize. All over the steel country union locals sprang up spontaneously. Not by virtue of the Amalgamated Association; they couldn’t have cared less. But these locals sprang up at Duquesne, Homestead, and Braddock. You name the mill town and there was a local there, carrying a name like the “Blue Eagle” or the “New Deal” local. These people had never had any experience in unionism. All they knew was that, by golly, the time had come when they could organize and the Government guaranteed them the right to organize!7
This remarkable organizing drive was carried out by rank-and-file steelworkers with little help from full-time organizers of the Amalgamated. At the U. S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, for example, an Amalgamated organizer provided membership cards and volunteer organizers from the mill returned in a week with 500 of them signed.8 Walter Galenson wrongly terms the Amalgamated organizing campaign of 1933 “unsuccessful.”9 As a matter of fact, the Amalgamated drive between June 1933 and April 1934 signed up about the same number of steelworkers that the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, using 200 full-time organizers, signed up in a comparable period of time, from June 1936 to March 1937.
The self-organization of the rank and file was at least as effective as the top-down professionalism of the CIO, which had far greater resources at its disposal. Galenson himself quotes Lee Pressman as saying that as of the spring of 1937 SWOC could not have won an NLRB election “on the basis of our own membership or the results of the organizing campaign to date” in either Big or Little Steel.10 The best testimony to this effect comes from the man who collected SWOC dues, David J. McDonald, later president of the United Steelworkers of America. “Contrary to union propaganda—some of which I helped to write—the steelworkers did not fall all over themselves to sign a pledge card with the SWOC,” McDonald states in his autobiography.
What we hoped would be a torrent turned out, instead, to be a trickle. Under our arrangement with the Amalgamated, it would charter a local union as soon as we had enough men signed up in a plant to form the nucleus of an effective organization. Oftentimes the locals consisted of the half-dozen men daring enough to sign the charter application. When these skeleton requests straggled in, we assigned impressively high lodge numbers in the hope that outsiders would think we had that many locals. Only Murray and I knew how thin the tally was, although Lewis would insist on the truth whenever I visited Washington, then would shake his head in wonderment at the lack of progress.11
According to McDonald, SWOC membership was a “shaky 82,000” at the end of 1936, and when U.S. Steel signed a contract in March 1937, SWOC had signed up only 7 percent of its employees.
McDonald offers a hatful of explanations for steelworkers’ absence of response to SWOC: a 50-year tradition of non-unionism, the fear of losing jobs, and the fact that some workers “were as apprehensive about dictatorship from an international union as they were of arm-twisting from their employer.” Only the last of these makes any sense when one recalls that just three years before the same steelworkers had enthusiastically organized local unions. The question presents itself: Why did the organizing drive of 1933–1934, strongly supported by the rank and file, fail to achieve the union recognition accomplished by the SWOC drive of 1936–1937 with weaker rank-and-file backing?
The rank and file sought to achieve union recognition through the Amalgamated in 1933, 1934, and 1935. The 1933 effort was the by-product of a spontaneous strike by coal miners in the “captive mines” of western Pennsylvania owned by the steel companies.12 These miners joined the United Mine Workers after the passage of the NIRA just as steelworkers were joining the Amalgamated. Late in July, miners at the H. C. Frick mines owned by U. S. Steel struck for recognition of their new UMW locals and the right to elect checkweighmen. UMW president John L. Lewis agreed with President Roosevelt that the men would go back to work and that their grievances would be referred to a special government board. The men refused, their representatives voting 123 to 4 against returning to work for the present. A 44-year-old Irish immigrant named Martin Ryan emerged as their spokesman. By the end of September 1933, 70,000 miners were on strike.
Then the strike spread to steelworkers. On September 26 miners marched into Clairton, Pennsylvania, where the largest coke plant in the United States made fuel for U.S. Steel mills throughout the Monongahela Valley. Hundreds of coal miners and an estimated half of the workforce at Clairton “circled the gates of the Clairton steel and by-products works in an endless march, day and night.” Meanwhile at Weirton, West Virginia, 50 miles away, 12,000 more steelworkers went out demanding recognition of their new lodges of the Amalgamated. The national president of the Amalgamated, Michael Tighe, declared both the Clairton and the Weirton strike “outlaw.”
John L. Lewis and Philip Murray, leaders of the UMW and future leaders of the SWOC and CIO, persisted in attempting to get the miners back to work. O’Connor describes the part played by Murray:
Vice President Murray of the United Mine Workers summoned the rank-and-file leaders to Pittsburgh. “Today,” he warned them, “you are fighting the coal companies; but tonight, if you remain on strike, you will be fighting the Government of the United States. Today you are conducting a strike; tonight you will be conducting a rebellion. Today we may say we are going to defy the greatest friend we’ve ever had in the history of this nation (President Roosevelt). But I tell you, friends, he can turn against you as strong as he’s been for you. He can call out the Army and Navy.”
Martin Ryan, leader of the striking miners, answered Murray: “Why do you ask 75,000 men to go back to work instead of telling one man [President Moses of the Frick Company] to sign the contract?” The rank-and-file delegates returned to Fayette County and called 20,000 miners together to consider Murray’s back-to-work order. The miners voted to continue their strike until the Frick Company signed a contract.
Finally, on October 30, 1933, Lewis and Murray signed a contract on behalf of Frick’s miners with none other than Myron Taylor, the same man who would sign a contract with them in March 1937 concerning steelworkers employed by U.S. Steel. Historians differ as to how much this contract achieved for the miners, but whatever it achieved was thanks to the pressure from below of men who struck without authorization and who refused Lewis’s and Murray’s orders to go back to work. The striking steelworkers achieved nothing. At Weirton, the strikers returned to work with a promise that an election for union representation would be held on December 15. The election turned out to be an election for company-union representatives. In the words of O’Connor: “The grand tactical plan for the united front of steel’s mine and mill workers, conceived on the spur of the moment by local rank-and-file leaders in both industries, had been scuttled by a stronger united front, that of Washington, the union leaders, and the steel companies.”
The leaders of the Weirton strike, Billy Long and Mel Moore, now joined with other presidents of new Amalgamated lodges to launch a second effort to unionize steel. On March 25, 1934, 257 delegates from 50 of the newly formed lodges met in Pittsburgh to plan strategy for the Amalgamated convention the following month.13 First among equals was Clarence Irwin, president of the Amalgamated lodge at the Brier Hill works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Youngstown, Ohio, and of the Sixth District of the Amalgamated, which included Youngstown, Canton-Masillon-Mansfield, and Cleveland.
Irwin is dead now, but Robert R. R. Brooks of Yale University interviewed him in the late 1930s, and further information can be gleaned from a scrapbook in the possession of his wife. Irwin was the antithesis of the demagogue usually placed at the head of crowds by historians. In 1934, at the age of 42, he had worked at steel mills in the Mahoning Valley since 1906, and had belonged to the Amalgamated since 1910. He was chairman of the strike committee in his mill during the 1919 steel strike. He was married and had three children. He was a skilled roller and had voted Democratic all his life, except in 1932, when he voted for Norman Thomas.
Irwin describes the other rank-and-file leaders as very much like himself:
Almost all of us were middle-aged family men, well paid, and of Anglo-Saxon origin. Most of us were far better off than the average steelworker and didn’t have much to gain from taking part in the movement except a certain amount of personal prestige. Almost all of us could have done better for ourselves if we had stuck with the companies and not bothered about the rest of the men. But for various reasons we didn’t.
We were sure, he goes on,
that the mass of steelworkers wanted industrial unionism, and so did we. But it wasn’t clear to us until we set out to get it that we would have to fight not only the companies but our own international officers and even the Government. The process of learning was slow and painful, and a lot of us dropped by the way.14
Contrary to John L. Lewis’s subsequent allegations, “All these fellows had a union inheritance of one kind or another.” Long’s father had been a militant in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, and Earl Forbeck’s father had been a Knight of Labor.15 Moreover, the rank-and-file presidents of the new lodges developed the practice of calling together lodge representatives in district conferences. These district meetings had no constitutional standing. They had been used years before for the purpose of informal discussion of common organizational problems, and in the course of time had died out. Now they were revived, at first with the sanction of the national officers, who attended and spoke at many of the conferences. In time more or less permanent officers were chosen for each district.16
The March 25 gathering brought together delegates from lodges all over the country. A general strike was in progress in Toledo; the very day the steelworkers met a national strike in auto had been averted; general strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco were little more than a month in the future. Steelworkers, too, turned to the strike weapon. Delegates decided to take back to their lodges, for proposed presentation to the Amalgamated convention on April 17, the following strategy: All lodges should request recognition from management at the same time; if recognition is denied, a strike date should be set; the Auto Workers, the Mine Workers, and the Railroad Workers should be approached with the idea that these three groups, together with steelworkers, should act together if necessary to gain collective bargaining for any one group. What was envisioned was a national strike, and if need be a national general strike, for union recognition.
The Amalgamated convention adopted this strategy. The convention also adopted resolutions to the effect that the Committee of Ten rank-and-file leaders which had drawn up the strike program should be included in all negotiations arising from it, that no lodge should sign an agreement until all could sign at once, that full-time Amalgamated organizers should be elected rather than appointed, and that the national union should no longer have the power to declare locally initiated strikes unauthorized.17 The new members of the union appeared to have taken it over from the incumbent leadership.
The rank-and-file leaders understandably found this historic opportunity frightening. “Most of us were capable local or district leaders,” Irwin recalls, “but we had very little idea what the national picture was like. . . . We were completely unprepared for a strike. We had no funds, no central leadership, no national organization except the Amalgamated’s officers, and they were opposed to strike action.” Irwin and his co-workers began to look for help.
They turned first to a group of four intellectuals: Heber Blankenhorn, Harold Ruttenberg, Harvey O’Connor, and Stephen Raushenbush. Blankenhorn had edited the Interchurch World Commission report on the 1919 steel strike. He was close to John L. Lewis and Senator Wagner, and later helped to create the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee. Ruttenberg was a student at the University of Pittsburgh doing research on the steel industry, O’Connor a labor journalist who during this period published Mellon’s Millions, and Raushenbush an investigator for the Nye Committee.
Appearing at the 1934 Amalgamated convention with a typewriter, Ruttenberg (and O’Connor) assisted the rank-and-file delegates in “putting together the resolutions they wanted the way they wanted them and getting things going.”18 Thereafter they functioned as a behind-the-scenes leadership group cryptically known (because Blankenhorn in particular was concerned lest his association with the rank and file become public) as “The Big Four.” “Although they had no money and had to work on the q.t.,” remembers Irwin, “[they] gave us something like national leadership. In a way, they were a forerunner of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.”
I believe it is fair to characterize the Big Four (with the partial exception of O’Connor) as Social Democratic intellectuals, in the sense that they had a tendency to rely on publicity and government intervention rather than on the collective power of the workers, and to avoid co-operation with the Communist Party.
But four men with typewriters and connections could not really be the functional equivalent of a SWOC. According to the decisions of the Amalgamated convention, all lodges were to ask for recognition on May 21, and if recognition was refused a strike date was to be set for the middle of June. On May 7 Irwin wrote to Ruttenberg asking if Ruttenberg could get him the addresses of the men who had led the 1933 strike in the captive mines, and of the leaders of the Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union (SMWIU).
The SMWIU was one of the dual unions sponsored by the Communist Party during the so-called Third Period of international Communist strategy.19 It was founded in August 1932 and claimed a membership of 10,000 to 15,000. The SMWIU justly denounced the NRA. It called on working people to rely on their own power rather than on presidential promises, government boards, and so-called labor leaders. By May 1934 it had led local strikes, for instance in Warren, Ohio; East Chicago, Indiana; and Ambridge, Pennsylvania. These had often ended in violent defeat.
After the Warren strike, which resulted in the discharge of many strikers and the departure from the city of an entire community of Finnish steelworkers, the local Communist Party “was convinced of the impossibility to organize independent labor unions in opposition to the old AFL”20 and sought to persuade William Z. Foster and other national Party leaders to abandon dual unionism in steel. The rank-and-file movement in the Amalgamated offered the SMWIU an opportunity to overcome its isolation from the mass of steelworkers. And the SMWIU offered the rank-and-file movement, which had lost its own local strikes at Clairton and Weirton, the national structure and resources so badly needed if a national steel strike were to become a reality.
The difficulty was that in May 1934 the SMWIU had not abandoned the dual unionist line. SMWIU literature urged its members and sympathizers simultaneously to “take the lead in the organization of united committees” to implement the decisions of the convention and to prepare for a strike—and “to build the SMWIU into a powerful organization in their mill.”21 This was a tactic which looked two ways at once. It never has worked, it never will work, and it did not work in the spring of 1934.
Irwin and Ruttenberg arranged a meeting with the SMWIU leadership for May 20. They urged all members of the Committee of Ten and of the Big Four to be there so as “to determine [in Irwin’s words] a central plan of attack, set up a central office with a secretary, determine a uniform method of demanding recognition, find out what help the SMWIU could give us, and discover what the national officers were going to do to bust up our plans.” Three days before the meeting, Irwin wrote to Ruttenberg that the only alliance which should be sought with the SMWIU was cooperation on the conduct of the strike. That cooperation should be basically through local joint committees which would work in unison even against the orders of the Amalgamated national office, Irwin believed.22
Tragically, Irwin was unable to attend the meeting because his wife was seriously ill. He was represented by Ruttenberg, subsequently research director for SWOC, co-author with Clinton Golden of The Dynamics of Industrial Democracy, and steel company executive. Blankenhorn was apparently not at the meeting, but his taped reminiscences make it clear that he was part of the discussion.
There were telegrams to me, and as a matter of fact I was in Pittsburgh when that meeting was held, and talked with Pat Cush [one of the SMWIU leaders] and the SMWIU boys, and tried to get the brass tacks on it, and in front of them I advised the rank-and-filers: “If these boys won’t walk out of here and keep their mouths shut instead of making public pronouncements, you have no choice but simply to say that they came and saw you but you had nothing to do with them. If they have any paid members to deliver, let them deliver them quietly.”
Blankenhorn and Ruttenberg persuaded the rank-and-file leaders not to work with the SMWIU.23
Yet responsibility for the failure of the May 20 meeting falls equally on the SMWIU. In contrast to Irwin’s proposals for cooperation visible at a local level but behind the scenes nationally, “They [the SMWIU] wanted the rank-and-file group and the SMWIU to issue a joint statement from this meeting, a joint call for a joint convention to focus public attention on the issues, and local organizations to issue joint statements and call joint mass meetings. It was perfectly clear that they wanted to formalize the whole affair, and to be sure that the SMWIU was in the limelight as an organization. As soon as they had withdrawn [from the meeting], the rank-and-file group voted thumbs down on the whole proposition. We’d have been smeared immediately as Communists if we had accepted.”
These words from Irwin’s interview with Brooks are perhaps more those of Ruttenberg than those of Irwin, who was not at the meeting.24 But the fact remains that the SMWIU approach counterposed a Left dual union not only to the national structure of the Amalgamated, but also to the independent local lodges that the steelworkers had built for themselves. Then and later the rank-and-filers showed themselves quite able to stand up to Red-baiting, and had the SMWIU not placed so much emphasis on its own organization, I believe united action might have been possible. The fact that (to look ahead) the rank-and-file leaders and the former SMWIU leaders easily established a working relationship the next November, after the SMWIU finally abandoned dual unionism, is strong evidence to this effect.
In May and June, after the failure of the May 20 meeting, things went from bad to worse. On May 22 five of the rank-and-file leaders went to the national office of the Amalgamated and demanded $100,000 from the union to help run the strike, the use of the union’s printing press, and rooms in the union’s building for strike headquarters. They were contemptuously refused. Irwin then proposed to the rest of the Committee of Ten “that we would take over the running of the strike altogether, call upon the lodges for money (my lodge had already put up a hundred dollars), and select a secretary from our own group.” Only two other members of the Committee supported this leap into the unknown. “I was never so disgusted in my life,” Irwin remembers.
At this point the four intellectuals stepped back onto center stage, urging the rank-and-filers to take their campaign to Washington, where they could attract national press attention and hopefully embarrass the president into intervening on their behalf. Desperate, the rank-and-file leaders agreed. They got the publicity, but killed the possibility of a successful strike. As one of them commented after it was all over, “They spent most of their time in Washington in a futile attempt to ‘see Roosevelt.’ This running around after Roosevelt created the impression among the steelworkers that a strike was unnecessary, that Roosevelt would step in at the last minute and help them. . . .”25 The precious weeks which might have been used for local strike preparation were squandered, as the national secretary of the SMWIU rightly observed.26 In the First District of the Amalgamated near Pittsburgh, where more than a thousand steelworkers gathered to support the strike movement on May 27, a meeting a month later, after the strike had collapsed, attracted only 53.27
It now appears that in directing the rank-and-file leaders to Washington, Ruttenberg, Blankenhorn, and Raushenbush acted as agents for John L. Lewis. In interviews conducted by the Pennsylvania State Oral History Project in 1968 and 1969, Ruttenberg stated that a steel strike “did not come off because of the intervention of John Lewis and Philip Murray, who counseled against it for fear that an abortive strike would thwart their contemplated plans to move in and really organize the steel industry.” The UMW had no contact with rank-and-file steelworkers until spring of 1934, Ruttenberg went on. “At that point they began to exercise influence through myself, and they assigned John Brophy from the UMW to be the liaison man.” “Blankenhorn was the one who kept telling John Lewis and Philip Murray that they should get control of the rank-and-file committee and use them as a basis for their unionizing work.” “And so the counsel that I got from Blankenhorn, which I in turn passed on to the steelworkers, was not to strike now because John Lewis was going to come here and have a big organizing campaign that would stand a chance of being successful.” Raushenbush, for his part, “said that we have to show strength among the rank-and-file steelworkers in order to encourage John Lewis to take the risk. . . . And so you had the whole threatened strike and activity to influence John Lewis to come in as well as to influence Congress to pass a National Labor Relations Act.”
Through Ruttenberg, Blankenhorn, and Raushenbush the rank-and-file leaders were brought before Senator Wagner, the sponsor of that act, who “gave them a lecture about not engaging in a premature strike and gave them a lecture that John Lewis was ‘going to come in here and do this job right and don’t you fellows mess it up’.”28 Putting this evidence together with Lewis’s role during the coal and steel strikes of 1933, the hypothesis suggests itself that if Lewis succeeded in 1937 where the rank and file failed in 1934, it was partly because Lewis did his best to make sure that industrial unionism would come to steel only if he controlled it.
Meantime the steel companies had disdainfully refused to recognize the Amalgamated lodges, and the strike date approached. The companies placed large orders for the purchase of arms and, at least in Gary, arranged to house strike breakers in the mills should a strike occur.29 As tension mounted the Amalgamated leadership called a special convention in Pittsburgh for mid-June, the time at which, according to the mandate of the convention, a strike date was to be set if recognition had been refused. Reporters, government mediators, delegates, and a confused group of rank-and-file leaders assembled for the convention.
The strategy of President Roosevelt, of the Amalgamated leadership, and apparently of Ruttenberg and associates and of John L. Lewis, was to have William Green, AFL president, come to the convention and propose yet another government labor board as an alternative to a walkout. Ruttenberg reports on the mood of labor officials and government representatives at the convention: “Social revolution was on hand. Bill Green was their only hope.” Clinton Golden was one of three people who met Green at the train and “coached him as to what to say. He said it.”30 The strike was called off. As the news came over the radio in the bars in Braddock, steelworkers tore up their union cards.31 Ruttenberg also tells us that Irwin got dead drunk and lost the confidence of many delegates, a situation for which Ruttenberg appears to feel he had no responsibility.
There was to be one more effort at unionization by the rank and file, in 1935. During the summer of 1934, Irwin “tried to keep the rank-and-file movement together by supporting the rank-and-file slate of officers that was running in the Amalgamated’s fall referendum.” In the October 1934 convention of the AFL a resolution was passed urging the AFL executive council to take action in organizing steel. Meanwhile the government board created in June to head off the threatened walkout had done nothing. “Production was picking up,” Irwin remembers, “and the steelworkers were stirring again.”
More important than any of these events was the fact that—six months too late—the Communist Party abandoned dual unionism. SMWIU chapters dissolved so that their members could join the Amalgamated. According to Irwin, in November 1934 rank-and-filers and SMWIU finally got together. Money became available for steelworkers to travel to conferences,32 and a series of meetings began to heat up the idea of a national strike again. But whereas in the spring of 1934 the Communist Party wanted a steel strike only if the SMWIU could publicly help to lead it, in the spring of 1935 the Communist Party wanted a strike only if expulsion from the Amalgamated could be avoided. Remaining part of the organization they had previously scorned became the primary goal of Party members in steel.
These forces came to a head at a meeting of 400 rank-and-file steelworkers and 100 rank-and-file miners in Pittsburgh February 3, 1935. Our four intellectual friends played their by now familiar role. Ruttenberg wrote to Irwin before the conference warning him of Communist influence, and O’Connor wrote to Irwin after the conference, acting as an intermediary for an unnamed third party in Washington, to urge the rank and file not to act by itself but to consider cooperation with a committee on the AFL executive council to organize steel.33
Lewis, too, played a predictable part. Just as Michael Tighe, president of the Amalgamated, threatened to expel from the Amalgamated any steelworkers who attended the February 3 meeting, so Pat Fagan, district director of the UMW, issued similar warnings to dissident miners. After the meeting both men carried out their threats, Fagan stating: “You can’t be a member of the UMW and be affiliated with a Red group. That meeting was absolutely Red. Those fellows don’t believe in authority or law and order or anything else. They’re an asinine crowd of parlor bolshevists!”34 This is the same Pat Fagan who in April 1936 led a delegation of the Pennsylvania AFL state convention to the national Amalgamated convention nearby, and proposed that the Amalgamated accept $500,000 from John L. Lewis and work with him to organize steel.
Ruttenberg, Tighe, and Fagan notwithstanding, the gathering of rank-and-file steelworkers and miners took place as scheduled. It was an extraordinary occasion. Mr. and Mrs. Irwin, Bill Spang, Mel Moore, Roy Hallas, Cecil Allen, and Lew Morris represented the rank-and-file leadership in the Amalgamated. Present on behalf of the rank-and-file miners was Martin Ryan, leader of the 1933 strike in the captive mines. The lesson of 1933–1934 had been learned. A resolution was adopted that “the steelworkers know from their own experience that they can secure no help in their struggles from the labor boards or other Federal agencies, but that their only defense . . . is the power of their own organization, exercised by the calling of strikes if and when necessary.”
This time, organization was not left to afterthought. A committee was named to open headquarters in Pittsburgh. Local finance committees were to be pressed into service at once. Most remarkable, in view of subsequent history, were speeches by Martin Ryan and (according to the press) numerous other speakers equally denouncing Michael Tighe and John L. Lewis. The one had betrayed the steelworkers and the other had betrayed the miners, according to the prevailing sentiment at this meeting. “Lewis and Tighe have crucified you for years,” declared Ryan, “and will continue to do so until you demand and get their resignation and removal.”35
Why did these rank-and-file steelworkers and miners fail to press on toward a national organizing campaign? This time around, the Amalgamated leadership were not going to permit their national convention to be captured and used to legitimize a rebel movement. Within days of the February 3 meeting Tighe expelled the lodges represented there. What was critical was the rank and file’s response to the expulsions. Here the Communist Party, with its newfound concern for labor unity, and John L. Lewis, jockeying in Washington for passage of the Wagner Act and Guffey Act, again had determining influence.
The expelled lodges represented the overwhelming majority of the Amalgamated membership.36 They might simply have declared that they were the Amalgamated, or reorganized as federal unions directly affiliated with the AFL, and in either case proceeded to organize steel. It appears that many members of the rank-and-file movement—the rank and file of the rank and file, so to speak—wanted to do this. O’Connor reports that at the February 3 meeting “some difficulty was experienced in stemming the apparently powerful sentiment of many delegates . . . that an independent union should be started now.”37
An independent union was exactly what the Communist Party had been trying to build the year before, but now no longer desired. The resources which might have financed an organizing drive were used instead to campaign for reinstatement in the Amalgamated. The National Organizing Committee set up by the February 3 meeting distributed 50,000 leaflets in April calling for “Unity For All Steel Workers.” “Our program,” the leaflet stated, “is the restoration of unity in the union and the organization of the unorganized steel workers.”38 Lawsuits followed to compel Tighe to reinstate the expelled lodges. These were successful, and on August 1, 1935 it was announced that unity had been restored. In the meantime, however, another strike threat had swelled up and been dissipated, with the result that the Amalgamated, to which the expellees won reinstatement in midsummer 1935, had by then been reduced to the empty shell it was two years before.
In dissipating the strike threat of 1935, Lewis’s misleadership augmented the misleadership of the Communist Party. Early in March a meeting to implement the February 3 decisions was held in Weirton, attended by steelworkers from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Conference speeches, the Federated Press reported, showed great sentiment for a strike in steel. Clarence Irwin declared that “The kind of union we are going to have will not depend on courts, but on organization and the picket line.”
Later that month William Spang, president of District 1 of the Amalgamated, tied a steel strike to a strike of 400,000 soft-coal miners threatened for April 1. “Rank-and-file committees of steel workers and coal miners have been meeting to set up plans to strike April 1. If the United Mine Workers of America does not get a new contract, both unions will join in united strike action,” Spang said. He added: “We have decided to disregard all arbitration boards. . . . There is only one way we can win our demands—by an industry-wide strike. That’s just what we’re building up for now.”39
But there was no coal strike April 1. On the eve of the miners’ walkout, John L. Lewis postponed action till June 16 “out of consideration of the President of the United States and the National Industrial Recovery Board.”40 On Memorial Day 1935, just two years before the Memorial Day strike sacred in CIO annals, the steel strike almost happened from below.
What at first seemed to the Federated Press “the long-expected clash in the steel industry” began in Canton, Ohio. “Rank-and-file leaders led it; not one union-paid official had a directing hand in it,” Ruttenberg wrote. The strike began at the Berger Manufacturing Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Republic Steel employing 450 persons. An AFL federal union at the plant struck to enforce a government finding that the company was refusing to bargain collectively. Two-hundred-fifty thugs attacked the strikers with tear gas and lead pipes. One striker, Charles Minor, had the side of his face torn off, and in all 14 persons were hospitalized. As so often in those years, this picket-line brutality triggered a general strike. Within 24 hours 4,000 Republic Steel employees in the Canton area had walked out in protest, led by Lewis Morris, one of the Committee of Ten of 1934.
Two other members of the Committee from nearby communities, Mel Moore from Weirton and Clarence Irwin from Youngstown, apparently tried to call a national strike. On May 29 they asked “all Republic mills to send delegates to Canton to formulate plans for spreading the strike nationally.” On May 31 “The Central Strike Committee (in Canton) issued a call for support from all lodges of the Amalgamated.” The only response, or parallel action, which has come to light was by Bill Spang’s Fort Dukane Lodge in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. There a strike at the U.S. Steel mill was called for 3 P.M. May 31, but short-circuited when Spang and other officers of the lodge were arrested for parading without a permit. Meanwhile in Canton an attempt to spread the strike to neighboring Masillon collapsed when non-union employees flooded the Amalgamated lodge meeting and voted not to go out. County and city police broke up the Canton picket lines, and the men started back to the mills.41
Once more the rank and file looked to the UMW. “Following Spang’s release, the Fort Dukane Lodge decided at a mass meeting to issue a call to other lodges to ‘strike all Carnegie Steel Company [U.S. Steel] mills June 16,’ the date set by the United Mine Workers of America for its strike in the bituminous fields.” But Lewis postponed this strike too. On June 14 he promised President Roosevelt not to strike till June 30 so that Congress could act on the Guffey bill. On July 1 the coal strike was postponed for a third time, and on July 29 for a fourth. Meanwhile on July 5 the Wagner Act became law, and late in August the Guffey Act, setting up NRA-like machinery for the coal industry, finally made it through both houses of Congress.42
Two philosophies of industrial union organization expressed themselves in these events. Lewis’s approach stressed governmental intervention so as to make possible a “responsible” unionism which would avoid strikes. As Len DeCaux summarized it at the time, Lewis and a number of other union officials told the Senate Education and Labor Committee considering the Wagner Act: “Allow the workers to organize, establish strong governmental machinery for dealing with labor questions, and industrial peace will result.” DeCaux noted that some employers favored this approach, and that the expectation in Washington of international war made its adoption more likely.43
The second approach relied on strike action, and insisted on writing the right to strike into any labor-management contract which resulted. No one can prove that a national steel strike in 1934 or 1935 would have been any more successful than the defeated national steel strike of 1919. Yet it was Blankenhorn’s retrospective judgment that “without even the pretense of Amalgamated leadership” the rank-and-file movement would have involved 75,000 to 150,000 steelworkers in a national strike; and O’Connor argued at the time that any strike in steel was likely to reach a climax within a few weeks, because the Government could not allow it to continue “in view of the restiveness of workers in the auto industry and other industries.”44
Seeking proof in the experience of SWOC, one can argue that the Little Steel strike of 1937 shows what would have happened had steelworkers struck in 1934 or 1935. One can also argue that SWOC would never have gotten its contract with U.S. Steel in March 1937 had auto workers for General Motors not been willing to strike and occupy their plants just previously.
The trade-union line of the Communist Party after mid-1934 dovetailed neatly with the approach of John L. Lewis. The Party maneuvered brilliantly within the skeleton Amalgamated to have Lewis offer $500,000 to the Amalgamated for a steel drive, with the understanding that the money would be administered by Lewis, and to have the Amalgamated accept that offer.45 When SWOC was formed, the Party made available 60 organizers.46 The rank-and-file dream passed into the hands of Lewis in the bastardized form of an organizing committee none of whose national or regional officers were steelworkers, an organizing committee so centralized that it paid even local phone bills from a national office, an organizing committee, in DeCaux’s words, “as totalitarian as any big business.”47
It could have been otherwise. The critical weakness of the rank and file was its inability to organize on a national scale. Had the Communist Party thrown its organizers, its connections, and its access to media, lawyers, and money in a different direction, there might have come about an industrial unionism not only more militant and more internally democratic, but also more independent politically.
Coming about as it did, industrial unionism in steel lacked any thrust toward independent political action. By 1935 the rank-and-file leaders had lost confidence in the “National Run Around” and, to a considerable degree, in President Roosevelt. Experience daily brought more and more workers to the position that “we are through forever with Washington” (Mel Moore), “we’re through with weak-kneed appeals to government boards” (Clarence Irwin).48 They were prepared to defy the national government through strike action and to seek parallel strike action from workers in other industries. In effect they wanted to duplicate Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco on a national scale. And despite Roosevelt’s genius in letting local Democrats take the onus of state action against striking workers, a national steel strike might have brought steelworkers into collision with Roosevelt just as a national rail strike had brought Debs into collision with Cleveland in 1894.
Even as it was, there were indications of support among steelworkers for independent political action. In 1935, along with many other unions in that extraordinary year, the Fort Dukane and South Chicago lodges of the Amalgamated passed resolutions for (in the South Chicago wording) an “anti-capitalist Labor Party.”49 In 1936, Clarence Irwin stated that “I am in favor of a real Labor Party with no connection with any of the existing parties.” The last clipping in his scrapbook describes a 1939 regional SWOC meeting which passed a motion stating: “Whereas labor’s experience in the political field has been anything but satisfactory, therefore be it resolved that our ultimate goal be the fostering of a third party called the Labor Party.”50 Given the existence of this sentiment, at the very least it should have been possible to organize local labor parties which, after the death of Roosevelt in 1945, could have joined to form a deeply rooted national third party.
But industrial unionism came to steel and to the CIO generally under the auspices of a longtime Republican who at no point favored a third party, and of a national radical party which, by mid-1936, was uncritically supporting the incumbent Democratic President. The new industrial unions lost little time espousing the political company unionism of the two-party system.
*Reprinted from Vol. 6, No. 6 (November–December 1972).
This essay brings together material some of which was initially presented in “Guerrilla History in Gary,” Liberation, Oct. 1969; “What Happened to the Militancy of the CIO? Some Rank-and-File Views,” a paper read at the American Historical Association meeting, Dec. 1970; and “Personal Histories of the Early CIO,” Radical America 5, no. 3 (May–June 1971), reprinted as a pamphlet by the New England Free Press. A collection of the interviews which are the basis of this work will be published by Beacon Press in 1973 under the title Rank and File: Personal Accounts of Working-Class Organizing, edited by Alice and Staughton Lynd. I should like to thank Professor Carroll Moody of Northern Illinois University for his remarkable scholarly generosity during my work on rank-and-file movements in steel. He permitted me to examine not only a first draft of a study on the rank-and-file movement in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, but the notes on which that study is based. I have made clear in the notes those few cases in which a statement in the present essay is made on the authority of Professor Moody’s research. In general, however, this research makes it possible for me to advance more confidently conclusions which I had reached independently on the basis of personal recollections of steelworkers and of documents they had saved.
1. C. Wright Mills, The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders (New York, 1948), p. 224.
2. Mark Naison, “The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the CIO,” Radical America 2, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1968): 53. The present essay attempts to carry a step further the argument of Naison’s splendid article.
3. Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York, 1972), chap. 4.
4. Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (San Francisco, 1972), chap. 5 et passim.
5. Staughton Lynd, “Prospects for the New Left,” Liberation, Winter 1971, p. 20.
6. Carroll Daugherty, Melvin de Chazeau, and Samuel Stratton, after stating, “What the actual membership strength of the Association was at different times under the Steel Code—how much the total number of fully paid-up and partially paid-up members came to—apparently no one knows,” estimate the total membership in February 1934 at 50,000. The Economics of the Iron and Steel Industry (New York and London, 1937), vol. 2, p. 947 n. Vincent D. Sweeney, a Pittsburgh reporter in the early thirties and later public-relations director for SWOC (which would have had no reason to exaggerate the achievements of the Amalgamated), states: “No official figure of the growth of the union in that campaign has ever been made public. The peak was probably around 200,000.” The United Steelworkers of America Twenty Years Later, 1936–1956 (n.p., n.d.), p. 7. The rank-and-file leaders claimed 150,000 signed up as of April 1934. Harvey O’Connor, Federated Press dispatch April 30, 1934, Columbia University.
7. Harvey O’Connor, quoted in Staughton Lynd, “Personal Histories of the Early CIO,” Radical America 5 (May–June 1971): 52–55.
8. My authority for this statement is a novel written by a steelworker which very closely follows the events of the 1930s and includes extracts from the minutes of the company union at the Edgar Thompson Works. Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace (New York, 1950), p. 290.
9. Walter Galenson, The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935–1941 (Cambridge, 1960), p. 75.
10. Ibid., p. 94.
11. David J. McDonald, Union Man (New York, 1969), p. 93ff.
12. This account of the captive mine strike of 1933 is based on: almost-daily dispatches of reporters for the Federated Press, July–Dec. 1933; Harvey O’Connor, Steel—Dictator (New York, 1935), chap. 14; Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941 (Boston, 1971), pp. 49–61; and Muriel Sheppard, Cloud by Day: The Story of Coal and Coke and People (Chapel Hill, 1947), chap. 10.
13. Harold Ruttenberg, “Steel Labor, the NIRA, and the Amalgamated Association,” a detailed narrative of the rank-and-file movement of 1934 (Ruttenberg Papers, Pennsylvania State University). Unless otherwise indicated, statements about the 1934 movement are based on this source.
14. Robert R. R. Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . : Unionism in a Basic Industry (New Haven, 1940), chap. 3. This is an extraordinary interview, but must be used with care. Brooks interviewed Clarence Irwin, for Mrs. Irwin remembers the occasion. But the text of the so-called interview as published in As Steel Goes . . . draws on several sources, including Ruttenberg’s narrative, as Brooks explicitly acknowledges. (See his footnote on p. 262.)
15. Interview with Heber Blankenhorn, Columbia University Oral History Project, pp. 437a and 438a. According to the minutes of the AFL executive council meeting of February 12, 1935, Lewis told this body: “You have to utilize the services of these young men in the steel industry. They have no training, no background in trade unionism, no experience in the labor movement.” Professor Carroll Moody kindly called this statement to my attention.
16. Daugherty and associates, Economics of the Iron and Steel Industry, vol. 2, p. 959n.
17. The rank and file in the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO, have repeatedly attempted to modify the USWA constitution in these same three ways—referendum vote on new contracts, election of staff men, local right to strike—and repeatedly failed.
18. O’Connor, “Personal Histories of the Early CIO.”
19. This account of the SMWIU is based on Horace B. Davis, Labor and Steel (New York, 1933), especially pp. 257–258 and 264, and on interviews with three SMWIU organizers.
20. Address by Leon Callow, former SMWIU organizer in Youngstown, at Youngstwn State University, April 14, 1972.
21. SMWIU “Steel Workers! Organize and Prepare to Strike!” leaflet, O’Connor Papers, Wayne State University, n.d. (May or early June 1934). Professor Carroll Moody kindly made this document available to me.
22. Clarence Irwin to Harold Ruttenberg, May 17, 1934, Exhibit 10 attached to Ruttenberg’s narrative.
23. Interview with Heber Blankenhorn, Columbia University Oral History Project, p. 444a. In Daugherty and associates, Economics of the Iron and Steel Industry, vol. 2, p. 1059, the statement is made that one or more of the Big Four persuaded the rank-and-file leaders to “turn down united-front offer from Leftwing Steel and Metal Workers” on May 20. Since Ruttenberg was a student of Daugherty’s and did research for this study, we can be sure that this statement reflects Ruttenberg’s views.
24. The quoted words are identical to words which Ruttenberg, in his narrative, has himself saying to Forbeck: “Number 3 (Ruttenberg) told Forbeck that they wanted to institutionalize the whole affair,” and so forth.
25. Cecil Allen, open letter to “Fellow Steel Workers” (undated, but around July 1, 1934), Exhibit 34 attached to Ruttenberg’s narrative. The Weirton leaders had been to Washington prior to May 1934 to testify in their own behalf before the National Labor Board. As early as April, Bill Spang stated: “We’re tired of sending delegations to Washington and of the endless run-around we get there.” Federated Press dispatch, April 18, 1934.
26. Statement by James Egan to Harold Ruttenberg on June 5, 1934, Ruttenberg narrative, p. 23. On the same day an SMWIU delegation in Washington stated this criticism to the press. Federated Press dispatch, June 5, 1934.
27. Harold Ruttenberg to George Soule, July 6, 1934, Ruttenberg Papers.
28. Arthur S. Weinberg interview with Ruttenberg, May 12, 1968, and Don Kennedy interview with Ruttenberg, April 24, 1969, Pennsylvania State Oral History Project.
29. The statement about strike breakers is made on the basis of an interview with John Morris, March 30, 1972. He was hired by the Calumet Protective Association at its office on the fifth floor of the Hotel Gary, issued a uniform and a gun, and housed in the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Mill in East Chicago, Indiana, for three days before the Amalgamated special convention in mid-June 1934.
30. Harold Ruttenberg: “The Special Convention. . . .” Professor Carroll Moody kindly made this document available to me.
31. Bell, Out of This Furnace, pp. 323–324.
32. Clarence Irwin to “Dear Brother,” Nov. 19, 1934, NSLRB files. This was an invitation to the secret meeting of representatives from several districts of the Amalgamated with SMWIU representatives in Cleveland on November 25. Professor Carroll Moody kindly made this document available to me.
33. Clarence Irwin to Harold Ruttenberg, Jan. 23, 1935, Ruttenberg Papers, and Harvey O’Connor to Clarence Irwin, Feb. 12, 1935, O’Connor Papers. Professor Carroll Moody kindly made the latter document available to me.
34. Youngstown Vindicator, Feb. 8, 1935, Irwin scrapbook.
35. Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Feb. 4, 1935, Ruttenberg Papers.
36. Prior to the Amalgamated convention of 1935, the rank and file asserted that they represented between 75,000 and 90,000 expelled members. At the convention a careful check was made and the figure scaled down to 50,000. Federated Press dispatches, March 28 and April 2, 29, and 30, 1935.
37. Federated Press dispatch, Feb. 5, 1935.
38. Daily Worker, April 15, 1935. Professor Carroll Moody kindly made this document available to me.
39. Federated Press dispatch, March 28, 1935.
40. Federated Press dispatches, April 1 and 2, 1935.
41. Harold Ruttenberg, “A Rank-and-File Strike,” Ruttenberg Papers; Federated Press dispatches, May 29 and 31 and June 3, 4, and 5, 1935. Clarence Irwin was fired as a result of this strike and thenceforth worked full time, first for the rank-and-file movement and then for SWOC. Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . , p. 70.
42. Federated Press dispatches, June 3 and 14; July 1, 5, and 29; and August 22, 1935.
43. Federated Press dispatch, April 2, 1935.
44. Interview with Heber Blankenhorn, Columbia University Oral History Project, p. 475a; Federated Press dispatches, April 19 and May 4, 1934.
45. A group of rank-and-file steelworkers confronted Lewis when he spoke at Greensburg, Pennsylvania, April 1, 1936 and demanded that he make good on his rhetoric about organizing steel. Lewis invited a committee of three to meet with himself and the CIO executive committee in Washington the next week. The result was the decision to offer $500,000 to the Amalgamated convention meeting in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on April 28. There are three accounts of the April 1 encounter: by Irwin, in Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . , pp. 71–72; by Albert Atallah, in an interview with Alice Hoffman, Sept. 20, 1967, Pennsylvania State Oral History Project; and by George Powers, in Monongahela Valley: Cradle of Steel Unionism (East Chicago, Ind., 1972). My statement about the connection of the Communist Party with this event is based on an interview with a participant.
46. “Foster, who should know, wrote later that 60 of the first organizers hired by SWOC were members of the Communist Party.” Len DeCaux, Labor Radical: From the Wobblies to CIO (Boston, 1971), p. 279.
47. Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . , pp. 157 and 177, and DeCaux, Labor Radical, p. 280.
48. Statements made to Harvey O’Connor at the February 3, 1935, meeting. Federated Press dispatch, Feb. 5, 1935.
49. Daily Worker, March 2 and July 24, 1935. Professor Carroll Moody kindly made these documents available to me.
50. Press clippings, March 31, 1936 and May 21, 1939, Irwin scrapbook.