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Why the Great Steel Strike of 1919 Was One of Labor’s Biggest Failures

September 23, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Mike Connolly had a dream: an eight-hour day. A Pennsylvania steel worker for 41 years, he toiled for 12 or more hours a day behind the locked doors of a steel mill with no days off and little hope for the future.

If he worked eight hours a day, he imagined, “I could have a garden, a couple of hundred chickens and know my family…This way one doesn’t want to live long. What is the use of living, since one doesn’t enjoy life?”

Connolly was not alone in his dream. In 1919, hundreds of thousands of workers like him walked off their job in steel mills all around the country. Their strike hampered one of the nation’s largest industries, taking over 365,000 workers off the job and onto the picket lines.

But though the strike was a bold move in a moment of social foment, it was destined to become one of labor history’s most crushing defeats. For workers like Connolly, the Great Strike of 1919 was a huge bust.

A large crowd of workers outside the US Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana, 1919 during the nationwide steel strike.

At the time, inflation was rampant and social tensions flared. World War I had stoked nationalism, and in October 1917 Bolsheviks had taken over the Russian government and installed a socialist state. This alarmed Americans who worried that socialists in the U.S. might try to violently overthrow the government or seize private businesses.

For many, those fears focused on unionized workers. During World War I, labor had become a crucial part of the war effort, but materials shortages and the draft threatened the nation’s ability to keep up with its labor needs. Tensions ran high between workers and employers. If the United States wanted to win the war, it had to smooth over those disputes.

In response, representatives from labor unions, the government and industrial employers banded together to form the War Labor Board, an entity designed to fend off strikes and mediate in labor disputes. The board brokered a critical deal: Employers promised to improve labor conditions and recognize unions in exchange for a moratorium on strikes. In response, union membership surged.

It was the first time the government had ever protected labor unions, and workers learned to love their improved working conditions. People who had toiled nearly all day long now worked for just eight hours; …read more


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