Forging A Union of Steel

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Dianne Feeley

Forging A Union of Steel:
Philip Murray, SWOC, & the United Steelworkers
edited by Paul F. Clark, Peter Gottlieb & Donald Kennedy, with contributions by David Brody, Melvyn Dubofsky, Ronald Filippelli, Mark McColloch & Ronald W. Schatz
Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1987, 168 pages, paper $8.95.

FORGING A UNION of Steel consists of five essays by labor historians who attempt to reassess the uniqueness of building the steelworkers’ union in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Perhaps the most intriguing of the articles is David Brody’s discussion of the conservative union bureaucracy’s relationship to the union rank and file.

Many historians and trade unionists have pointed to crucial differences between the grassroots, democratic tradition of organizing the auto or electrical industries and the labor-management strategy of the top-down Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Brody tries to show how the reality is far more complex.

Between 1933 and 1936 the labor upsurge in steel conformed closely to the pattern of the other mass-production industries. For instance, 1933-34 strike activity in steel was roughly as intense as in rubber and auto. Brody explains that it took a very particular series of historical steps to translate the possibilities of the early and militant struggles of the mid-thirties into the triumph of the industrial-union strategy based on bargaining that the steelworkers union, and its president, Philip Murray, came to personify.

Accompanying Brody’s essay is a survey by Mark McColloch of the transformations that consolidated industrial unionism over the course of the Second World War. McColloch mentions some of the factors that have been used to “improve” that the social culture of the rank-and-file steelworker produced a union based on labor-management collective bargaining- a relatively stable and relatively skilled workforce; a workforce that knows from its own family history the power of the employers; an ethnic workforce that has deep roots into a particular community.

But while acknowledging these factors, McColloch notes some conditions that could have produced a wildfire in steel mills—similar to the rebellion over conditions that affected many other mass-production industries. These include an anarchic job classification system (50,000 job titles) with the wage inequities that follow. Working conditions were so unsafe that, until D-Day, more steelworkers died inside the plants than in the war.

At the beginning of the war wages were so poor that the average steelworker was earning 80% of what might be described as an extremely modest family income. As late as 1943, 15% of the country’s steelworkers lived in homes without running water and 30% had no indoor bathroom. The family wage increased—primarily through the extensive use of incentive pay and lengthening the average work week to 45.6 hours.

Despite the steelworkers no-strike pledge, a number of wildcat strikes did occur in steel during World War 11—over wage rates, disciplining of workers, scheduling, anger over the failure of the Wage Labor Board to act But by this time the union had a relatively successful strategy: if the union and management can’t come to terms, bring in government on the union’s side. In a third essay Ronald W. Schatz outlines Philip Murray’s struggle with the steel companies in the postwar period, as the limitations of this strategy became crystal clear.

Forging A Union of Steel reveals some of the historical underpinnings that led to the development and foreshadowed the demise of industry-wide collective bargaining. Along with these insightful essays are recollections by some of the union bureaucrats and mainstream figures who disagree, offering some antidotal accounts. The slender book helps explain why American labor took the particular path it did and why it must now forge a new direction.

July-August 1991, ATC 33