Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Today in Labor History

Congress OKs the Contract Labor Law, designed to clamp down on "business agents" who contracted abroad for immigrant labor. One of the reasons unions supported the measure: employers were using foreign workers to fight against the growing U.S. labor movement, primarily by deploying immigrant labor to break strikes - 1885
A coal slag heap doubling as a dam in West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Valley collapsed, flooding the 17-mile long valley. 118 died, 5,000 were left homeless. The Pittston Coal Co. said it was "an act of God" - 1972
A 20-week strike by 70,000 Southern California supermarket workers ends, with both sides claiming victory - 2004
The strike of 1941 was the culmination of years of labor strife between Bethlehem Steel and its industrial work force. Labor disputes at the company were not uncommon even in the 19th century, when it was known as the Bethlehem Iron Co. But they were largely confined to the local area and had little national impact. Also, when police were called out they sympathized with the strikers, many of whom were relatives, and tried to go easy on them.
Bethlehem Steel's stormy history of labor relations began in 1910. Company President
Charles Schwab, declaring, "I will not be in the position of having management dictated to by labor," brought in mounted state police to crush strikers seeking the right to form a union. There was bloodshed and one death. Killed was Hungarian steelworker Joseph Szabo. After a futile struggle of several months' duration, the workers, denied even a hall to meet in, gave up.

In 1919, the workers tried again. But they got even less sympathy from Bethlehem Steel's new head, Schwab protege Eugene Grace. Former President William Howard Taft, head of the War Labor Board during World War I, asked Grace, "If 99 percent of your men were in a union, would you deal with them?" "Not as union men," Grace snapped back.
"I went to work there in the late 1930s swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer to break iron billets," says the 81-year-old. "I got 40 cents an hour, six days a week, no vacations," he recalls.

It was bad enough for younger men, but Scheffer also saw what happened to the older workers, many of them with Italian, Hungarian and Slovak backgrounds: "When they couldn't do the work they were taken off their job and given a broom. When they went to get a pension, there was no pension there."

Scheffer, who had been a member of the International Seaman's Union in New York, quickly decided he was not going to take it. "It didn't take me long to realize we were being discriminated against." So he contacted the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). "I was the first one to sign a union card at Bethlehem Steel," he says.

Since 1919, Steel had had its own company workers' organization, the Employee Representation Plan (ERP). Anyone who refused to belong or tried to join another union was not welcome. When Scheffer tried to sign up his fellow workers for SWOC, he was harassed and intimidated. But more and more men began to join SWOC. "A lot of the Portuguese and Mexicans were the first ones to join up," recalls Scheffer. In August 1939, the union got a leg up thanks to a decision by the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB told the company that ERP was a company union and did not legitimately represent the workers. Bethlehem Steel should "withdraw recognition from and completely disestablish the ERP."

The company quickly disputed the decision. In early 1941, the matter was still before the U.S. Court of Appeals. As World War II began, SWOC continued its organization drive at Bethlehem Steel. Watching Hitler take over Europe, and with an eye on Japan, the federal government had poured billions of dollars into defense contracts. Slowly, a steel industry that had lagged through the Great Depression was being revived. With profits on the increase, the workers felt that they should get a bigger slice of the pie.

In the last week of February 1941, the first strike hit Bethlehem Steel at its Lackawanna plant outside Buffalo, N.Y. It lasted only 38 hours. Settlement was reached on the terms that discharged workers would be rehired, a grievance procedure would be established and an election would be held to allow the employees to vote on their bargaining agent. Although there had been picketing and some conflict, the quick settlement of the strike seemed to bode well for negotiations at the Steel's Bethlehem headquarters.

But any hope in that regard quickly fell through. On March 24, 1941, a Monday, a small article appeared at the bottom of Page 5 in The Morning Call: "SWOC Reiterate Their Bethlehem Walkout Threat," stated the headline. ERP announced it was going to go ahead with its election to choose representatives for collective bargaining "... CIO or no CIO." According to Bethlehem SWOC Director Howard T. Curtiss, if the company union did this, his 18,000 members at the Bethlehem plant would strike. "They are more determined than ever to walk out."

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