Yesterday was the centennial of the most violent day in a strike of immigrant workers in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. In the Summer of 1909, about 6,000 workers struck against the Pressed Steel Car Company, an affiliate of Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel Company. The workers were mostly from southern and eastern Europe and spoke 16 different languages. The strike was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the wobblies, who were just making their presence felt in the east, after growing up in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada.
(Strikers meeting at McKees Rocks, PA, August 5th, 1909)
The strike looked like a lot of other strikes of the era. The workers faced dangerous conditions and arbitrarily changing wages. They lived in the company's houses and owed money to the company's store. So when they walked off the job, they were kicked out of their homes. Then the workers faced not just the company's hired guns and scabs, but also the mounted Pennsylvania State Constabulary, "the Cossacks," who had strike busting down to a skull-cracking science.
But a couple of things made this strike unique. First, the wobblies fought back when they were attacked. When the first worker was shot and killed by a Cossack, the strike committee sent a message to the Constabulary commander, saying that they would take a life for a life, that they would kill one Cossack for every murdered striker. And indeed after a couple months of low-level violence, the Cossacks and workers clashed in a pitched battle that left about a dozen men dead on both sides. That was August 22nd, 1909,"Bloody Sunday." The fact that the strikers fought back meant that the Cossacks were pushed from the streets, where they could raid gatherings of workers, to the factory yard, where they were limited in their movement. This meant that striking workers could freely assemble. And according to labor historian Louis Adamic, this was a major factor leading to the strike's victory a few days later.
Another interesting thing about this strike was the diversity of the workers. The capitalists of the day were experts at pitting one ethnic group against another. (Has much changed?) If Irish workers struck, the owners brought in Black workers to scab. If the Black workers struck, they brought the now hungry Irish back at a lower wage. And so on, and so on. The prejudice between the two (or more) ethnic groups meant they would rarely unite to improve their jobs. But at McKees Rock, working class solidarity trumped racism. Strike organizers translated the meetings and speeches into 16 languages, and the strike held together.
This is one of the under-acknowledged accomplishments of the early radical labor movement in general and the IWW in particular. Left-wing unionists recognized that workers of all colors had more in common with each other than any of them had with the big capitalists. They also recognized that the capitalists exploited ethnic fault lines to keep workers unorganized. So, 45 years before Brown vs. Board of Education and 55 years before the Civil Rights Act, at a time when many other unions were explicitly appealing to white working-class racism, the wobblies were building interracial unions and winning strikes.
Radical unionists were pioneers of racial equality, while big business sought to fan the flames of racism. The same is true today, 100 years later, although the Left's many victories have shifted the battle lines. I'll give just one example. Right now in California about 95% of farm workers for the big agricultural companies are immigrants, almost all from Mexico, and the vast majority are "illegal" immigrants. Since the workers are off the books, the corporate farms have almost complete control over the workers. It's a free-market dream come true. Many big farms don't even bother providing water for their workers on the hottest days, which means farm workers often die of heat. Meanwhile, news media companies and conservative think tanks stoke white working-class resentment of "the illegals" who are "stealing" our jobs and draining money from our public services. As long as the white working class views the Mexican immigrant workers as enemies, the big farms can continue to treat them like slaves. And once again the Left, including the United Farm Workers union, is calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would recognize the rights of immigrant workers and provide a path to citizenship. It's the same story in 2009 as it was in 1909, just with different actors on a different stage. Now as then, we could use some of that wobbly spirit.
Back at McKees Rocks, a historical marker was unveiled yesterday, the centennial of "Bloody Sunday," commemorating the workers of the Pressed Steel Car Company and their company town of Presston. An ecumenical service at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church honored those who died in the workers' struggle. Then there was a march from the church, past the old factory site, to the marker unveiling. The march was joined by members of the Pittsburgh IWW.
Sources for this post:
Blood on the Rocks, by Charles McCollester
Dynamite! The Story of Class Violence in America, by Louis Adamic
Industrial Workers of the World website