Pittsburgh sits at the Forks of the Ohio. Named “Golden Triangle,” for the wealthy corporations headquartered there, it is bound on the north by the Allegheny, on the south by the Monongahela, and at the “Point,” westward flows what Natives and the French called: Ohio, la belle rivière, the beautiful river. For natives and settlers, the Point marked the gateway to the heart of a continent. For union folk the beauty of the city has a particular significance since virtually every building downtown was built and most are maintained and serviced by union labor.
Cotton Mill Women Strikes
1845 and 1848
Early 19th century Pittsburgh’s furnaces, forges and mills supplied iron, tools, machinery, bottle and window glass, and other manufactured goods by river to the heartland. Cotton bales and tobacco leaf provided lightweight southern products to carry on return to the smoky city. Allegheny City, Pittsburgh’s North Side, was a growing textile manufacturing area in the 1840s with seven major factories and more than 1,500 workers, mostly young women and girls.
Machine-driven mass production pioneered in textile mills demanded repetitive operations for long hours. Owners hired mostly young women and girls for a wage that was about half the male unskilled labor rate of a dollar a day. The women fiercely resisted the imposition of a twelve-hour day. A strike for the ten-hour day in 1845 shut down the mills for more than a month and featured the forcible ejection of replacements by the women. The strike inspired the Pennsylvania Legislature to legislate a ten-hour day in textiles and to ban child labor under 12 years old. This was seen as a major victory.
A legal loophole allowing workers to waive their individual ten-hour rights provoked a lockout by the owners in 1848. After a month, a mill tried to reopen using women who signed away their rights. Militant pickets surrounded the plant and forcibly ejected the strikebreakers. The women were led by “a beautiful, dark-eyed, pale, well-built Kentucky girl with long flowing tresses” referred to as “The Unknown.”
Resistance to slavery: Martin Delany and Jane Grey Swisshelm
Pittsburgh was a key center of resistance to slavery including legal tactics against bounty hunters and physical interventions through “slave-snatchings.” Underground railway routes passed through the city. Black waiters and maids at the Monongahela House, led by the barber Jean Vashon, coordinated slave rescues.
Martin Delany, among the most important African American figures in our nation’s history, spent more than 20 years in Pittsburgh. A fierce opponent of slavery, he was admitted to study medicine at Harvard and became a journalist, novelist, and founder of an abolitionist newspaper, The Mystery. In 1850, he urged resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law at a mass meeting in Allegheny City, (Pittsburgh’s North Side). Many white workers understood that black slavery undermined the status of free labor. Delany explored the Niger River in Africa and Abraham Lincoln named him the highest-ranking black officer in the Union army.
Jane Grey Swisshelm, journalist and founder of an anti-slavery newspaper in Pittsburgh, won the right for women to control property they brought into a marriage. She was the first female given a place in the reporter’s gallery in Washington, but was exiled because of her caustic and passionate writing. “In the nation’s capital lived some of our most prominent statesmen in open concubinage with negresses, adding to their income by the sale of their own children…indisputable testimony of the truth of Thomas Jefferson’s statement: ‘The best blood of Virginia runs in the blood of her slaves.’”
Blocking the cannons 1860; Abraham Lincoln’s visit 1861
Pittsburgh claims the site of the founding of a Republican Party in 1852. The party was dedicated to free soil in the west and restriction of slavery to the southern states. The party championed high tariffs to protect American manufacturing and public investment in infrastructure. Pennsylvania’s support was critical to Abraham Lincoln’s nomination for president. After Lincoln’s election in 1860, incumbent President Buchanan’s southern Secretary of War ordered 124 large cannons to be moved from the Allegheny Arsenal to the South. In late December, in the first act by the North in the Civil War, thousands of Pittsburgh citizens blocked the movement of cannons from the city. Pittsburgh’s working class was a major force in the war as soldiers and as producers of armaments and supplies for the Union.
February 14, 1861, Lincoln visited Pittsburgh during a politically charged trip to Washington for the inauguration. Ten thousand Pittsburghers stood for hours in a cold rain to cheer his progress. He spoke from the balcony of the Monongahela House at Smithfield St. Given a solid majority of Allegheny County votes, he praised “the banner county of the state if not the entire union.” Lincoln said: “Labor being the true standard of value…a tariff should be arranged as to foster and protect the interests of all sections – the iron of Pennsylvania, the corn of Indiana, the reapers of Chicago” was met with enthusiastic demonstrations and cries of “that’s the doctrine!”
Arsenal Explosion 1862; Pittsburgh Fortifications 1863
On September 17, 1862, while the armies of the North and South wrestled to a bloody stalemate at Antietam in Maryland, a mighty explosion ripped through the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville killing 78 workers, mostly women and girls. They were filling cartridges, shells and canister with powder. A teamster horse’s iron shoes probably ignited black powder not cleaned up due to the push for increased production. Workers had protested the lack of housecleaning and the new hard stone roadway to the facility. In a tragic coincidence, the bloodiest day in U.S. military history was the same day as the worst Civil War civilian accident. The explosion was also the worst industrial accident inside Pittsburgh’s boundaries.
Map of Fortifications
The city’s pro-union sentiment, diverse industry, skilled crafts, and strategic position on river and rail networks made Pittsburgh an important Union bastion. When Robert E. Lee launched the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, he sent cavalry leader Jeb Stuart on a wide-ranging raid that spread terror across the state. Pittsburgh responded by organizing more than ten thousand workers to construct 37 fortifications ringing the city in June 1863. J&L ironworkers helped fortify the ridge above Southside. African-Americans formed labor brigades to dig trenches. When Lincoln was assassinated, the Pittsburgh Gazette editorialized: “He is not a true man who does not vow that he will give himself no rest until Slavery and the spirit of Slavery are thoroughly rooted out of this land.”
The 1877 Railroad Strike
The 1877 railroad strike was the bloodiest event in Pittsburgh’s labor history. The strike was a response to a severe economic depression that gripped the country. Railroad owners strengthened their economic and political dominance while becoming fabulously wealthy. Workers were infuriated that wealthy companies continued paying shareholders while exacting a series of wage cuts on employees. George Westinghouse’s invention of the airbrake in Pittsburgh, although a great advance in worker safety and train controls, resulted in massive job cuts at a moment when working-class communities were suffering high unemployment and shrinking wages.
Railroad workers organized a Trainman’s Union in June 1877 to protest wage and job cuts, but the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad led resistance to any negotiations and fired worker representatives. In mid-July a strike erupted in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and spread rapidly. For three days, a popular uprising seized Pittsburgh and shut down freight shipments with little violence or disorder. A thousand troops from Philadelphia were summoned when the Pittsburgh militia refused to disperse the crowds. At the 28th Street crossing, troops fired into a crowd killing twenty people. Pittsburgh militia and citizens then drove the Philadelphians from the city and set fire to Pennsylvania Railroad property. The violence prompted President Hayes to send federal troops, recently removed from the occupation of the South, into Pittsburgh to quell the rebellion.
American Federation of Labor 1881
Organized labor grew rapidly in the 1880s. The Knights of Labor attracted widespread support for a vision of political reform and a cooperative commonwealth. Skilled craft workers met in Pittsburgh in 1881 to form what became known as the American Federation of Labor. The organization called for a limit on corporations’ power: “A struggle is going on in the nations of all the civilized world between the oppressors and oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”
Peter J. McGuire, AFL carpenter leader, was at the origins of both Labor Day and Mayday. He organized the first Labor Day Parade calling for a September holiday honoring labor in 1882. Pittsburgh endorsed both the cause and the parade. In 1894, Labor Day was made a legal holiday in part to counter the idea behind Mayday. In 1886, McGuire proposed that since legislatures were so dominated by money, workers campaigning by the millions for the eight-hour day, should simply go to work on May 1, but pack up their tools and leave after eight hours. This call to direct action to impose a shorter workday from below and the subsequent eruption of violence and repression in Chicago inspired socialist, communist and anarchist movements around the world to name May 1, International Workers Day.
Iron Workers Union Founding 1896
In 1896 the founding convention of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers convened in Morewood Hall at the corner of Second and Grant Street. Pittsburgh’s Local 3 hosted a meeting that attracted delegates from six major cities. Then as now, Pittsburgh had the most bridges and bridge builders in the country. With the development of structural steel beams and elevators, buildings grew dramatically taller, and constructing “skyscrapers” became a major source of ironworker employment.
In 1903, Pittsburgh witnessed its worst construction accident when a high bridge being constructed by the Wabash Railroad over the Monongahela from a tunnel through Mt. Washington to a terminal in downtown failed. As the central span was being extended over the Monongahela River, it collapsed onto passing coal barges. Ten ironworkers were killed and more injured. A passerby described the scene: “They fell through the air like flies…. The men were shrieking and yelling as they fell…. The entire mass fell with a sickening thud on the barges beneath. One of the barges was sunk immediately…few of the men on the barges saw the mass falling on them.” Hundreds of ironworkers rushed from all around the city to aid in the rescue. Wabash Bridge supports are still visible on both banks of the Monongahela. At the 1904 Iron Workers convention in Toronto, worker safety was asserted as a central concern of the union.
Crystal Eastman: Work Accidents and the Law 1910
Workplace health and safety is an enduring concern for organized labor. Crystal Eastman came to Pittsburgh at the age of 26 in 1907. With a law degree from New York University and a Masters from Columbia, she undertook perhaps the most important study of industrial safety ever accomplished. She did an in-depth study of 526 deaths by industrial accident in Allegheny County in a single twelve-month period. She extensively interviewed workers and their families and documented variables of occupation and ethnicity. She totally undermined the almost universal assertion that ninety percent of accidents were the workers’ fault. Through analysis and investigation she showed that at most thirty percent were caused by worker error. She recommended engineering controls like machine and drive belt guarding.
Eastman dramatically exposed the pitiful amounts of compensation paid to injured workers and families devastated by a breadwinner’s fatality or crippling. Her Pittsburgh Survey volume led to an invitation by the governor of New York to write the state’s workers compensation law. Crystal Eastman was a pioneer in other areas as well. She actively organized a women’s resistance movement to World War I. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and wrote an early version of the Equal Rights Amendment. She believed that women would only achieve true equality when a woman’s labor in giving life and care to her child was recognized and compensated by the state.
Steel Workers Organizing Committee (1936)
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) was organized on June 13, 1936 in the Commonwealth Building offices of Pat Fagan, director of District 5 of the United Mineworkers. Phil Murray of Pittsburgh, vice-president of the UMW, was named chair of the organization and opened union headquarters on the top floor of the Grant Building. Supported by the rapid unionization of the coal mines following the victory of Franklin Roosevelt, the organization challenged the craft union structure of the AFL. SWOC advocated an industrial union structure in steel. Following successful sit-down strikes in the automobile industry, secret negotiations between the UMW’s John L. Lewis and US Steel’s Myron Taylor led to a union contract in US Steel, the largest steel company.
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Wagner Act and the subsequent union victory at J&L Steel in Aliquippa, the “Little Steel Strike” was broken following an attack by Chicago police on strikers peacefully gathered on Memorial Day, 1937, in front of the Republic Steel plant. However, as the European war loomed, the union advanced steadily in membership. In 1942, SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America.
Founding the CIO (1938)
On Nov. 14, 1938, the first convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations met on Pittsburgh’s North Side at the Islam Grotto, a former fraternal meeting hall. Thirty-four international unions were present for this historic meeting, representing millions of newly organized workers. Rubber, auto, electrical, steel, textiles, and other industrial, commercial and service sector workers successfully formed unions under the CIO banner. It was an important milestone for those who struggled for decades for industrial unionism, embracing not just the highly skilled, but all workers, including previously disenfranchised women, recent immigrants, African-Americans and others. Massive walkouts, sit-down strikes, and elections held by the newly established federal National Labor Relations Board, as well as voluntary recognition by U.S. Steel swelled the ranks of the unions.
United Mine Workers President, John L. Lewis, chaired the meeting and led the organization for two years until Pittsburgher Philip Murray became CIO President, serving from 1940 to 1952. Union banners decorated the walls. Political, religious and other luminaries were on hand as delegates discussed, debated, and voted on policies for the new federation. CIO delegates pledged to provide union members with better wages, working conditions, and a voice on the job. Pittsburgh’s labor priest, Charles Owen Rice, gave the opening prayer: “Grant to American labor enlightenment, strength and unity…Grant it victory, we pray, for labor’s cause is Your cause, its victory Your victory.” Lewis admonished the crowd: “Organize the Unorganized!”
Physical effort, skill and toughness were admired in Pittsburgh’s industrial and immigrant blue-collar culture. In sports, nothing symbolized these attributes more than the Pittsburgh Steelers who demonstrated excellence and teamwork at the very moment Pittsburgh’s industrial base was collapsing. “Depression boxers,” literally fighting for a better life, lifted the city’s boxing status to tops in the world (1938-1942) with champions like Billy Conn and Fritzie Zivic. The Pittsburgh Pirates exemplified the city’s working- class identity with the exploits of a local boy from Carnegie. Honus Wagner won baseball’s batting championship eight times, but always remembered working in coal mines as a nine-year-old. “I seldom saw daylight except on Sundays and holidays. I’d start for work very early in the morning when it was dark and return home in the dusk and darkness of the evening. I loaded a ton of coal a day in a ‘boy car’ for 70 cents.” The Pirates fielded the first all black team in baseball in 1971. Perhaps the most revered Pirate of all time was that team’s brilliant outfielder. A fierce player, Roberto Clemente demanded respect. “From the first day, I said to myself: ‘I am the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated as a human being. I don’t want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person who comes for a job.”
The Hill District: Jazz, Baseball and Drama
The Hill District is the heart of Pittsburgh’s African-American working-class culture, buttressed to the east by Homewood and to the west by North Side. The Hill’s Greenlee Field was home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, with the local Homestead Grays one of the greatest teams in baseball history. The Hill was the center of a vibrant music and club scene that sprouted around the Crawford Grill. Top musicians made their way to the union hall of the black Musicians’ Union Local 471 after working gigs downtown just to hang out and jam with the local talent. The town overflowed with great musicians: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner, Ahmed Jamal, Kenny Clark, Ray Brown, Billy Eckstein, George Benson and many others. The mandated integration of the black and white union locals in the late 1960s, combined with the urban “renewal” of the Lower Hill, hurt the black musicians’ community and its rich culture.
Two great literary interpreters of Pittsburgh working-class life are the Slovak Thomas Bell (v. p.47) 42and the world famous, twice Pulitzer Prize winning, African-American dramatist August Wilson. Wilson’s astonishing ten-play cycle presents each decade of the Twentieth Century life in Pittsburgh’s Hill. The strength, soul, pride, and humor of the African American experience are told nowhere better. August Wilson skipped high school to read every day in the Carnegie Library, and he listened intently to the language of his people in the bars, barbershops, churches, and on the street.
Pennsylvanian March of the 45,000 (1986)
During the 1877 Railroad Strike, the original 1865 “Union Station” on the site was burned to the ground. Its name referenced the connection between the Pennsylvania Railroad and western subsidiaries connecting to Chicago and Cincinnati; no tribute to labor organization intended. The passenger station was only rebuilt in 1903 as corporate control was tightened on the city. A grandiose rotunda where taxis and buses dropped passengers marks the building’s exterior. Its interior of marble, brass, wood and stained glass reflected the wealth and renewed confidence of triumphant corporate Pittsburgh. With the bankruptcy of the Penn Central in the 1970s, a smaller passenger facility was constructed behind the station to accommodate Amtrak.
The majestic station deteriorated steadily until the mid-1980s when plans were unveiled to convert the building to luxury apartments, called The Pennsylvanian. Collapse of local industries in the 1980s allowed non-union contractors to aggressively expand using the unemployed to drive down regional wages. Union contractors struggled and skilled craftsmen faced unemployment. Learning that renovations would employ non-union labor, the Pittsburgh Building Trades Council called for a demonstration in early November 1986. Construction sites emptied out from Erie to West Virginia. An estimated 45,000 workers in work clothes and boots arrived by 7a.m. in the Golden Triangle filling available parking, effectively shutting the city. Workers marched a triangle route around Grant St., Liberty Avenue, and Boulevard of the Allies – a mighty human current – peaceful, disciplined, and chanting: “Who built America? The workers. The workers! Who won the wars? The workers! The workers!”
The U.S. Steel Building
No building in Pittsburgh projects corporate power like the former U.S. Steel building. Becoming the headquarters of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) symbolizes the transition of the city from a great manufacturing power to a city reliant on “Eds and Meds.” Completed in 1970, its 64 floors make it the region’s tallest building. Its triangular footprint and massive exterior support columns made of Corten, a corrosion-resistant oxidized steel rolled at the Homestead Works, make the building distinctive. With the rise of African-American militancy in the 1960s and demands for black employment opportunities in the trades, the building, along with Three Rivers Stadium, became a focus of militant demonstrations in 1969-71. Years of protests led to the famous “Pittsburgh Plan” that opened skilled trades jobs to many blacks.
In 1979, the building was again the scene of angry labor demonstrations as 400 Youngstown workers protesting the shutdown of US Steel’s Ohio Works joined with several hundred local unionists to occupy the first two floors of the headquarters. As the building was taken over by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, it became the site of numerous healthcare protests, especially with UPMC’s closing of Braddock Hospital. As the Pittsburgh region’s largest employer, it is the target of protests and civil disobedience on behalf of its workers’ efforts to unionize. As a purported non-profit with international operations in nearly a dozen countries, its refusal to pay taxes has left the city in a constant budgetary squeeze.
Freedom Corner; St. Benedict the Moor
The intersection of Crawford Street and Centre Avenue in front of St. Benedict the Moor Church has long been a rally point for civil and human rights. More than 2,000 Pittsburghers gathered there to take buses to the March on Washington in August, 1963. Associated with protests over the destruction of the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena, it served as a jumping off point for Black Construction Coalition protests for union jobs in 1969-71. Mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War started there and marched downtown. On April 22, 2001, a beautiful circular gathering place reflecting the commitment of Dr. Martin Luther King to non-violent protest was dedicated to honor the black community’s civil rights heroes including Nate Smith, Rev. Leroy Patrick, Alma Speed Fox, Byrd Brown, Robert Lavelle, Sala Udin, and many others. In recent years, community protests about immigration issues, law enforcement and imprisonment, public transit and education, housing and development – as well as labor marches to organize hospital, restaurant and fast food workers – often originate here.
St. Benedict the Moor is a mostly African-American Catholic parish. It is the site for the annual Labor Day Mass preceding the well-organized gathering of 30- 40,000 marchers around the former Civic Arena site for the annual Labor Day Parade. Three labor priests are among justice activists honored at Freedom Corner: Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, Fr. Jack O’Malley and Fr. Don McIlvane.
The Pittsburgh region has many hundreds of war memorials in virtually every neighborhood and every town in the region honoring the men and women who fought in the nation’s wars. Several deserve special attention:
- Civil War, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, 4141 Fifth Ave, Oakland, Allegheny Commons, North Side
- World War I “Doughboy” statue, Penn Ave. and Butler St., Lawrenceville/Strip District
- World War II Memorial, between Heinz Field and Del Monte Center, North Shore Dr., North Side
- Korean War Memorial, between Heinz Field and PNC Park, North Shore Dr., North Side
- Vietnam Soldiers’ Memorial, between Heinz Field and PNC Park, North Shore Trail, North Side
While labor provided the bulk of soldiers in all wars, the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War Memorials were supported directly by fundraising and donated labor by the Allegheny County Labor Council and affiliated unions.
Other sites of interest
IBEW Local 5 – In 1897, Local 5 of the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was organized at the Knights of Labor Hall on Third Avenue. Two years later in 1899, the national organization, recognizing the importance of Pittsburgh as the “home of electricity,” assembled in a hall on Smithfield St. and with the admission of a Canadian and a Mexican local changed its name to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. (IBEW). The state-of-the-art IBEW union hall and training center at 5 Hot Metal Street in the South Side is the location for many union and political meetings.
August Wilson Home – Built in the 1840s, recently added to the National Register of Historic Sites, to be renovated for use as an artists’ center by the non-profit Daisy Wilson Artist Community. 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District.
Consol Energy Center – Built with American union made steel and glass by union building trades workers, employing union members of the Hotel and Restaurant workers UNITE HERE local 57, this venue is the proud home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. 1001 Fifth Ave., Uptown.
Thomas Armstrong statue – Honors the editor of The Labor Tribune, a national Pittsburgh union newspaper in the 19th Century, near Pittsburgh Aviary, Allegheny Commons, North Side.
Henry Clay Frick sites – A marker on median by Frick Building, 437 Grant St.; the Frick Mansion, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze.
Jewish Labor Temple – Aided mainly Jewish workers, many women, in clothing, manufacturing and other industries and trades. Part of the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” is still visible near the entry. Miller and Reed Streets, Hill District.
IWW/Socialist Meeting Hall – Upstairs in what is currently James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy Tavern, 420 Foreland St., North Side.
Teamsters Temple – The drivers’ union headquarters and hall, 4701 Butler St., Lawrenceville.
Public Employees – Federal, state and local – have strong collective bargaining rights in Pennsylvania, and are an important part of today’s labor movement. One public workers’ union, Letter Carriers, converted an old theater into a union hall at 841 California Ave., Northside.
Teachers unions – The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and PSEA share a headquarters at 10 S. 19th St., South Side. In the 1930s, “Little New Deal” legislators in Harrisburg passed legislation to allow Pittsburgh female teachers to marry and become pregnant without dismissal from their teaching positions.
Heinz History Center – Important local historical exhibits, programs and archives in a converted ice storage warehouse, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District.
“The Workers” Sculpture – This monumental work honoring the city’s steel and iron workers was created from parts salvaged from Pittsburgh steel mills by 21 artists belonging to the Industrial Arts Cooperative headed by Tim Kaulen. Taking more than six years to fabricate, the massive steel figures were moved from the Hazelwood mill site to its current home by Iron Workers Local 3 apprentices.
South Side Glass Industry – Dozens of glass factories once produced window glass, bottles and fine cut glass along the Monongahela. The East Carson Street Historic District, a turn-of-the-century Main Street, was crammed with working-class shot-and-a-beer joints, ethnic clubs and a vibrant political and social working-class life.
Oliver Pool – An early indoor public swimming pool for working class residents donated by Henry Oliver, the native of South Side who developed the rich Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota for the benefit of Carnegie Steel, is still in service at 38 S. 10th St., South Side.
Polish Falcons Hall – In 1917, at the Polish Falcon’s Hall, the great pianist Jan Paderewski called for a Polish army to restore Polish independence after the nation had disappeared for 123 years. Recalling the great Polish patriots who fought for American Independence, Casimer Pulaski and especially Thadeusz Kosciuszko, the call from Pittsburgh helped Poland regain independence. 18th between Carson St. and Sarah St. South Side.
Pittsburgh Agreement – A similar plea to President Woodrow Wilson, who championed national self-determination at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, from Czech and Slovak Pittsburghers, helped achieve the independence of Czechoslovakia after World War I. Penn Avenue and 7th Street, the Theater District.