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.

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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.

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