The Steel Revolution: Exploring Pittsburgh and the Great Steel Strike of 1919

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
There was once a time when steel was king. During the early-to-mid 20th century, steel plants dotted the landscape of the North and Midwest, providing thousands of jobs to otherwise stagnant economies. But these plants were not without their own drama, and strikes were common amongst workers. In Pittsburgh, these tensions rolled over into one of the largest strikes in the city’s history. Read on to learn more about the 1919 steel strike, and how it changed Pittsburgh’s industrial scene!
From the steps of the Good Shepherd Catholic Parish in Braddock, Pennsylvania, there are two buildings that catch the eye. First, just a few yards away across Braddock Avenue, is the office of the United Steelworkers Local 1219. Behind it, looming over the city like a rusty blue ship, is the Edgar Thomson Plant of the United States Steel Corporation.

The plant stretches along the Monongahela River and is crisscrossed by railroad tracks and power lines. It can churn out millions of tons of steel each year that is shipped to other U.S. Steel facilities that still dot the Pennsylvania valleys. It has stood there, in one form or another, since the 1870s, when the plant’s Bessemer converter first poured out its purified steel. The monstrous ladles and chargers have been modernized, but still, the plant makes steel.

It’s easy to miss the office of Local 1219 in the mill’s shadow. The low-slung building is host to occasional union meetings and Steelers viewing parties, and a few cars can usually be found parked along Eleventh Street. A visitor might find it hard to imagine the scene that was on that street in October 1919: crowds of men openly battling outside the mill, replacement workers fighting their way inside under police guard, a state constable wounded in the mêlée, a man shot—it’s not clear who, which was often the case in the chaotic and garbled reports that flowed from the battles in every steel town. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times could only report that Washington Street was “the scene of other troubles between strike sympathizers and workmen during the day.”

There was no union hall then. The workers, who spent twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks in the blazing mill, had no union, at least not a recognized one. Those who joined risked dismissal, the blacklist and beatings by industrial agents. An unprecedented organizing drive had spurred thousands of workers around Pittsburgh to join the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, which sought a raft of reforms and recognition to bargain as equals with the millionaire steel bosses. However, it was nothing like today’s organizing drives. From the 1930s until the modern wave of so-called right-to-work legislation, workers and employers in the United States dealt on the principle that a fairly elected union represented all the employees under its jurisdiction. But in 1919, the steel bosses were under no obligation to make a deal. They fought the organizers, and their supporters, with government support.

For months, the valleys around Pittsburgh—the Monongahela, the Allegheny, the Ohio, the Shenango, the Conemaugh and many more—were in an effective state of war. Sheriffs deputized thousands of civilians and handed enforcement of the law over to eager, anti-union men and soldiers fresh from the trenches of World War I in France. Strikers armed themselves and surrounded the mills, desperate to keep replacements from relighting the furnaces. Many died—twenty according to organizers—but figures vary. At the time, it was the largest strike in America.

A picture of the first steel plant in Pittsburgh.
There was a church in Braddock’s battlefield, too, but the Good Shepherd Parish had not yet been built. Its predecessor, St. Michael’s Parish, rang with the songs of Slovak immigrants who had crossed an ocean to work in the mills. The workers had crossed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their families often followed. Along with them were thousands of poor immigrants from the new and old nations of Europe: Russia, Poland, Romania and Croatia. Those immigrants were at the heart of the strike, and at St. Michael’s, the parish priest tended to their hungry families and stood with their union. When the authorities threatened the church, the priest vowed to fly a banner atop the steeple to place blame on the steel bosses.

The immigrants also brought with them new ideas from Europe, which terrified steel moguls, newspapermen and politicians alike. Across Pittsburgh and its surrounding towns, socialist meeting halls and schools sprung up. Parties and unions with strange names formed, and their meetings were sometimes carried out in strange languages. “Lenin” and “Trotsky” became household names in America. Among Pittsburgh’s immigrants—and its natural-born citizens—groups like the Communist Labor Party, the Union of Russian Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World drew newfound attention. “Why work for wages?” they asked. They said that system that allowed steel moguls to live in sprawling mountain castles while condemning steelworkers to shantytowns couldn’t last. A general strike, a workers’ uprising, could end it.

This was Pittsburgh in 1918, 1919 and 1920, the years when America seemed on the verge of a revolution. A century later, those days would appear almost unrecognizable. The city’s once-great radical gathering halls have been demolished or turned into bars and attorneys’ offices. Many of the old steel mills have been shut down or operate with a fraction of the workforce they once employed. But signs of this turbulent time remain everywhere if you know where to look. And the spirit of 1919 remains, too; steelworkers still gather in their union halls, U.S. Steel executives still meet in a skyscraper towering over the city.

In 2018, a wave of strikes roared across the country, led, in several states, by teachers who, in some cases, walked off of their jobs illegally. In Pittsburgh and cities across the country, meeting halls were once again filled with labor and left-wing radicals of every stripe; “socialism” entered the common political parlance for the first time in decades. This organization of U.S. workers would, in no doubt, shock Elbert Gary, who headed U.S. Steel and demanded an “open shop,” and hearten William Z. Foster, who organized the steelworkers from his Pittsburgh office.

The lessons of the Great Steel Strike of 1919 remain important a century later, and so do its physical scars, for those willing to look for them.