Pennsylvania’s Workers: The Struggle for Prosperity

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“Do thine own Work honestly and chearfully. And when that is done, help they Fellow …” – William Penn


The colonial economy of Pennsylvania flourished as its agriculture, commerce and handicraft production expanded steadily in the years before the American Revolu­tion. As with other American colonies, Pennsylvania drew its wealth from the land and the sea, exploiting immediate natural resources rather than developing a large industrial base for its early pros­perity. Land was plentiful but labor was scarce; few foresaw by 1776 that the new state would become the center of the de­velopment of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The influence of Pennsylvania as the keystone of the nineteenth century federal arch rested on an economic base that changed rapidly during the century, transformed from an agricultural society to a modern urban industrialized state.

The colony of William Penn might have failed as a Quaker commonwealth, but it was an immediate success in gen­erating material wealth. The aggressive entrepreneurial spirit of its business leaders, and an environment shaped by acquisitive values, led to the intensive development of the colony’s resources. Bounded by two great river systems, the Delaware and the Ohio, it contained an inland expanse rich in fertile farm land, timber reserves, coal deposits, petro­leum pools and iron mines. Not the least of the colony’s economic resources was a growing population, which by 1770 numbered more than 240,000 residents and contained the nucleus of an urban working class population.

Pennsylvania was an important cradle of the American labor movement. The evolution of class consciousness, work­ing class organization, trade unionism (with its emphasis on collective bargain­ing) and modern industrial relations were crucial developments in the rela­tionship between capital and labor in the industrial economy of the state and na­tion. Artisans, mechanics and common laborers composed the varied levels of the working classes of pre-Revolutionary America.

The class structure of colonial Penn­sylvania was sharply defined by wealth, dress, cultural values, and political aspirations and influence. True wealth was held by the merchant class, profes­sional elites (established physicians and lawyers) and a prosperous land-owning class with estates totaling hundreds of thousands of acres. Not all land owners were farmers, for the colony’s iron plan­tations included hundreds of acres. The “middling” classes were composed of small shop-keepers, ambitious merchants, poor – if respected – teachers and tutors, master artisans and mechanics, young doctors, and beginning lawyers. At the bottom of the social order were the real laboring classes-slaves, indentured ser­vants, apprentices, journeymen mechan­ics, merchant seamen, carters and com­mon laborers. There were also those too old, ill, young or disabled to work, as well as the “sturdy rogues,” those able but unwilling to work except under threat of punishment.

The world of the laborer was complex and varied, governed by law and caprice, encompassing men and women, adults and children, free and unfree, whites, Indians and blacks. While work in the towns was often more exciting than labor on the farms, the colonial city was usually cramped, dirty, subject to plagues and fevers, stifling in the sum­mer, while in winter those without money went without firewood. Of the roughly 5,000 people carried away by the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, many (perhaps most) were workers who lived along dank and ill­-smelling streets, poorly drained, where the disease spread rapidly. There was sel­dom confusion about which class one was born into, or to which one might aspire with fortune and luck.

Indentured servitude created a large and flexible workforce in the colony and white bound labor was probably used more extensively in Philadelphia than in the other major cities of Boston and New York. Indentured servants were bound workers, that is “unfree” but not slaves, contracting future labor services to cover the cost of passage money from Europe to the colony. The Irish, Scots-­Irish and Germans, as well as blacks and Indians, served periods of indenture which usually ranged from three years to seven years of labor, or sometimes even longer. The agreement of indenture was a contract, the holder of which promised to feed, clothe, shelter and treat the ser­vant according to the established custom of the land. The contract was enforced by the Justices of the Peace, who had the right to dissolve the contract if the ser­vant were treated in an unduly harsh way, or if the master failed to provide the minimum standards of food and clothing. In 1700 the General Assembly sought to tighten the institution of bound labor by paying rewards for those who apprehended runaway servants and surrendered them to the local sheriff. At the end of the indenture the servant became a free worker and after 1700 received freedom “dues” which generally consisted of at least one suit of clothes, an axe and two hoes.

In addition to indentured servants, free workers were drawn to the colony by the lure of higher wages and im­proved opportunities. Proprietary solici­tations and advertisements by shop-own­ing master craftsmen for journeymen workers touted the lure of Philadelphia and the colony to free workers. Appren­tices were placed with master craftsmen to learn the mysteries of the trade, usu­ally for seven years or until the age of 21 or 22, and orphans were bound out by the Overseers of the Poor as apprentices to learn a trade as well as to diminish the burden on the payers of the poor rates. Despite the continuous search for skilled workers the demand usually exceeded the supply, for farmers sought to draw indentured servants and agricultural laborers into the country where labor was also scarce.

Slave labor also contributed to the growing laboring classes in the colony, although there were objections to the immoral nature of the trade in the eight­eenth century. Pennsylvania levied a heavy duty on slaves and sought to re­strict the number of imported slaves for fear of a slave uprising, but after 1730 slave imports increased until the 1770s, when the non-importation agreements called for the boycott of all slaves from the British West Indies. In the Revolu­tionary era Benjamin Rush and Tom Paine, joined by conscientious Quakers, denounced the institution and called for the abolition of slavery.

The prosperity of the Philadelphia artisan and mechanic varied with the expansion and contraction of the econ­omy of the empire. Some artisans pros­pered because they invested in Philadel­phia real estate as they accumulated scarce capital which they immediately in­vested in land. The Seven Years War proved especially prosperous to the city. Removed from the area of battle, mer­chants, artisans and mechanics profited from rising prices and expanding mar­kets. Artisans with their skilled labor were likely to achieve middle-class status as they opened shops and hired journeymen and apprentices to fill orders for custom work or shipping. A Philadel­phia laborer earned about 3.50 shillings a day in 1756, almost a third more than he earned in 1775 on the eve of the Revo­lution.

Labor relations in the colony were quite paternalistic and remained so until near the end of the eighteenth century, when the free labor economy replaced the earlier system of economic clientage. A journeyman artisan or mechanic es­tablished a clientage relationship with the employer by agreeing to a yearly contract which included not only a stipu­lated wage payment but also a dietary ra­tion as a part of his customary income. Workers were fed one meal a day by the employer and usually provided with a liquor ration as well. The employer was considered bound to the wage agreement whether the journeyman missed work for reasons of illness or celebrated St. Monday on a regular basis. The pater­nalistic environment of the work place was reinforced by the nature of the shop, which often was the front room or the ground floor of the master crafts­man’s home. His wife prepared and served the customary meal, his children played about the shop, and the master worked beside his workers at common tasks.

This system of clientage began to break up in the 1750s, although aspects of it, such as the customary liquor ra­tion, lasted weU into the nineteenth cen­tury. During the expansive times of the 1750s workers often demanded the con­version of all services to a money econ­omy and contracts negotiated twice a year to take advantage of rising wages and to better cope with the inflation of the wartime economy. After 1764-65 it was to the advantage of the master to maintain the free labor economy and to adjust wages downward as the economy contracted in the post-war period.

The reduction of wages and the hard times of 1765-1770 led to the organ­ization of both master and journeymen societies. While the European guild sys­tem was transported to the American colonies under tenuous conditions, both masters and journeymen recognized the need to advance their common and sepa­rate interests, and to provide social and fraternal benefits to their respective groups. Mechanics organized as early as the 1740s in Philadelphia; outside of the city artisans and mechanics were gener­ally too few to combine successfully for common goals. Coopers, wheelwrights, ship carpenters, journeymen carpenters, tailors, ropemakers and cordwainers (shoemakers) were among the first to or­ganize. The divergent economic interests of masters and journeymen-those who possessed property and those who did not-led to the creation of separate soci­eties. The journeymen carpenters had their own organization by the 1760s. Journeymen were concerned with retain­ing higher wages and excluding those who did not belong to their society from the shop.

The world of the worker changed rap­idly early in the nineteenth century. The custom order merchant gave way to the wholesale merchant who produced goods on a larger scale for distribution to retailers. The merchant capitalist, investing surplus capital accumulated through years of successful commercial ventures, underwrote the cost of expanding shops, industrial yards and the establishment of small factories. Ship building, glass making, coal min­ing, iron manufacture, tanning and transportation expanded to achieve economies of scale. The concept of work-time was sharpened by the new in­dustrial discipline enforced by the ring­ing of the bell, locking of gates, au­thority of the overseer and detachment of ownership from actual management. The replacement of the cottage produc­tion of textiles by the mill symbolized the coming of the new industrial order.

Rockdale on Chester Creek outside of Philadelphia was a typical mill hamlet, planned and directed by the new capital­ists of the industrial era. As with all small industrial communities, housing, family life, religious values, the com­pany store and credit, and access to the wider world and new ideas were care­fully controlled by those who owned the mill and machinery. Daniel Lammot, the Du Ponts, and John P. Crozer estab­lished the important familial and finan­cial network which governed the district with entrepreneurial circumspection. They supplied the capital, developed the managerial direction and nurtured the social conservatism which dominated the industrial sites built along the swift creeks flowing into the Delaware River.

Hiring was usually done by family, with each member finding employment in the picker, carding, spinning, or weav­ing rooms of the hamlet. The stratifica­tion of jobs separated women, children and men according to tasks with wages adjusted for sex and skill. The small in­dustrial cluster of mills encouraged the employment of the entire family, so that the employer availed himself of a cheap and flexible labor force, and the free labor economy now allowed wages to rise and fall according to the market for cops (spools of yarn) and bolt goods.

Life in the textile community moved according to the ringing of the bell. Whether the mills were located in a ham­let such as Rockdale or in Philadelphia’s Kensington section mattered little, for in the early nineteenth century workers lived close to their jobs – at least close enough to walk quickly to work. The early morning bell rang as early as 5:00 A.M. in the winter and 4:30 in the summer. After awakening, workers rushed to the mills to make sure they were inside the gates when the final bell rang, for the gates or doors were locked with the start of the machinery. At 7:30 A.M. the operatives were given thirty minutes for breakfast and worked until noon, when they were given another half-hour for lunch. They then worked until 6:30 or 7:00 when the evening bell tolled the end of the day. While six days formed the usual work week, there was uncertain employment. When inventories rose, em­ployees were laid-off or locked out until business conditions improved.

Not only were work days long, but companies imposed rules that would hardly be accepted by workers today. Many companies required their workers to attend the company’s church, paid wages once a month (or sometimes twice a year) and refused to issue “regular” discharge cards to those who broke the rules, or left before the end of a year. Overseers were given authority to disci­pline and discharge workers: “All per­sons,” stated one set of rules, “are re­quired to observe the regulations of the overseer of the room where they are employed.” Petty tyrannies and abra­sive policies abounded as managers and overseers were charged to run the mills in ways “necessary for the preservation of good order.”

Early trade unions were difficult to organize in the small and isolated indus­trial hamlets. Owners and managers watched for, and immediately dismissed, agitators and organizers. In the cities, where housing was farther removed from the mills and the control of credit could not be used to silence worker criticism by calling in accounts at the company store, unions were easier to establish. This did not mean that hamlet industrial workers were ignorant of the need to create collective representation or were oblivious to price and market changes which directly affected wages. At Rockdale workers organized “turn outs,” as strikes were then called, as labor unrest caused by low wages mobil­ized textile workers in Philadelphia. In 1836 and again in 1842 workers in Rock­dale turned out to demand higher wages; in 1836 they were partially successful in securing an increase in piece rates. The panic of 1837, however, led to a series of wage reductions and the strike of 1842 was a failure. Labor spokesmen were arrested, harried out of the district, and the courts reaffirmed the rights of owners to manage their property without the in­terference of union leaders.

Nineteenth century iron communities were quite similar to textile hamlets such as Rockdale. The furnace was the center of the iron plantation, which was usually situated in an area of extensive timber reserves suitable for charcoal making. After the introduction of an­thracite coal for firing the furnace, iron and steel making gravitated to more ur­ban areas to gain access to better trans­portation facilities and a larger labor market. Iron ore and limestone for flux, the other crucial elements for iron mak­ing, also needed to be close at hand, for it was expensive to haul raw materials overland to the furnace. From the fur­nace came pig iron which was refined into blooms or hammered and rolled into iron products by forges and rolling mills. Special castings were produced from sand molds. Early iron production was unintegrated, so that the separate steps to the manufacture of finished iron goods were generally scattered over a wide distance, adding to the costs of production.

Industrial relations within the iron plantations were dominated by the au­thority of the furnace manager, who assigned tasks, controlled housing for tenant workers, and operated the fur­nace store where workers were forced to shop because of the rural isolation of many plantations. The scattered loca­tions of early iron communities contrib­uted to industrial peace, or at least to quietude. Troublesome workers were fired, evicted from company housing and given unsatisfactory discharges. The rapid development of the blacklist meant that names of so-called “trouble­makers” and reasons for their dis­charges were circulated among furnace managers, so that once dismissed it was often difficult to find jobs in other iron hamlets. Rural isolation and infrequent communications with other workers reduced industrial turbulence on the iron plantations.

The sharp definition of job classifica­tions recognized and rewarded appropri­ate skills. There were miners, colliers, teamsters, fillers, molders and common laborers attached to the typical furnace. Puddlers, roughers and rollers applied their own special skills to the finishing of common products. Thus, many iron and steel workers were able to maintain pride in their jobs and to feel less like simple appendages to the machine until near the end of the century when unskilled im­migrant workers began to crowd into the mills, competing directly with the established hierarchy of highly skilled native-born workers. As steel-making technology progressed there remained a quasi-entrepreneurial spirit which favored skilled workers. The furnace master hired his own crew, set produc­tion goals for the furnace and reported on behalf of his own operation to the managers of the company.

As bessemer steel replaced iron, the old paternal communities gave way to urban steel mills. A visitor to Pittsburgh in 1869 was visibly struck by the “forest of chimneys which by day and by night vomit forth lurid flames, and smoke so dense that the air is constantly filled with black snowflakes. These get in your eyes, in your nose, ears and mouth; and on your shirtfront.” Industrial change was made more severe by the urbaniza­tion of the production of iron and steel. Housing became more crowded, com­munities more congested and dirty. Im­migrants from south and central-east Europe flocked to the mills seeking jobs paying enough to enable them to accu­mulate sufficient capital to return home in several years to purchase land or enter business. To accumulate that capital they were willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience, sleeping in shifts in rooming houses and boarding on the simplest of fare.

Immigrant workers bringing their families and intending to stay in Amer­ica became landlords in the new indus­trial communities surrounding core cities such as Pittsburgh. Margaret Byington, in her classic study for the Pittsburgh Survey of Andrew Carnegie’s Home­stead works, described a typical worker’s home in depressing terms:

On one side of the room was a huge puffy bed, with one feather tick to sleep on and another for covering; near the window stood a sewing machine; in the corner, an organ, – ­all these, besides the inevitable cook stove upon which in the place of honor was simmering the evening’s soup. Upstairs in the second room were one boarder and the man of the house asleep. Two more boarders were at work, but at night would be home to sleep in the bed from which others would get up.

Deprivation was made bearable by the hope that in a few short years one would have saved enough to return home to find security and to forget the hard work and sacrifice.

By the 1890s steel workers had lived through the technological revolution of their trade. The Amalgamated Associa­tion of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers was organized in 1876 by pulling together puddlers, roughers, rollers and other allied crafts into a single union. The new union represented primarily the elite native-born and British-stock workers recruited from the craft-base of the industry. Often these workers resented the competition of unskilled immigrant workers from Europe drawn by jobs to the steel communities of Pennsylvania.

Relations between management and labor were uneasy in the best of times; panics and depressions brought labor strife as managers reduced wages to protect company profits and invest­ments. In 1892 the first of a long series of bitter labor confrontations erupted at the Homestead works of Carnegie Steel, when the company demanded the adop­tion of a new pay scale. The Amalga­mated Association refused to accept the lower wage scale in its contract with the company and Henry Clay Frick, vice president of Carnegie Steel, ordered the workers locked out and recruited strike breakers from the ranks of the unskilled immigrant laborers searching for work. Frick retained Pinkerton’s Detective Agency to furnish guards and informers to reopen the Homestead works on a non-union basis. On July 6 there was a violent confrontation between the Pink­ertons and dismissed workers which left thirty-five men dead. Public support for the workers weakened when an anar­chist, who had no real connection with the union or the workers, attempted to assassinate Frick.

The Homestead lockout was a major defeat for the union which continued to exist, but with few lodges and members, until the early years of this century. There were strikes again in 1901 and 1909, but by that time the union survived in name only. Welfare capitalism and the open-shop movement blunted the appeals of union organizers. World War I brought a new era of trade union activ­ity, the organization of shop committees and the protection of the National War Labor Board. Under the “no-strike, no­-lockout” policy of the federal govern­ment shop committees grew rapidly and the prospect of a post-war revival of union strength seemed realistic in 1918. The gains of the war, however, were wiped out during the Great Steel Strike of 1919. The year 1919 brought the return of servicemen seeking their old jobs, inflationary prices and lagging wages, and a new outbreak of nativism in the Red Scare. Even though 300,000 workers from Pittsburgh to Chicago went on strike for union recognition, a living wage and preservation of war-time labor gains, hostile public opinion and the fear of radicalism, combined with an aggressive open-shop movement, de­feated the strikers. The failure of the Amalgamated Association to recruit un­skilled workers and to develop an indus­trial union philosophy placed the union at a continuous disadvantage in its rela­tions with management. It was not until the 1930s and the rise of the CIO that unionism was revitalized in the steel industry.

Rural coal communities were also havens for job-seeking immigrants flocking into the state after the War of 1812. Anthracite (hard coal) communi­ties in the northeastern sector of the state became microcosms of the history of immigration to America. English, Welsh and Scottish miners were fol­lowed by the Irish. Ethnic competition for jobs and promotions led to tensions which were made worse by the out­breaks of nativism beginning in the 1840s and directed against Irish Catho­lics. Hunger, desperation and a heritage of political oppression accompanied the recently-arrived to the coal towns of the Schuylkill.

Miners were generally “captive” em­ployees of the companies for which they worked. A colliery employed anywhere from a handful to 300 or 400 miners who were required by necessity to live in company houses. Because of the isola­tion of coal communities they were also forced to buy from the company store and to follow the “tic” system, charging food, coal oil and dynamite-which they were required to furnish. Store pur­chases were deducted from wages and many companies paid in script or tokens which could only be redeemed at the company store. Prices were high, goods limited and credit expensive. Medical care was also scarce; injured workers, while they might be treated at the com­pany infirmary, often signed away any claim against the operator for compen­satory damages.

Company housing was incommodious and, as with much industrial site hous­ing, constructed quickly and rented on a profitable basis. Because company hous­ing was located on private property it was closely controlled, making it diffi­cult to rebel against work rules or organ­ize unions. The passage of the so-called Tioga County law made it possible for the company to evict strikers on ten-day notice, seriously weakening their ability to protest effectively. Outsiders were often prevented from even setting foot inside the small coal hamlets under the threat of arrest for trespassing. Local law enforcement officials deferred as a rule to the operators in defense of prop­erty rights.

In the long period War of deflation follow­ing the Civil the major issue in labor relations was the living wage. In­tense business competition led to peri­odic wage reductions, postponed pay days and haggling over coal sent to the top. Mine safety, corporate domination and basic human freedoms, however, also shaped the agitation of miners in their determination to unionize. Strikes had occurred before and during the Civil War, but they were of short duration. By 1870 operators had adopted tougher policies to protect company interests and enforce lockouts. The companies began to employ the infamous coal police, in­sist on “yellow dog” contracts which prohibited union membership, demand “ironclad oaths” to insure the open shop, and circulate black lists. Workers responded by organizing the Working­men’s Benevolent Association in the an­thracite fields in 1868-69.

The real strength of the new union was confined to Schuylkill, Carbon and Northumberland counties. Localism, the diffusion of small companies, chaotic coal prices and ethnic conflict doomed the young union almost from the start. The success of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in gaining control of a dominant share of the hard coal lands after I 87 I established a powerful employer capable of destroying the WBA. President Franklin B. Gowen of the Reading Railroad, who later gained fame for hiring the Pinkertons to inves­tigate the Molly Maguires, was willing to tolerate the union until it disrupted the Reading’s coal operations. In 1874 Gowen imposed a lockout with the sup­port of the small operators, idling miners who belonged to the WBA. Where it was still a vital force the union ordered its members to strike, but with few resources and little outside aid the strike of 1875 was lost and the WBA dis­appeared from the coal fields.

Between the failure of the WBA and the early 1890s attempts to create a national miners’ trade union were frus­trated by powerful employers, a growing immigrant workforce and weak organiz­ing efforts. The United Mine Workers of America, however, was launched early in the decade and quickly spread among the soft coal miners. In 1898 Johnny Mitchell was elected president and car­ried the campaign for unionism into the anthracite area. Representing 100,000 members by 1900, Mitchell demanded that operators recognize the young union. The most important issue was low wages – miners earned about $250 a year – followed by the long ton, powder prices, checkweighmen, abolition of in­firmary fees and an end to the company store system. When the operators refused to negotiate on these issues the miners struck. After minimal gains the miners returned to work but struck again in 1902.

The anthracite strike of 1902 was a turning point in the American labor movement. The union asked for formal recognition, a wage increase and the eight-hour day. The National Civic Fed­eration attempted to settle the strike by mediation. When that failed, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, threat­ened to seize and operate the mines, and summoned both sides to Washington to present their separate cases. An arbitra­tion commission awarded many of the union’s demands: a wage increase, the employment of checkweighmen, an end to the harassment of union members and the creation of an industry conciliation board. For the first time a national union had won a major strike, doubled its membership and strengthened its parent body, the American Federation of Labor. By the Progressive Era, 1900-1920, it was impossible for a presi­dent to ignore a critical labor dispute, or simply summon federal troops to break the strike.

As one looked back over the nine­teenth century, Pennsylvania had played a primary role in the develop­ment of organized labor in America. Pennsylvania workers organized jour­neymen’s associations early in the cen­tury and, even though the Philadelphia Cordwainers’ Society had been con­victed of criminal conspiracy in 1805, they never abandoned their efforts to combine for a common good. Workers turned to education and political acti­vism in the I 820s and 1830s. The Mechanics Union of Trade Associa­tions, which grew out of the carpenters’ strike of 1827, reflected the values and consciousness of a mature labor move­ment and produced a remarkable leader in William Heighton. An English immi­grant, Heighton migrated to Philadel­phia as a youth and became a shoe­maker. He articulated the writings of the English radicals through the Mechanics Free Press and urged workers to become politically active in local elections. His greatest contribution was the further­ance of public education throughout the state.

In 1830 the Working Men’s Commit­tees of Philadelphia called on all county assessors to enumerate poor children and to insure that they were “instructed at the most convenient schools at the expense of the respective counties.” The Philadelphia Trades Association as­serted the right of workers to a living wage, the need for workers to cooperate in common effort to guarantee that each person “receive a compensation that would enable him with economy to pro­vide a comfortable subsistence for his family.”

The remainder of the century produced an equally remarkable array of labor leaders who formed and guided the American labor movement. John Siney, an Irish Catholic immigrant, migrated to Schuylkill County during the Civil War. From the WBA he went on to found the Miners’ National Association and the Greenback Labor Party. William H. Sylvis, born in Indiana County, became a founder of the Iron-Molders’ Interna­tional Union and the instrumental leader of the National Labor Union, which he led in 1868-69. Terence V. Powderly, the dominant figure in the growth of the Nobel and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was born in Carbondale in 1849. A machinist in the coal fields, Powderly served as Grand Master Workman of the KOL from 1879 to 1893, when he left to serve later as U.S. Commissioner of General Immigration. William B. Wil­son, emerged from the United Mine Workers to play an important role in the mediation movement, the creation of the U.S. Employment Service and the devel­opment of vocational education pro­grams.

These leaders shaped the National Labor Union, the Knights of Labor, the growth of national trades unions and the establishment of the American Federa­tion of Labor in 1886. Their approaches to unionism were formed by ethnic iden­tities, religious values, class perceptions and pragmatic considerations. By most standards they were cautions, even con­servative. Their limitations were set mostly by a lack of experience with wider groups and issues. Above all, they were instrumental in forging a viable self-interest to protect working people in an era when the Capitalist was king!

By 1914 the American economy and corporate capitalism no longer seemed separate. The American Federa­tion of Labor survived the 1890s and, through a formula of “pure and simple” unionism and business practices bor­rowed from employers, seemed ready to face an uncertain future. The Pennsyl­vania Federation of Labor, the state affiliate of the AFL, issued a broad plat­form for change in 1910. The PFL de­manded the abolition of the state con­stabulary which had been used to break strikes since the Great Upheaval of 1877. It also denounced the prevalent use of child labor, demanded a major revision of mine and factory inspection and safety laws, the recognition of the eight-hour day, and the election of the Chief Fac­tory Inspector by direct popular vote.

But, the 1920s marked a decade of retreat in labor relations. Wage stability broke down in the coal industry. W.W. I proved to be the peak for coal, for after the war the country began to shift to oil heat and electricity. Steel maintained the open shop after the great strike in 1919. Lumbering, shipbuilding and textiles also experienced severe declines. In the case of textiles Pennsylvania witnessed the beginning of the flight of mills. to the South, where labor and capital costs were cheaper. The Progressivism of Gov. Gifford Pinchot often seemed more concerned with smashing saloons, punishing bootleggers and putting the state’s operations “on the business basis.” The one real exception was Pinchot’s intervention in the anthracite strike of 1923.

The United Mine Workers, led by John L. Lewis, struck for the eight-hour day, a wage increase and the closed shop. Pinchot called the miners and operators together and mediated a settle­ment which gave the miners the shorter day and a ten percent wage increase. The efforts of Pinchot made him extremely popular with the miners, who again asked him to mediate the strike of 1925. His efforts were rejected by the opera­tors and the long strike further damaged the coal industry of the state.

The UMWA was typical of many of the national unions in the 1920s and 1930s. Over-production, falling prices and wages, and rapidly mounting unem­ployment threatened them with extinc­tion. The membership of the United Mine Workers fell from 500,000 to only 75,000 by 1933. Through the years of contraction the union was dominated by Lewis, the commanding figure of labor until he retired in 1960. Lewis, who was born in Iowa, was both loved and hated, easily arousing heated passions. He expelled John Brophy, a much loved leader of the miners, from the union in 1926. He centralized its administration, concentrated on the northern mines and ignored those in the South, flayed critics, and angered a large part of the nation because of the wildcat strikes he sanctioned during W.W. II. He sup­ported Herbert Hoover in 1932, Roose­velt in 1936 and went his own way after 1940. He became one of the most out­spoken critics of the old craft unions, called for the founding of new industrial unions, and became the leading propo­nent of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1936.

The New Deal of 1933 ushered in the great revolution in industrial relations. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act industrial unionists launched drives to organize workers in the mass produc­tion industries of steel, autos, rubber, and oil and chemicals. Section 7(a) of NIRA guaranteed the right of collective bargaining in industries which had drawn up codes of fair practice and, for the first time, workers were free to discuss the value of unionism without the constant fear of being fired. As one woman worker recalled:

Before the New Deal came into effect we were compelled to work 15 hours of each day during the rush and no overtime and fired if you get a (union) card. Now we got our union and we got our decent work-week … Our life is no bed of roses because that ain’t the way it is for the workers yet but it’s better for us than ever I seen it …

Under the protection of NRA, the United Mine Workers furnished both organizers and money to break the open shop in steel.

The Steel Workers’ Organizing Com­mittee (SWOC) was established in 1936 and entrusted to Philip Murray of the UMW A. Trying to organize steel in western Pennsylvania pitted miners and workers against the entrenched power of U.S. Steel and the even more bitter anti-unionism of “Little Steel.” When the Supreme Court declared NIRA unconstitutional, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act which sanctioned the principle of collective bargaining and established the National Labor Relations Board to oversee unfair labor practices. Employers, however, were uncertain whether the courts would let the new act stand and prepared to combat union drives for recognition.

Jones and Laughlin organized a com­pany union to forestall real union representation. Aliquippa (once called Woodlawn) was a typical company town with more than 700 worker houses – not to mention the street cars – owned by the company. Strangers were halted at the town limits until the police were con­vinced they were not organizers. The J. and L. police treated the town’s small police force as an auxiliary branch. Monthly reports were submitted to the company on suspicious activities of city residents. Machine guns and tear gas were purchased in 1934 to protect com­pany property and repel agitators. By 1937, however, SWOC represented a majority of J. and L.’s workers in Ali­quippa and sought union recognition. A bitter organizing campaign and a very brief strike led to a successful repre­sentational election and one of the first real contracts in the steel industry since the 1890s. A grievance procedure was established and both sides agreed to abide by future decisions. SWOC served as the organizational vanguard in steel until it was reorganized as the United Steel Workers of America in 1942. U.S. Steel agreed to recognize the union in its mills but “Little Steel” held out until W.W. II.

If NRA and the National Labor Rela­tions Act encouraged an immediate drive to organize workers in the mass production industries, there were quieter but significant reforms at the state level as part of Pennsylvania’s Little New Deal. The Department of Labor and In­dustry was given new life to investigate and expose industrial accidents, domestic manufacturing and the abuse of child labor. The state legislature moved to establish a respectable work­man’s compensation system. Effective mediation, responsible collective bar­gaining and industrial peace became new objectives for state government.

Labor came into its own in state poli­tics in the 1930s. The state’s Little New Deal coalition found labor to be a powerful ally, and the old distrust of politicians by unions melted slowly. Thomas Kennedy of the UMWA, Joe Guffey and Gov. George H. Earle, III Jed an administration committed to a broad range of labor reform issues which, unfortunately, were largely ignored by the state Senate until after 1936. Penn­sylvania adhered to a stringent policy of economy. World War II brought a re­newed period of economic expansion, particularly in shipbuilding, munitions production, steel, electrical goods, ra­tions and, briefly, even coal. But the decline had set in, for in the post-war period the nation’s economy began to shift from the heavy industries of coal and steel to the new technologies of energy, electronics and chemicals. Penn­sylvania, with its older industrial base, found it difficult to compete with the more aggressive southern and western states and foreign competition. Aging cities were frequently abandoned by companies and families seeking more favorable climates of many kinds.

During the last 300 years, Penn­sylvania has often pointed the direction of economic growth and development. Labor relations have changed from a paternalistic system to one of free and powerful trade unions. Today, as steel, coal and auto production face new and unfamiliar problems, the unions that represent workers in those industries face the same uncertainties. Inflation, unemployment and depressed markets affect employer and worker alike. The number of factory workers will continue to decline, robots will revolutionize assembly-line production and service workers will become more numerous.

Certainly the future of the state’s economy is not entirely bleak; a sur­prising number of vigorous state firms representing the new technologies can be found in the Fortune 500 List. But changing economic patterns will force Pennsylvania’s labor force to again do what it has always done throughout its 300 year history – forge new strategies and organizations to meet the changing pressures of a fluctuating economy.


For Further Reading

Broehl, Wayne G., Jr. The Molly Maguires. Cambridge: Har­vard University Press, 1964.

Cochran, Thomas C. Pennsylvania: A Bicentennial History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Olton, Charles S. Artisans for Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution. Syracuse: Syra­cuse University Press, 1975.

Sullivan, William A. The Industrial Worker in Pennsylvania, 1800-1840. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1955.

Walker, Joseph E. Hopewell Village: The Dynamics of a Nine­teenth Century Iron-Making Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. Rockdale: The Growth of an Ameri­can Village in the Early Industrial Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Wolff, Leon. Lockout: The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892 – A Study of Violence, Unionism and the Carnegie Steel Empire. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.


Ronald M. Benson received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and is a professor of history at Millersville State College. Author of numerous ar­ticles and book reviews, with emphasis on labor history, he currently serves as secretary of the Pennsylvania Historical Association.