Bethlehem Press

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Steel Strike of 1910 Steel Strike of 1910
Steel Strike of 1910 Steel Strike of 1910
Steel Strike of 1910 Steel Strike of 1910

Steel Strike of 1910

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 by The Press in Opinion

In the year 1910, 45.6 percent of the population of the United States was living in cities. Fifty years before, only 19.8 percent of the population lived in urban areas. The same was true in the Lehigh Valley. People left their farms and gravitated to businesses, factories and mills for jobs. As people depended on industrial giants like Bethlehem Steel for employment, they soon felt less empowered. This was the Progressive Era, when ordinary citizens voted out of office anyone associated with waste and corruption. They sought to advance the protection of workers' rights. Therefore, it made national news when a handful of workers at Bethlehem Steel went out on strike Feb. 4, 1910.

Newspapers followed every detail of the strike, reporting when three strikers were shot and many more beaten by the Pa. State Police. A special inquiry was ordered by the U.S. Congress to investigate the causes of the strike.

A workman in machine shop No. 4 avoided working overtime on a Sunday. The machinists were expected to work long hours of overtime by the foremen of the machine shops. When the foreman of shop No. 4 learned that his employee avoided working overtime, he fired him. The other workmen of the shop formed a committee of three machinists to meet with the foreman and shop superintendent.

The committee requested that their fellow worker be reinstated and that overtime hours be reduced, and Sunday work eliminated. These three members of the committee were then fired. The machinists of shop No. 4 declared a strike on then fired. The machinists of shop No. 4 declared a strike on Feb. 4.

Soon machine shops No. 3 and No. 6 joined them, making it about 800 men out on strike. At this point, no unions were involved and the group lacked organization. The strikers thought the dispute would be resolved within a few days. The men knew Charles Schwab's feelings about unions. In the first days of the strike, the men stated they were careful not to discuss unionizing.

At this time, more than half of the 4,041 Bethlehem Steel employees worked for 12 cents an hour, 12-hour days, seven days a week.

The strike began with the minority of workers who were working the shortest hours. In order to draw in other workers, the organizers drafted a plan to demand increases in wages and reduction of hours for all departments. Soon other departments joined the strike. Riggers, boilermakers, crane men, ironworkers, blacksmiths and electricians walked out, and many unskilled laborers left for other mills to find work.

More than 2,000 strikers attended daily meetings at the South Bethlehem municipal building. The strike leaders met in Police Chief Hugh Kelly's office. A member of council for the borough was also a striking employee of Bethlehem Steel. Through his influence, the town hall was made available for the strikers' daily meetings, free of charge. Two unions, the International Association of Machinists and the American Federation of Labor, arrived to offer assistance to the strikers.

The strike was uneventful until the strikers held a parade Feb. 24. As the parade broke up, the strikers' behavior began to deteriorate. During the evening of Feb. 24 through 25, there were several disruptions between the strikers and workers. Men on their way to work at the steel mill were roughed up and had their lunch pails taken. A brick was thrown through a mill window.

It was observed by company officials that the local police appeared to be in sympathy with the strikers. Police seemed to look the other way during these skirmishes. The chief of police contacted Northampton County Sheriff Robert Person, as he felt his men could no longer control the crowds of strikers. The sheriff appealed by telegram to Governor Edwin Sydney Stuart to send the newly created Pa. State Police. This uniformed police organization, created in 1905, was the first of its kind in the United States.

On Feb. 26, 24 members of the state police arrived in South Bethlehem from Philadelphia. They were assigned to guard the gates to the steel mill.

During the day crowds of strikers continued to gather at the gates and the violence escalated. The state police used riot sticks and fired their pistols into the air to disperse the strikers. A state policeman firing his pistol too low, wounded one striker in the crowd in the leg. Another state trooper, John Moughan, rode his horse onto the sidewalk in front of the Majestic Hotel, located half a block from the main office of the mill. The hotel was a known meeting place for the union organizers. Moughan fired two shots into the hotel barroom. A striker, Joseph Szambo, was in the barroom buying wine for his wife, who was about to give birth. One bullet killed Szambo and the other bullet hit another striker in the mouth.

Eventually the trooper was charged with manslaughter. He was later acquitted in a trial after witnesses could not identify him.

Two more details of state police arrived that day ,bringing the number state police to 105. The sheriff of Northampton County deputized 100 additional men to police the streets of South Bethlehem.

The shooting death of Joseph Szambo inflamed the anger of the strikers. Strikers purchased every available weapon in town. Northampton County Judge Scott ordered the closing of all saloons and bars in Bethlehem, Northampton Heights and South Bethlehem.

Thousands of sightseers from the surrounding area clogged the streets.

Throughout the strike, Charles Schwab maintained that he would not deal with the strikers. Schwab was so bold as to walk through the strikers who stood at the entrances to the mill and taunt, ''If you can stand it, I can.''

The strikers were never able to affect the productivity of the mill. Schwab hired workers from out of town to continue making steel. The report commissioned by Congress presented May 4 a scathing denunciation of the company's strikebreaking. Schwab threatened to move Bethlehem Steel out of the area. Local businessmen responded to Schwab's threat by criticizing the strikers through a published statement.

On May 18, 103 days after the strike began, the workers accepted Schwab's offer of optional overtime and Sunday work, with no wage increases, and the strike came to an end.