History Repeats Itself

It has been said that if we don't learn from history we are bound to repeat it. During my extensive study of labor history for my book "Miner Injustice the Ragman's War" and the sequel "Wildcat Strike" I have found this to be true especially with the struggle to establish a workers union. On this page I will relate current events to conditions during the labor movement of the 1920's and 1930's.

Name:

I am the author of "Bucket of Blood the Ragman's War" , "Miner Injustice", and presently working on "Wildcat Strike, Building A Union". I am the daughter of a coal miner, union organizer, and early civil rights activist. A graduate of Thiel College, I live in the mountains of rural Virginia with my husband, two golden retrievers, and bossy cat.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Big Steel Crushes 1927 Union Strike

Republic Iron and Steel declared war on the United Mine Workers in response to a massive strike called by John L. Lewis, April 1, 1927, in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania. Republic vowed to use “any means possible” to end the walkout, according to R. S. Sukle, author of Miner Injustice the Ragman’s War.

According to Sukle, the 1927 Strike involved over 200,000 miners and their families and lasted almost 15 months. Big Steel—Republic and the even larger US Steel—controlled the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrant families, whose men labored long hours in the mills and mines under unsafe conditions for little or no wages.

Republic, headquartered in Youngstown, held tight rein on its workers not only in the Youngstown and Pittsburgh mills, but also, in the Pennsylvania mining towns that provided coal to fuel the furnaces. To maintain control, Republic, along with other leaders in steel, rail, and coal, paid for the elections of public officials on the local, state, and national level.

Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover were elected to maintain the “status quo” of prosperity during the Roaring Twenties, a prosperity fed by high profits accomplished through low wages and serfdom conditions. The workers lived in company houses, shopped at company stores, and purchased tools from the company, all at inflated prices. The government, in collusion with Big Industry, did its part to keep the workers in their place.

Republic Iron and Steel owned the town of Russellton, located in the coalfields north of Pittsburgh. Russellton, a captive mine, shipped all its coal by rail to the Republic furnaces. During the 1927 Strike, Russellton was the first town to face evictions. Republic paid for an army of State Coal and Iron Police—appointed by the governor but on Republic’s payroll—to quickly end the strike. Republic wanted to make an example of Russellton, to break the strike and keep it from spreading from the mines to the mills.

Coal and Iron Police seized the striker’s household goods to be sold at auction, evicted the families from their homes, and imposed unconstitutional restrictions—beatings, rape, and murder. The mine families were left with nothing. They lived for over a year in crowded, unheated barracks that offered little protection from the elements. Some lived in tents. Garden produce stored for winter was destroyed by company agents. Water obtained from nearby creeks, was polluted with mine drainage. No sanitation facilities were available. Transportation in or out of town was controlled by company security guards. The immigrant miners had to stay and endure because there was no other place for them to go.

Relief, in the form of food, blankets, and clothing, promised by John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, was too little, too late. It was only after the communist led Pennsylvania and Ohio Relief organization had been in the area to distribute basic supplies that union help arrived. The rich folk in Pittsburgh and other nearby river towns looked the other way. The industrialist controlled governments on the State and Federal levels assisted to starve the miners back to work. The families had no place else to turn to for help except each other, yet they survived.

The horrid conditions of the 1927 strike prompted a Federal investigation that resulted in the first draft of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Proposed to Congress in the summer of 1928, it failed. By autumn the strike had ended. District 5 of United Mine Workers was left in shambles. The Russellton miners went back to work for whatever wages were offered. The last holdouts in the barracks were escorted out of town. Those who still resisted disappeared into the slag dumps. Republic Iron and Steel and the Industrial Alliance had won.

Republic would remain free from the union threat until 1933 when the NIRA finally did pass after Roosevelt took office, but that’s another story. Those years will be covered in the squeal, “Wildcat Strike,” currently being written.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Survival When All Is Taken Away

During the Pennsylvania coal strike of 1927 an estimated 200,000 people had their property seized and sold at auction and were forcibly evicted from their homes. The mine families were left with nothing. They lived for over a year in crowded, unheated union barracks that offered little protection from the elements. Some lived in tents. The garden produce stored for winter was destroyed by company agents. Water was obtained from nearby creeks, polluted with mine drainage, and no sanitation facilities were provided. The immigrant miners had to stay and endure because there was no other place for them to go. Coal and Iron police made their lives a living hell.

Relief in the form of food, blankets, and clothing promised by John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, was too little, too late, and too sporadic. Those rich enough to help looked the other way. The industrialist controlled governments on the State and Federal levels assisted to starve the miners back to work. The families had no place to turn to for help except each other, yet they survived.
Miner Injustice the Ragman’s War by R. S. Sukle is the story of that survival.

The Price of Social Security—Blood, Death, and Tears

It is brittle, faded, and dark from age. Once laminated for preservation, after years of wallet wear, the plastic is brittle and flaked away. My father carried it with him for 50 years until he died—the document was that cherished. It was his original social security card, one of the first issued after the Social Security Act was signed into law.
My mother had sent for a new card to replace the washed out original. Pap refused to carry it and filed it away. I once asked him why. “We worked hard for this card,” he replied. “The price paid for it was blood, death, and tears.” He then explained to me what life was like for the worker when there was no “official” union, labor laws, or social security. The workers were at the mercy of the company. They had to work long hours under unsafe conditions. If they didn’t have a relative to move in with when they grew old, they worked until they dropped dead on the job or starved.
Pap was a union organizer for the United Mineworkers of America. He started his career by finding relief for striking miners and their families during the 1927 strike in the Western Pennsylvania coalfields. The strike involved almost 200 thousand miners, tired of being slaves of the coal company, who refused to work. It lasted approximately 15 months. State Coal and Iron Police brought into the area to evict the families from their homes, imposed unconstitutional restrictions, seized their property, and put them out of their homes. It was a time of brutal beatings, rape, and murder. The story is documented in the book, Bucket of Blood the Ragman’s War.
The horrid conditions in the coalfields prompted a Federal investigation that resulted in the draft of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Proposed to congress in 1928 it failed. By fall the strike had ended and the union was in shambles. The miners went back to work for whatever wages were offered. Times were hard. Deductions from the workers meager wages barely covered rent and tools let alone food.
The NIRA did not pass until after Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933. It became the centerpiece of his “New Deal.” Before the ink was dry on the new recovery act, members of the UMWA started to organize the mines. Although unions were now legal, the coal companies did everything within their power to stop the movement. It was a dangerous time for union organizers and many lost their lives. The steel, coal, and rail industry even attacked the National Industrial Recovery Act through the court system. In 1935 the NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In a counter move the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) was enacted by Congress that same year. The Wagner Act guaranteed workers the right to join unions without fear of management reprisal. It created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce this right and prohibit employers from committing unfair labor practices that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.
In 1933 soon after he was elected, President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, the first woman in American history to hold a Cabinet post. She moved to Washington, “to serve God, FDR, and the common workingmen.”
Labor now had a sympathetic ear in a high office. Supporters of old age insurance, many like my father, expanded their efforts into organizing a grass roots letter writing campaign. Thousands of letters poured into the President’s office pleading for help. Union activists also collected signatures on petitions that supported the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan as proposed by Francis Townsend.
On June 29, 1934, Roosevelt established the Committee on Economic Security and gave it responsibility for designing social security for the United States. The resulting Social Security Act, revised by both the Congress and the Senate, was signed into Law on August 14, 1935.
The newly enacted Social Security Act faced two challenges. The first was the 1936 Presidential election. Republican candidate Alf Landon, advocated repealing the Social Security Act. The Hearst newspaper chain attacked the law with front-page articles based on gross distortions. The second challenge came from the Supreme Court. Resolute to restrain the biased Court packed by his predecessors, Roosevelt requested that Congress enact a bill that would empower him to appoint one additional Justice for every one who turned 70 and did not retire, for a maximum of six, thus enlarging the Supreme Court from nine Justices to up to fifteen.
With a Court docket that included, in addition to the Social Security Act, the popular pro-labor Wagner Act, the Court had a thorny dilemma. Most of the Justices, loyal still to industrialist interests, were opposed. On the other hand, if they voided them, Congress would most likely enact Roosevelt’s Court packing proposal. After weighing the options, the Court decided to uphold both the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act.
The gains in fair labor laws and social security were hard won. The leaders in labor and government have their place in history, but their triumphs would not have been possible without the efforts of the common working man. Today we enjoy the benefits of their labors. They and their families paid the ultimate price of human suffering and sacrifice—“blood and tears,” to quote my father. No wonder he was so proud of that yellowed dog-eared card.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Northern Slavery

I would like to comment on W. B. Spillman’s November 16th letter to the Roanoke Times; The South has risen again; so should slavery. Spillman points out that the map of blue and red states reflects that the south won the Civil War. With that victory Spillman proposes the ludicrous, sardonic idea that since slavery is one of the core values in the South that the concept should return.

I would like to ask W. B. Spillman to review history. Slavery wasn’t exclusive to the South. Pennsylvania, a blue northern state, retained a form of slavery well into the Twentieth Century during the Coolidge prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was controlled by rich industrialists.

The world ran on coal much like it does on oil today, the price per tonnage had to remain low so profits could be made by the mine owners, steel mills, and railroads. This was done by the exploitation of immigrant miners who were enslaved in a system of servitude—isolated and totally dependant on the company. Often, after a week of back-breaking, wet, dirty, and dangerous labor in a dark, dusty workplace under the earth, the miner would end up owing money to his boss.

In 1927, 150,000 Pennsylvania coal miners refused to work. An army of Coal and Iron Police seized their property, evicted them from their homes, and imposed unconstitutional restrictions. Solidarity was survival, since there was no where else to turn but each other. The events of the strike were censored from history. BUCKET OF BLOOD THE RAGMAN’S WAR, tells the story. I suggest he read the it, especially the actual news articles that introduce each chapter.