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On Monday, July 12, 1909, one of the bloodiest labor disputes of the early twentieth century broke out at the sprawling works of the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Allegheny County. Located on the Ohio River several miles northwest of center-city Pittsburgh, the company employed hundreds of skilled workers, all of American-born descent, and thousands of unskilled first-and second-generation immigrants, in the fabrication of steel railroad cars. (A passenger coach, built in 1913 by the Pressed Steel Car Company, nicknamed the “Paoli Local,” is included in the collections of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Strasburg, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.) As many as eight thousand employees, representing sixteen different nationalities, took part in the bitter eleven-week upheaval during which thirteen people died and five hundred were injured.

Until the final hours of the acrid dispute, intransigent company officials refused to negotiate with their workers. Their arrogance stemmed from the hiring of the “King of the Strikebreak­ers,” Pearl Louis Bergoff (1876-1947), the leading strikebreaker of the early twentieth century. A veteran of a number of labor disputes – many of them as infamous as they were atrocious – Bergoff constituted a formidable ally. His army of thugs, armed with brass knuckles, rubber truncheons, and guns, had smashed many strikes across the country. Before the Pressed Steel Car strike ended, Bergoff moved about twelve hundred workers, including dozens of armed guards, to McKees Rocks. Far from cowering the strikers into submission, however, Bergoff exacerbated violence, prompting a federal inquiry and alienating the local community. Years later, Bergoff remembered the strike as the bloodiest he had ever seen.

Resentment at the plant had been building for years, but the introduction of a wage system that confused the workers sparked the strike. In reducing wages in the wake of the economic downturn of 1907, company president Frank N. Hoffstot established a payment system called pooling that lumped the unskilled workers into gangs and made individual wages depend on a gang’s total production. The total wage figure appropriate for a gang’s productivity during a pay period was simply divided equally among individual workers. This penalized individuals for time lost by slower or lazy coworkers and delays in delivery of materials to work stations. Managers compounded the problem by refusing to post the pay rates, which had continually fallen since the program’s inception. With a large pool of workers anxious to secure employment at any wage, Hoffstot admitted he could “buy labor in the cheapest market.” Company officials showed little concern for workers’ safety. Management, a newspaper writer claimed, was of the opinion that “a human life is worth less than a rivet. Rivets cost money.” Living conditions were also abysmal. Most company employees lived in the “Dump of Schoenville,” a squalid spider web of streets “strewn with tin cans and debris” and “bereft of trees.” Many workers rented houses from the company at twelve dollars a month for four rooms without running water. By early July 1909, Pressed Steel Car Company employees could no longer tolerate their conditions, and demanded an end to pooling and a return to the wage rates of 1907. Hoffstot refused to negotiate. On Saturday, July 10, they received their paychecks but fumed throughout the weekend about their meager earnings and a system they did not understand. Their walkout began on Monday.

Forty workers refused to return to their posts unless company officers explained the method of payment. After the company fired the forty, six hundred coworkers, all riveters – an unskilled classification – laid down their tools. Hoffstot told the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, “There will be no arbitration …. If they’re not happy working for us, we don’t want them. We will not change the pooling system.” The following day, all but five hundred joined the strike. The holdouts were skilled workers, all second (or more) generation native-born Americans. Once the strike began, one hundred sheriff’s deputies, aided by two hundred state constables and Hoffstot’s company police, surrounded the plant. Their appearance only provoked violence. As mounted constables charged into the crowds, strikers and their sympathizers began hurling rocks, bottles, and other missiles.

On Friday, July 15, the two sides battled for more than an hour, involving more than four thousand people in the fracas. The arrival of Bergoff’s army only added more fuel to the inferno. Shortly after the strike began, company managers had contracted with Bergoff to “produce promptly five hundred able bodied workmen to assist in any capacity about the shops” and “act as guards day and night.” Pressed Steel Car Company officials promised to pay five dollars for every man Bergoff supplied and furnish each with “rough sleeping quarters, to consist of cots, blankets and pillows within the plant closure.”

By 1909, many firms routinely relied upon commercial strike breaking agencies to solve labor problems. A service specializing in strike breaking had emerged as a lucrative endeavor, the bulk of the work handled by a growing number of private detective agencies, such as the Bergoff Detective Agency. As worker discontent increased nationwide, besieged industrialists found in city directories a plethora of strike breaking services listed under such euphemisms as “Labor Conciliators,” “Industrial Engineers” or, most commonly, “Private Detectives.” Among those who led such armies, Pearl L. Bergoff was the best known. Others, he boasted, “may break a buttonhole makers’ strike, but when it is steel or utilities or railroads, they come to me.” He was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1876, and brought up in the Dakota Territory; but his misbehavior so angered his parents that his father abandoned him on the streets of Chicago. He found work as a newspaper carrier and later a railroad laborer, drifting into New York City in 1894. In New York, he was hired by the country’s leading strikebreaker, James A. Farley (1870-1913), from whom he learned how to manage such a business. Bergoff eventually formed his own company, the Vigilant Detective Agency, in 1905.

“Money is my sole aim,” Bergoff announced as he began offering personal protection services to wealthy New York­ers. As the level of industrial violence continued to increase, he and his brother Leo expanded their operations into labor disputes in 1907. Changing the name of the firm to Bergoff Brothers Strike Service and Labor Adjusters, the brothers served employers for more than a quarter-century in quelling more than three hundred strikes. Clients included the National Fire­proofing Company, the City of New York, Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Rail­road, the Baldwin Locomotive Works, American Smelting and Refining Company, and the Standard Oil Company. Not until Congress enacted the Byrnes Act, in 1935, did the federal government attempt to control the strike breaking industry. A year later, Bergoff retired from the busi­ness that had made him wealthy. After the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, many states had enacted laws regulating hired armed guards, but these were poorly written and largely ignored. The public was reluctant to restrict strikebreakers because of basic free enterprise principles: the capitalists’ right to hire whomever they desired and the strike­breakers’ right to work.

Pearl L. Bergoff began his McKees Rocks recruiting campaign in Philadelphia, where he had recently crushed a traction workers’ dispute. It was easy to find recruits. “I can produce more man power than any other man in the United States,” he once boasted. When he needed additional men, he simply spread the word wherever the unemployed gathered, or stopped in at charitable employment centers, missions, or flophouses. His brother Leo also set up a recruiting headquarters on West 33rd Street in New York City and quickly filled their quota for armed guards for McKees Rocks with derelict and unemployed men from the Bowery’s skid row.

Like most professional strikebreakers, the Bergoff brothers organized their army with a precise, military-like chain of command. The captains, generally permanent employees, were in charge. They assembled recruits, made up payroll, and strategically positioned their hirelings. Bergoff relied heavily on his brother Leo and “Big Sam” Cohen. Below the captains were lieutenants – called “nobles” in strike­breaker parlance – who acted as guards and front line leaders, shielding the replacement workers, called “finks,” from angry strikers. Finks occupied the lowest level; usually one armed guard was supplied for every fifteen or twenty finks. Some accepted such jobs because they were incompetent or too old to find regular employment, although Bergoff admitted that many were shiftless individuals who “don’t really want work …. What they want is excitement and easy money.” Others signed up without understanding the role they were to play. The New York Times reported that Bergoff shipped many “direct to McKees Rocks from immigrant vessels without [the men] realizing they were to assume the part of strikebreakers and without understanding how they were to be paid or what perils they would encounter.” These recruits traveled in well-guarded boxcars, one of them claiming “there was an armed guard at each end of the car and [strikebreakers were] not allowed to leave the train.” After two days without food, they found themselves in the yards of the Pressed Steel Car Company. For nine days they slept and worked in a barn with more than a thousand other men and were fed mostly cabbage and bread.

The arrival of the strikebreakers did not go unchallenged. About noon on Wednesday, July 14, angry strikers greeted the fast contingent of Bergoff’s army with a shower of rocks, bottles, and gunfire as it approached one of the gates. At least a hundred finks were injured. The strikers surrounded the plant and launched a fusillade against the wooden plant fence and the factory’s windows. Inside, a second battle erupted when terrified strikebreakers realized their predicament and demanded that their guards escort them out of the besieged compound. Later that day, a company-owned vessel, the Steel Queen, crossed the Ohio River and attempted to land three hundred and fifty strikebreakers. Met by an equal number of strikers, the Steel Queen retreated after the two sides had exchanged more than a hundred shots. At least six strikers were wounded. The last engagement of the day took place when the company tried to move a group of strikebreakers out of the plant. Greeted with bricks and bullets, they withdrew into the works, ducking behind mammoth steel railroad cars to avoid gunfire. Several days later strikers crashed through the gates of the plant at four o’clock in the morning in search of strike­breakers, only to find that they had been secretly moved down river.

Although the strikers won the “Battle of the Ohio,” Bergoff’s warriors continued pouring into the plant through early August. On Friday, August 13, another three hundred and fifty arrived on the Steel Queen, followed by a hundred more on Saturday. Two weeks later, Bergoff brought four hundred more strikebreak­ers from New York City. Local streetcar operators refused to transport them to the Pressed Steel Car Company’s plant, but Bergoff managed to place twelve hundred men behind company walls before the strike ended. There were not enough of them to even attempt production of a huge railroad car; the point was to fool the strikers into believing they could. They pounded away at nine finished railroad cars to carry out Bergoff’s strategy.

The McKees Rocks strike erupted without any assistance from outside labor organizations. An engineer in the compa­ny’s axle division, C. A. Wise, was the controversial leader of the strike. Although his loyalties were always suspect, Wise was a vital link between labor and management. His executive board, the “Big Six,” was controlled by the skilled “Americans,” which did include one eastern European. A lower committee of sixty included representatives of all the ethnic groups in the work force.

By the end of July, Hoffstot was willing to talk to Wise, who had the skilled workers’ interest at heart. The Big Six had obtained charitable contributions from private groups that would not have been generous if only immigrants had been in need. But Wise’s first understanding with Pressed Steel was vague and apparently only restored the July 10 conditions, so the immigrants ignored the Big Six and began circulating rumors that they would use greater force. The skilled group, fearing violence above all, allowed a peaceful end to the strike slip from their grasp.

In mid-August, a leader from the New York headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – the “Wob­blies” – befriended the immigrant strik­ers. Observers disagreed on the role of the IWW, some believing they encouraged revolutionary violence and others picturing them as theoretical moralists. Their speakers held an emotional grasp over many eastern Europeans, especially since they spoke in their languages. They expounded a form of industrial democracy that envisioned a complete upheaval of the existing capitalist economy. Hoffstot refused to concede to the increasingly militant unskilled workforce, and violence continued. One striker died when he tried to stop a group of strikebreakers on their way to the plant. Occasionally, though, strikers won. Shortly after the killing, they turned back another steamer, the P. M. Pfiel, from landing still more strike­breakers. For the citizens of McKees Rocks and Pittsburgh, the last straw came when strikers and strikebreakers battled on Sunday evening, August 22. Well aware that the Bergoff minions were increasing, the strikers could stand no more. As Bergoff s soldiers returned to the plant from their Sunday release, strikers halted them. When words failed, fists flew and both sides began shooting. At the melee’s end, six were dead, six dying, and ninety injured. Local newspapers and, by early September, company stockholders demanded an end to the strike. Although finks continued to arrive, those trapped inside the compound since July began slipping out. One escapee, Albert Vamos, an Austro­-Hungarian immigrant, was able to tell Edgar L. G. Prochnick, vice counsel for the Austro-Hungarian government, that large numbers were being held by Bergoff’s nobles against their will. Shocked and dismayed, Prochnick requested that the United States government investigate charges of “peonage” in the plant. Peonage, the forced servitude of debtors until their debts are paid, had been illegal since the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

In late August, a federal investigation began in which U.S. District Attorney John H. Jordan heard many finks testify that Bergoff’s agents lured them to McK­ees Rocks under false pretenses, paid them less than promised, and fed them scanty rations of spoiled food. Claiming the guards forcefully detained them, one recruit told investigators, “any place you wanted to go you would be questioned … if they didn’t like your answer, you would just get your head knocked off.” Another testified that armed guards ringed the fences and shot a man in the legs when he tried to escape. Bergoff, who attended these hearings with several of his lieutenants, disagreed. He showed a reporter a wad of payroll receipts signed by workers who had quit, contending it proved no one had been detained. But his victims responded that they had been told that they could not leave until they “worked off” their transportation costs. Only after the inquiry began, witnesses went on to explain, did their bosses make it known that they could leave at any time. In fact, once the hearings began, Cohen scurried some of the protesting strikebreakers out of the plant.

Ironically, in order to force the Bergoff organization out of McKees Rocks, Wise’s Big Six provided essential support to the finks who had been tormented. Big Six attorney Willam McNair – destined to become Pittsburgh’s zany New Deal mayor twenty years later – filed charges against Pearl L. Bergoff for holding his strikebreakers in peonage. McNair was allowed to interrogate the witnesses in the hearings held in Pittsburgh’s federal building. The star witness, Nathaniel Shaw, directed many of his charges against “Big Sam” Cohen, the Bergoff brothers’ right hand man. Cohen, he testi­fied, commanded thirty-five guards who intimidated and fleeced the unarmed strikebreakers. Bergoff later admitted that “on every big job there appears to be what are called musclemen” who “get at any graft that goes on when we are too busy to prevent it.” For example, he explained, they often demanded a “rake off’ from the many crap games that often sprang up. Those who resisted found themselves in a boxcar prison. One of Shaw’ s fellow finks testified that these jails were “absolutely suffocating. They had us put in there, and there was no urinal, and they closed us up.” Shaw claimed the guards “placed [men] in the car on the slightest pretext and … always held imprisonment in the car over the men as a threat.” Some who escaped were beaten, including Martin Hartz, who showed those present at the hearing his blood soaked shirt. The New York Times described Cohen as “huge in stature, weighing perhaps 240 pounds.” When a reporter asked him, “How is it that you are so fond of beating people?” Cohen responded sarcastically. “What? Me beating people? Why, I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Exposure of the conditions at the Pressed Steel Car Company’s plant ignited strong public sympathy for the strikers and by the end of August, the tide turned against the company. The Pitts­burgh Leader managed to collect nine thousand dollars for a strikers’ food fund. Meanwhile, Bergoff finks continued to flee the plant. On Sunday, August 28, sixty strikers slipped into the plant as scab laborers and persuaded nearly three hundred strikebreakers to leave with them. Finally, in the first week in September, management entered negotiations with strike leader C. A. Wise.

Although the peonage hearings spawned contempt for Bergoff and Hoffstot, the federal system found no basis for prosecuting. It was rumored that legal action had been halted as part of an unwritten bargain to induce Hoffstot to open negotiations. On Labor Day Sunday, September 7, Wise stood on McKees Rocks’ Indian Mound, the site of most of the strikers’ rallies and, although there would be no signed agreement, intimated that the company would increase wages by fifteen percent and guarantee Sunday and half-day Saturday time off. The next day a vote was held on these terms, but Wise found ways to disqualify many of the unskilled who tried to cast ballots. Approval was overwhelming: twenty-four hundred and ninety-nine votes to twelve. Other than a thousand immigrants who remained out, encouraged by the IWW, most of the work force returned the following day. Contrary to statements released to the public, the company blacklisted many of the immigrants who tried to return. Some who regained employment were given work at much lower levels. The Pressed Steel Car Company hired a few of the strikebreakers as permanent employees; it posted armed sheriff’s deputies near workstations; and it retained its vicious company police commander. Moreover, the weekend closing was indefinitely postponed.

At noon on Tuesday, September 15, the work force – skilled and unskilled – again walked out. Intense discussions between and within the Wise faction and the IWW went on for thirty-six hours. Strikers heard arguments at the Indian Mound and then repudiated both IWW and Big Six leadership.

Two days later Wise and the Big Six reasserted their control, as five hundred skilled workers armed themselves and paraded seven hundred of their fellows and at least a thousand unskilled immigrants back to the plant, under a huge American flag. At the gates they confronted three thousand immigrants picketing under IWW leadership, but the picketers let the flag-bearing group pass peacefully and soon joined them in returning to their old jobs. Instead of withdrawing in horror at the possibility of violence, as they had in August, the skilled “Americans”­ – at least five hundred of them – were willing to carry arms and intimidate the others. That evening the Pittsburgh Leader reported that Wise bad toured the plant and personally identified immigrants responsible for the September 15 walkout. They were fired on the spot. On Saturday, September 19, the Leader published a statement by Wise denying he had even reentered the factory grounds. History may never know where the truth lay.

So happy was the public to see the violence end that it accepted the insistence of the area’s newspapers that the laborers had won. Even the IWW thought it had triumphed, and as late as 1935, Edward Levinson, in his biography of Bergoff, I Break Strikes!, attributed victory to the Pressed Steel Car Company’s workers. The careful research of John N. Ingham thirty years later, however, clearly showed that none of the workers’ demands were met nor was their condition improved. “The immigrants and the Wobblies,” contended labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky, “as they later painfully realized, had been had.” With Wise’s participation, a company run union was set up, complete with a process for worker grievances, but collective bargaining was not established. Although the press vilified Frank N. Hoffstot, he remained company president for several decades.

Of the thirteen who died during the bloodbath at McKees Rocks, two had worked for Bergoff, who told a reporter, “We paid four or five thousand dollars for each of our men killed. The income was so large that this expense made no difference.” Pearl L. Bergoff went on to earn a national reputation and amass a fortune breaking numerous strikes over the next three decades. None of these disputes, however, proved as bloody as the battle in McKees Rocks in 1909.


For Further Reading

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Harris, Howard, ed. Keystone of Democracy: A History of Pennsylvania Workers. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999.

Levinson, Edward. I Break Strikes! New York: Robert M. McBride and Company, 1935.

Perlmen, Selig, and Philip Taft. History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946.

Witte, Edwin E. The Government in Labor Disputes. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1932.


Robert M. Smith is a member of the history department faculty of Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He received his doctorate in modern American history from the University of Toledo in 1989. His articles have appeared in Labor’s Heritage, Mid­-America, and Michigan Academician. The author, a specialist in labor history, has writ­ten From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Unionbusting and Strikebreaking in the United States, which will be published in Fall 2002.