Buena Vista Mine Battle (1874)
One of the earliest mining struggles in southwest Pennsylvania occurred at the Buena Vista mine where the owner, Charles Armstrong, refused to bargain with his workers over how the coal they produced was weighed and paid. The National Miner’s Association led by John Siney had achieved the first union contract in the anthracite coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania and was actively organizing mines in the Youghiogheny Valley. Armstrong hired 173 Italian laborers from New York to break the strike. The labor contractor boasted: “they are adept in the use of all kinds of arms, and are particularly skillful with their peculiar knives…like a pruning hook.”
After several weeks of mounting tension and violent incidents, the situation devolved into warfare. Joining the strikers were many armed men from the surrounding countryside and the Italians were surrounded. An Italian woman advancing with a white flag averted a massacre. Men surrendered their weapons and were escorted out of town. They later sued Armstrong for unpaid wages. As many as ten people were killed, but no charges were filed. Using ethnic and racial divisions to break strikes became commonplace as Slavs were used against Irish, African-Americans against Slavs.
Morewood Massacre (1891)
Henry Clay Frick built an empire of coal properties and coke ovens that made him the “Coke King” and the necessary but uneasy partner of Andrew Carnegie. Grandson to the owner of the distillery that made Old Overholt rye whiskey, he borrowed money from the Mellon banking family to construct coke ovens. Coal was baked originally in beehive ovens and later in vast batteries of furnaces releasing smoke and gas, leaving a dense fibrous substance of almost pure carbon that was ideal for steelmaking.
The men who tended these furnaces worked 84 hours a week exposed to coal dust, heat and heavy smoke. Attempts to organize these jobs were fiercely resisted. In 1891, Frick decided to institute a sliding scale of wages geared to the price of coke. Frick was a man who put a high value on control of the workforce. He stated: “We concluded that we would end this thing once for all, and determine whether we had a right to employ who we pleased and discharge whom we pleased.” His actions triggered marches and walkouts across the coke region.
On April 2, around 3a.m., more than one thousand workers marched on the Morewood mine and coke ovens. Deputies opened fire on the column and nine men were killed. The dead were buried in the same nearby Catholic cemetery as most of the victims of the Mammoth Mine explosion.
Mammoth (1891) And Darr (1907) Mine Explosions
Coal mining in Pennsylvania was an extremely dangerous occupation, especially in the years between 1890 and 1920 when the state’s death toll regularly exceeded 1,000 miners per year. H.C. Frick’s Mammoth Mine exploded on January 27, 1891; its 109 killed equaled the worst mining disaster to that point in the Commonwealth. More than half the men were buried in a unmarked mass grave in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery. In 2000, the Pennsylvania Labor History Society marked the site of the mass grave as well as the graves of those shot down later in 1891 at Morewood.
The deadliest coal mine disaster in Pennsylvania took place at the Darr Mine near Jacob’s Creek on the Monongahela Rivers. On December 19, 1907, an explosion killed 239 men and boys, most immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (that included Poles, Slovaks, Croatians, Rusyns and Hungarians).
December of 1907 was the deadliest month in American mining history with 3,000 casualties including the Monongah, West Virginia, mine explosion that killed at least 362 miners. While the Monongah disaster happened on the Roman Catholic feast of Saint Nicholas, the Darr Mine explosion happened after the mine reopened following festivities for the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic feasts of St. Nicholas. Hundreds of miners at each mine were spared death because of religious duties or hangovers; this strange coincidence became known as the “miracle of St. Nicholas.”
Carnegie Libraries of Braddock, Allegheny City and Homestead
Andrew Carnegie was a split personality. Driven by the desire for money and power, he was a ferocious competitor and a calculating exploiter of labor. On the other hand, he had experienced poverty and ultimately gave most of his immense fortune away for libraries, music halls and foundations that dispensed benevolence. Many library buildings in the county exhibit his belief in education and promote his memory. Three stand out in labor history:
Braddock – The first great library dedicated (1889) by Carnegie was in the town where he erected his first great steel mill. Site of the crushing defeat of the British/American army by the French and Indians in 1755, this library’s struggle back from near destruction in the 1970s gave hope to a whole community. 419 Library St, Braddock.
Allegheny City (now North Side) – This edifice was a tribute to the library of Colonel James Anderson who made his books available to working-class youth and opened a world of possibility to Andrew Carnegie. The statue of the worker as scholar dedicated to Anderson graces the cover of this booklet. By the New Haslett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, North Side.
Homestead – This was the library sealed in blood. At the library dedication in Braddock, Carnegie said that unionized Homestead would only get a library when their workers became partners with capital. In 1898, six years after the bloody Battle of Homestead, Carnegie returned for the last time to the region to dedicate the Homestead Library. Six thousand workmen were lined up hat-in-hand along the road as 1,500 invited guests passed in carriages. 510 E 10th Ave., Munhall.
1919 Steel Strike
While not the bloodiest, perhaps the most bitter labor struggle in Allegheny County was the 1919 Steel Strike. The American Federation of Labor’s attempt to organize large-scale industrial enterprises inside a craft union structure failed and helped inspire the industrial union movement of the 1930s that succeeded in organizing steel, auto, electrical, rubber, chemicals and other basic sectors of the economy.
In the Mon Valley, a mostly Slavic labor force subject to the 84-hour workweek and dangerous working conditions launched the “Hunky Strike.” Steel companies mobilized an estimated 25,000 armed men in the Mon Valley and civil liberties were routinely suppressed. While the nationwide strike was defeated after several months, the worst aspect locally was the importation of thousands of poor black strikebreakers from the south where the boll weevil had devastated cotton crops. Because of discriminatory practices, African-Americans had little experience with unions and until the New Deal voted solidly Republican. For the immigrant strikers, public meetings were forbidden as was speaking to groups in foreign languages.
Gatherings in the street were dispersed by force. Resistance to corporate repression in Braddock was centered at St. Michael’s Slovak Church (now Good Shepherd). Father Adalbert Kazinci allowed union meetings and testified on behalf of the strikers before legislative committees and to the press. “Against them are violence, lies, repression. They have only their patience, their faith, their endurance.”
Out of This Furnace (1940)
Thomas (Belejcak) Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace is considered the greatest Pittsburgh novel. It chronicles three generations of Slovak/Rusyn immigrant worker families in the Braddock steel mill. Based on Thomas Bell’s own family, it highlights the role of the women, the ever-present threat of death in the mill, and ends with the triumph of union organization in 1937. Bell refused to be ashamed of his “hunky” heritage. He asserted “that the Slovaks with their blood and lives helped to build America, that the steel they produced changed the United States into the most industrialized nation in the world…that the hardships that my grandfather, my father, my brother, sisters and other relatives lived through would never be forgotten.”
Thomas Bell was a CIO organizer. For him the union struggle for a voice in the workplace was an expression of what it means to be an American. “Maybe not the kind of American that came over on the Mayflower… or the kind that’s always shooting off their mouths about Americanism or patriotism, some of the god-damnedest heels you’d ever want to see…It wasn’t where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from. It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law – the same law – for rich or poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn’t like.”
Edgar Thomson Steel Works
The historic Edgar Thomson Works stands where Turtle Creek flows into the Monongahela River. A six-month strike in 1986-87 concluded with an agreement between the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel to build a continuous caster in Braddock. This gave the historic mill a new lease on life. A small park in front of the mill proudly displays the last plate from the old rolling mill and the first continuous cast slab. Named for the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad that served the facility, the plant was the first jewel in Andrew Carnegie’s Mon Valley crown that came to include major mills in Homestead, Duquesne, McKeesport and Clairton. When Captain Bill Jones was killed in an explosion, young Charles Schwab successively became manager of the Braddock and Homestead mills, eventually president of U.S. Steel, and later Bethlehem Steel.
Dramatic labor events occurred at the mill’s gate. In June 1914, 1,000 women picketers led Westinghouse Electric strikers by the mill on their way to Swissvale to peacefully shut down the Union Switch & Signal plant. On May 1, 1916, a militant electrical workers’ march culminated in an invasion of the steel mill and adjoining shops. On May 2, a shootout at the gates left three dead and thirty wounded. In 1919, steelworkers waged a national strike for months. The strike was crushed, but its central demand for an end to the twelve-hour day, seven-day week was achieved by public pressure in its aftermath.
Westinghouse Airbrake and Union Switch and Signal
Pittsburgh remains a major crossroads of freight shipped by rail. Recent years have seen a decline in coal shipments with an offsetting increase in gas and oil related products. Historically, it was a key site for the manufacturing of essential rail safety systems equipment. George Westinghouse successfully demonstrated his airbrake in 1869 in Pittsburgh and built them in the Strip District before moving the Airbrake plant to Wilmerding in the Turtle Creek Valley. There he constructed his chateau-like headquarters that workers called the “Castle”.
Better braking induced faster speeds that needed systematic electronic controls for safe operation. In 1881, Westinghouse organized the Union Switch & Signal in a plant off Penn Ave. on Garrison Alley in downtown Pittsburgh. In 1886, the Switch was moved to a 45-acre site in Swissvale, now the Edgewood Town Center. At the downtown site, important experiments with alternating current based on the work of the Serbian genius Nikola Tesla were conducted.
In 1894, Westinghouse began construction of the massive Electric, Machine and Meter complex in East Pittsburgh. In the great post World War II labor struggle over the issue of Communism in the union movement, the United Electrical Workers (UE) was split. The Electric plant joined the CIO’s International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), while the Airbrake and the Switch remained in the UE. In 1981-82 a six month strike set in motion a series of moves that closed the Switch and greatly reduced the Airbrake now known as WABCO.
The Electric Valley: Westinghouse Electric and Bridge
The triumph of Westinghouse’s alternating current over Thomas Edison’s direct current for lighting was confirmed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One hundred thousand incandescent bulbs burst into light to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (a moment that inspired Frank Baum to write the Wizard of Oz). The great breakthrough came when Westinghouse bested Edison for the contract to harness the power of Niagara Falls. In 1896, his Tesla generators lit the city of Buffalo and permitted Niagara’s power to illuminate New York’s Broadway.
The Westinghouse Bridge provides a dramatic crossing for US Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) over the Turtle Creek Valley and is best appreciated by traveling under it from the Edgar Thomson mill to the former Westinghouse Electric complex (now Keystone Commons). Nearly a half-mile long, it crosses the valley with five graceful concrete spans 240 feet above the valley. When it was completed in 1932, it was the world’s longest concrete arch structure. The Pittsburgh region has more bridges than any other city in the world. The Westinghouse Bridge rises as a jewel in the region’s crown and a impressive tribute to the ironworkers, carpenters, cement masons, operating engineers, pile drivers, laborers, and other trades who built it.
Penn McKee Hotel: Kennedy-Nixon Taft-Hartley Debate (1947)
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon are two of the most important political figures of 20th century America. Their 1960 presidential debate was a landmark political and media event. Virtually unknown is the fact that on April 22, 1947, the two freshmen Congressmen debated one of the most important pieces of labor legislation in U.S. history at McKeesport’s Penn McKee Hotel. Nixon supported it, but Kennedy warned: “This bill…destroys with high sounding words the power of labor unions to bargain equally with the employers…Have no illusions that you are voting for labor peace and for the protection of the workingman. You will be voting for industrial warfare… for a bill that seeks to strangle by legal restraints the American labor movement.”
The controversial Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act severely restricted industrial unions: outlawing sympathy and sit-down strikes; allowing states to adopt “right to work” laws barring the union shop; weakening enforcement for employer unfair labor practices; allowing unions to be charged with unfair labor practices and sued for breach of contract. A very disruptive provision was its requirement for union officers to sign non-Communist loyalty oaths. This provision split the nation’s third largest union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), and led to bitter divisiveness elsewhere. For construction unions, however, the law’s regulation of joint labor-management pension and health care funds tied union contractors and craft unions together in mutual interest to improve the quantity and quality of union labor.
Other Points of Interest
Ross Iron Furnace – One of many early 19th Century stone furnaces accessible to the public (see www.oldindustry.org). Ross Mountain Rd., near Ligonier, Fairfield Township.
Coal and Coke Heritage Center – Excellent small museum telling the story of the region’s coal and coke industry and the workers and patch towns that served them. Penn State – Fayette, Lemont Furnace, Pa.
Bill Sylvis – A marker, honoring the leader of Iron Molders Union and the post-Civil War National Labor Union, outside Keith Hall, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Vandergrift – Built in 1895 by the owner of Apollo Iron and Steel company as a “model city.” Laid out by renowned designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, the historic district is on Lincoln, Sherman, and Custer Avenues.
United Mine Workers Education Chautauquas – A marker, honoring 1920s labor educational efforts, is near Borough Bldg., 207 5th Ave., Hastings.
Windber Strike for Union – The site of a hardfought battle for miners’ union recognition in 1922-23, including a massive tent city of evicted miners and families, Rt. 601 and Rt. 56, Somerset Co.
Railroad Shopmen’s Strike – A marker, in honor of the 300,000 workers striking in 1922 to preserve their union, located at Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council, 302 E. Wopsononock Ave., Altoona.
Lilly Anti-Klan Memorial – In this community near Altoona, local working people drove 400 KKK supporters from town in 1924, with shooting following a cross burning. The episode is depicted in metal relief, 513 Cleveland St., Lilly.
Rossiter Injunction – A marker, commemorating the 1927 soft coal strikers fighting wage reductions and the draconian repression of free speech and assembly. Schaffer Field, Central St. at West Side St., Rossiter.
Penn-Craft – An experimental community for coal miners and unemployed, built 1937-43 by the American Friends Service Committee. Marker located on Penncraft Rd. (Rt. 672) at Pencraft Circle 2 Rd., West of Rt. 166 SW of Republic, Luzerne Township.
Norvelt – One of many Eleanor Roosevelt New Deal homestead projects with 250 model homes, originally built self-sufficiently by tenants/owners. Marker located at V.F.W., Mt. Pleasant Road, Norvelt.
Linden Hall – The United Steelworkers purchased the property and mansion of coal and coke baron Philip Cochran and converted it to a labor education center to train future leaders of the union, 432 Linden Hall Road, Dawson.