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The Steel Strike of 1919 set in motion battles between labor and big business that continue today. In this lesson, you will learn about what caused the strike and its historical importance to labor laws in the United States.

The Steel Strike of 1919

Most of us would like to work fewer hours and get paid more, right? Well, we don’t have much to complain about compared to earlier generations of Americans. Working conditions about a century ago were much different than they are today.

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In fact, you can thank early labor movements for the invention of the weekend, forty-hour work weeks, and the other work norms we enjoy today. These benefits did not come without a cost, however, and some pushes for reform ultimately failed. The Steel Strike of 1919 was one of those labor reform pushes that failed, but is remembered as one of the main struggles between workers and employers in the United States.

Labor ; Political Climate

Robber barons and workers
Robber Barons

After rebounding from the Civil War during Reconstruction, the United States saw tremendous growth leading up to the 20th century.

The Industrial Revolution allowed the United States to capitalize on its vast wealth of resources, and it was quickly becoming the world’s leading industrial power. As wealth accumulated, however, labor laws lagged behind. People still worked over twelve hours per day, six to seven days a week, and had little to no job security or benefits. As a result, labor unions formed, which are organized groups of workers who use a strategy known as collective bargaining. Collective bargaining relies on the mass organization of workers to bargain with employers on workers’ rights issues.

The idea was that if all workers got together and demanded change, the employers would have to consent. Otherwise, they risked losing all of their employees.After World War I in 1918, disgruntled workers and veterans pushed for better workers’ rights through unionization. During the early 20th century, the largest labor union was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Steel workers were difficult unionize, because the industry was controlled by immensely powerful tycoons who could fight regulation and instill fear in workers. J.

P. Morgan, whose name you might recognize from J.P. Morgan Chase banking today, was the steel corporate kingpin, and he controlled over 70 percent of the steel market with his United States Steel Company. Morgan and other wealthy industrial elites were popularly known as robber barons, who built immense wealth that workers at the time saw as theft by the upper class. The way the workers saw it, they were being treated poorly and being taken advantage of so that the rich tycoons could make more money.

Steel strike political cartoon, note the red flag suggesting communism
Steel Strike

Steel workers in the Midwest teamed up with the AFL shortly after World War I, leading one of the largest labor protests in United States history. The steel workers’ strike involved over 350,000 workers; they demanded an eight-hour work day, better pay, and recognition of unions by employers. The AFL was able to combine steel worker protests with miner protests, widening the strength and scope of the labor movement.

The largest weapon employers had against labor reforms was characterizing the protests as an infiltration of communism into the country. Large numbers of Eastern European immigrants worked in blue collar industries, such as steel, and employers were able to use xenophobia against Eastern Europeans and Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were eastern European socialists who took Russia by storm under Vladimir Lenin in 1905. Although workers in the United States were probably inspired by workers’ movements elsewhere, they were not pushing for a total take over like the Bolsheviks; rather, workers simply wanted better working conditions and compensation.

Pittsburgh headline after strike failure
Strike

The strike began in Chicago and quickly spread throughout the Midwest, eventually reaching Pittsburgh, the heart of the steel industry. In Pittsburgh, the federal and local government cracked down hard on protesters. They won public approval over protesters based on red scare propaganda of a Communist takeover in America. Protesters were forbidden to publicly protest, and many were stripped from their homes, arrested, and even beaten. Other labor organizations, such as those associated with the railroads, were hesitant to get involved, which weakened the ability of the protests to affect the economy and force real change.

In the end, the strikes were crushed, and protests only lasted about four months before workers resigned with zero concessions and returned to work. The failed strike is considered to be one of the biggest blows the American labor movement has ever faced.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the strikes, employers stated that they may have been willing to negotiate over increased wages and some reforms, but they were ultimately opposed to the idea of unions gaining control of company affairs.

The failure weakened labor movements for over a decade, until the New Deal policies put forth by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped workers out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Despite the failure of the strike, the same unions have survived and are still pushing for reforms today. The AFL is now known as the AFL-CIO, which is a conglomerate of early labor organizations. Today, unions are working for hotbed issues like raising the minimum wage and better maternity leave.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned. As America developed into a world superpower at the turn of the 20th century, there was an imbalance between wealth and progress at the cost of workers’ rights. Labor unions pushed for reforms, such as eight-hour work days and better wages for workers through collective bargaining, or the mass organization of workers to bargain with employers on workers’ rights issues. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was leading the charge for worker reforms throughout the country. In September 1919, led by the AFL, steel workers went on a massive strike across the Midwest. The government led a controversial and brutal crackdown on the strikes.

Fears over rising communism in the United States helped the government and big businesses to crush the protests, which only lasted four months. The Steel Strike of 1919 is remembered as one of the biggest failures in the history of the United States labor movement.

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