Steel Workers Organized

Our union heritage: Steel workers organized in Newport 100 years ago, by Thurman Wenzl

If we think of Newport history, we more often think of the gambling, sex and booze that ended some few decades ago. But who knew that large strikes in the iron foundries and steel mills took place there in 1904 and 1921, with major support from the community.
First, in late 1904 the managers at Newport Foundry tried to force their union men to accept lower wages and refused to negotiate, setting off a long strike. The company tried to discredit the strikers (in the Iron Molders Union) by claiming that they were initiating violence, but the local police disagreed, saying that shots had been fired by supervisors and strike-breakers from within the plant. This industry was quite important in Newport at the time, with 28 foundries, 12 of which tried to force their workers to accept lower pay. Newport Foundry’s owners got so desperate in the face of community and police support for the strikers, that they went to Federal Court to try to transfer jurisdiction over local policing to federal marshals. Several mass meetings were held in Newport city council chambers, and one local activist expressed his support for the strikers by saying that ‘if the law was enforced half of your capitalist parasites would be in the penitentiary.’
Press coverage in the Kentucky Post was certainly not hostile to the strikers nor to the labor movement as a whole, which at the time was made up of numerous craft unions. In one brief listing on Jan 6, 1905 - they listed that nearly 30 craft unions were having meetings that night, including the Shoe Lasters, Broom Makers, Stove Mounters and Carriage Trimmers. Only in the following decades would industrial unions gradually develop more strength, with everyone in a single workplace in the same union.
Then in December 1921 2500 workers at Newport Steel went on strike, again with huge community support. The principal issues were union recognition, the obligation of the company to bargain and the desire that all workers belong to the union. Wages and working conditions were not an issue. The company insisted on an open shop, but the Kentucky Post wrote in an editorial in support of the workers: “This newspaper believes that the open shop is bad for workers but is also bad for the community”.
In one example of neighborhood support: a non-union bread delivery driver was stopped by local women, who explained that even though the bread had a union label, they would not allow him to deliver it in their neighborhood since he did not belong to the Teamster’s Union.
These striking workers were in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers (AA), which had grown into a large craft union during the 1917-19 war years when demand for steel was high and the Wilson administration was not opposed to workers organizing. The AA grew with the use of member organizers as they did not have the resources to send out staff organizers from their headquarters in Pittsburgh. In the national economic downturn following the war this union lost a big strike in the Pittsburgh area.
The early 20s were not friendly to labor, as this was a period of repression with the Palmer Raids occurring against left activists in many parts of the country. One national strike took place later in 1922: all the railway shopmen (mechanics) struck around the country, including in Corbin, KY where community support was complete. Eventually this strike was lost, because of government repression and no support from the ‘operating brotherhoods’ (rail drivers etc).

In Newport, Andrews Steel responded to the community support for the strikers by erecting no fewer than 36 machine guns and search lights on their mill, which they claimed were needed in case the plant was attacked. The company occasionally used these guns, and there was some striker violence against scabs - although one union leader, John Williams reported that the union was urging its members to abstain from violence, and that most shooting was being initiated by the company.

There was some dispute about who was responsible for violence on the picket lines, and in one case a strike supporter (identified as an umbrella mender) was arrested for refusing an order to ‘move on’ from a militia member. He had a jury trial for ‘breach of the peace’ and was found not guilty by a jury that was even identified by name in the article. Later, a ‘mill guard’ was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon - based on a complaint by striking workers.’

The AA was a craft union with 4 different “Lodges” in this large facility made up of 10 mills, and at one point the company claimed to be willing to negotiate with Lodge 5 but refused to deal with Lodges 15, 16 and 17. During the first month of the strike, officers of the AA visited Newport from Pittsburgh to speak at a rally and participate in negotiations, but the company refused.

This large mill had at least 5 open hearth furnaces and had been in operation at least since 1867. Their products include galvanized steel roofing sheets and corrugated piping for culverts. Work weeks of 84 hours were not unusual, sometimes with only a day off every 2 weeks. Much earlier in 1873, skilled workers struck to protest a 10% pay cut.

After the company realized that the Newport police were not doing enough to curb the pickets, they appealed to the Governor to send in the state militia, which he did. The company also sought a Temporary Restraining Order from the Campbell County Court, which among other things restricted the strikers to just 2 pickets at each entrance to the mill. The community was not thrilled about the militia, and a state representative from Newport, Herman Thompson, called for an investigation into the reasons for sending in the troops; the company opposed such an investigation. A local druggist was quoted as saying that he had “suffered untold indignities at the hands of the militia.”

Neither of these steps had the desired effect, as the militia commander was quoted as upholding the rights of the strikers, and the soldiers confiscated the machine guns which the company had installed. The state militia commander, Col HH Denhardt, apparently had conflicting loyalties, at one point giving orders to ‘shoot to kill’ but just 4 days later being quoted: “I am a friend of union labor because I believe in collective bargaining. Workmen have a right to organize for that purpose.” The militia built wooden barracks within the steel mill and stayed more than 4 months.

A community committee, made up of religious and other leaders, tried to bring the workers and company together for a ‘just and fair settlement’ but steel mill officials refused to negotiate. And in a Jan 11,1922 editorial, the Kentucky Post again commented in support of the strikers that “the workers’ right to collective bargaining cannot any longer be considered arbitrable.’

In another form of community support for the strikers’ efforts to talk to scabs, it was reported that a “system has been established between Green Line (streetcar) employees and strike sympathizers whereby they give information that a non-union worker is a passenger on the car.”

The women of the neighborhood continued to be actively involved, with a ‘Sew for Strikers’ campaign that resulted in the formation of the ‘Women’s Volunteer Relief Committee.’ Their plan, which attracted 50 volunteers, was to have a card party to raise funds for strikers’ families.

One Kentucky Post headline screamed “IWW threat seen”, speculating that outside activists from the Industrial Workers of the World had arrived and were planning sabotage against the mill. The paper went on to report that the local strike committee was not happy about these visitors, reporting that “several strangers, believed to be members of that organization, were ordered away from the strike zone by union pickets.”

After a month of stalemate with continued community support for the strikers, Kentucky Gov. Edwin Morrow visited Newport in an attempt to negotiate a settlement, and met with local and AA union officials and the company, but Andrews Steel would not budge on the principal demand of the workers, namely, recognition of the union’s right to organize and sign contracts. Michael Tighe, the President of the AA from Pittsburgh, spoke at a well-attended rally and reported that there were ‘no serious differences on wages and working conditions.’

A few days after the Governor’s unsuccessful visit, a committee made up of a local banker, a minister and the Newport Safety Commissioner reiterated their support of the workers, announcing that ‘strikers should not be deprived of their right to organize.’

During the spring of 1922, the company was able to maintain limited production with replacement workers housed in the plant, and the militia had a gradual effect on the strikers efforts. Some skilled strikers began to give up and leave town to seek work further north where unions were still recognized. Legal maneuvering continued on both sides, with the strikers unsuccessfully seeking a restraining order against the militia, claiming unfair treatment.

Part of the company’s effort to maintain production involved bringing in skilled replacement workers from out of town. One of these from Chicago refused to go to work when he learned a strike was underway, and even sued the company for misrepresentation.

As June 1922 arrived and the strike was petering out, a major rally was held with speeches by national figures such as Samuel Gompers, the President of the AFL and William Green of the United Mine Workers. Despite the gradual deterioration of the strike, Gompers “expressed the belief that victory is near.” Skilled strikers gradually left town for other jobs, as community fundraising continued to try to support others who remained.